By ELLEN ENDO
LAS VEGAS.—In the Ohana Room of Las Vegas’ California Hotel, 370 Japanese Americans, many of them former World War II internees, gathered recently for the 11th Heart Mountain reunion.
Event organizer Bacon Sakatani wore bluejeans with turned-up cuffs and a tie decorated with the Japanese characters “kokoro kara” (from the heart), reminding everyone of how young men dressed in the 1940s. His retro fashion statement sent the message that reunions are for reminiscing and for having fun.
Binding those in attendance was the removal of Issei and Nisei from the West Coast after the outbreak of WWII to inland relocation camps. Heart Mountain, Wyoming was one of ten such camps.
Many of the Nisei attending the reunion were children or teenagers when they were relocated with their families, and their memories frequently evoked images of youthful mischief, sporting events, scouting and dance parties.
Less prevalent was talk of Constitutional rights and political correctness. Most were glad to see their friends still thriving. They’ve lost so many since the last reunion.
The gathering also elicited a wellspring of stories. An example was the reunion-within-the-reunion of the Konoshimas. Ninety-year old Akio Konoshima and his wife, Lida, of Bethesda, Md. joined sister, Sumiye Konoshima of Olympia,Wash. and Kurato Nakamoto of Sunnyvale, Calif. Nakamoto, who retired from a career with United Press International, hadn’t seen the Konoshimas in 65 years.
Some stories were laced with irony. When the U.S. War Department and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) required all those 17 years of age and older to answer a loyalty questionnaire in February 1943, it posed a dilemma for Issei father Shinji Yoshida. Although Yoshida disagreed with the intent of the questionnaire, he decided that one of his sons, Shig, would volunteer for service in the U.S. military, while the other, Kei, would resist.
Kei, who now lives in Henderson, Nev., was one of 282 convicted of resisting the draft. He remembered the demonstrators outside the courthouse clamoring for the resisters’ conviction. Kei spent three years in prison with 60 other resisters but recalls “it wasn’t so bad because we were all together.”
What still stands out in his mind was the day his father was allowed to leave camp to visit him.
In 1947, President Harry Truman granted the Nisei resisters a full pardon and acknowledged their principled stand for civil rights.
Sam Fujimoto arrived at Heart Mountain from Pomona with other internees in August 1942. He explained that it took 2,000 workers two months to build enough barracks for 11,000 internees, an average of 55 minutes per barrack.
One of Fujimoto’s most vivid memories involved a very hot day in Wyoming. He and his friends wanted to cool off. They crawled along the ground and snuck off to swim in the Shoshone River. The guards caught them. “Next thing we know, we were looking at an M-1 rifle barrel,” Fujimoto said, chuckling.
Today, images of armed guards bearing down on kids are sublimated by thoughts of friendship, family, and indelible memories.
At 17, Fred Oda got a job taking mail to the railroad station. He said the trouble was, that he had to drive a truck and had never driven before.
Amy Kunimoto Imai remembered preparing trays of Jell-O drink at the hospital and taking ice cream home. “It was so cold, you could leave the ice cream out and it wouldn’t melt.”
To John and Alice Hayakawa, camp was where they fell in love and decided to marry. Their wedding took place in Cody, Wyo.
One woman, Mary Yokota Suto entrusted me a copy of the first edition of The Sentinel, camp newspaper, mounted on a piece of wood. Reading Bill Hosokawa’s Oct. 24, 1942 editorial, his careful choice of words is almost palpable:
“These are not normal times nor is this an ordinary community. There is confusion, doubt, and fear mingled with hope and courage as this community goes about the task of rebuilding many things that were crumbled as if by a giant hand.”
Thus, The Sentinel became the second camp newspaper, the first being The Manzanar Free Press.
George “Horse” Yoshinaga brought with him a wooden box filled with neatly stacked dance bids — invitations to socials, club installations, and holiday parties. Each is its own work of art and an irrefutable testament to Yoshinaga’s popularity as a young man.
Opening each card, it was easy to imagine a teenage boy in the 1940s and the sounds of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey 78s coming from a turntable. The sponsoring clubs have names like the Jack Rabbits, Broncos, Belle Sharmier’s, Fortnighters, Chattanoogans, and Estrellitas. There were 64 bids in all, each in excellent condition.
Yoshinaga apparently knew how to have a good time and, judging from the number of young ladies who signed his dance cards, one could assume that he must have been quite a dancer.
As younger attendees pored over Yoshinaga’s collection, emcee Harold Keimi’s voice suddenly rang out. His job was to keep the proceedings on track, and Sakatani was there to make sure everything moved with precision.
Both Keimi and Sakatani were Boy Scouts in camp. Remarkably, that early Scout training still seems to be paying off. Thanks to their regimen, the three-day gathering ended on schedule, leaving friendship and fond memories in its wake and putting the dark days of World War II in perspective. Soon, optimistic talk about a 12th reunion began to swirl.
A return to Heart Mountain, Wyoming might be a fitting finale to the reunions. For former internees, it could mean a side-trip to Yellowstone National Park, or a hike to the top of the mountain itself, or a chance to see the newly constructed Interpretive Learning Center.
Or perhaps former internees could take a dip in the Shoshone River without fear of encroaching guards, this time as free Americans.
Someday many years from now
We’ll sit beside the candles glow
Exchanging tales about our past
And laughing as the memories flow
And when that distant day arrives
I know it will be understood
That friendship is the key to life
And we were friends and it was good.
—Eileen Hehl, American poet