Catching Up with the Survivors

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By CHERI M. SAKAI
Special to the Rafu

“Keep going, don’t quit.” That’s that mantra of 89-year-old Yosh Nakamura, retired art instructor at Rio Hondo College, who still drives and keeps active.

That same determination appears to be in the seven men and women in their 90s, the eight in their 80s  and the 13 in their 70s who laughed and talked their way through two days of catching up on the latest news of their former Gila Camp friends and family members.

The Gila Camp reunion was held at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel in Torrance on  June 3 and 4. When the announcements were sent out, it was made clear there would  be no program, only an opportunity to get acquainted or reacquainted on a shared camp experience that took place almost 70 years ago.

Retired Rio Hondo College art instructor Yosh Nakamura, 89, with his wife, Grace, is known for his “Keep going, don’t quit” philosophy.

Kimi Taira and her committee worked hard to make all the arrangements necessary to put together a very successful event with great food!

Though without the leadership of Hy Shishino — who always put together an exciting program, including Indians who had developed some long-lasting friendships with the Japanese in Gila, Arizona, talented singers and speakers — the evening was entirely different but still very exciting as people shared their own stories.

Since I couldn’t  recognize anyone there, I put up a large sign saying, “Block 20  residents or 1952 graduates.” I sat at an empty table for about a half an hour until I saw a mike and a podium and asked if there was anyone from Block 20.

The Ishimine Family

A shout  went up from the far corner of the room and it turned out to be  the Ishimine family. I remember them so well because they had nine children and lived in the barrack next to ours. It was exciting  to see all of them, especially baby Donna, who was  born in camp, and Thomas, who was my brother’s age.

They showed up at the reunion with 12 family members, but they said they have their own reunions several  times a year with 120 family members going on picnics together and even having family golf tournaments. Hideo and one of his sisters are in their 90s, still very active and apparently healthy. Of course, I needed to know what their secret was when so many other families in our block have lost so many loved ones. They said, “Do you think it’s  because we’re Okinawans?” As evidenced by the many  articles and books in recent years on the Okinawan diet, others are asking the same question about the longevity of the Okinawans.

But I also think the faith in God that both parents had helped them overcome the health and emotional stresses of life. I actually met Thomas and his sister, Grace, before the war when my brother and I took the bus with them to Maryknoll Catholic School. I know my faith in God started at Maryknoll and has continued to this day.

The Ishimine family showed up at the reunion with 12 family members, but they said they have their own reunions several times a year, with 120 or more friends and relatives in attendance.

As a child in camp, the most exciting part of my life was living on Block  20, because we had more children in our block than any other block in Gila Camp I. There were the Yoshimines, the Fukuzawas, the Muratas and the Ishimines. They were given two rooms to live in where the rest of us with five or fewer siblings were given only one room. With over 125 children on our  block there were plenty of kids to play with and organize both outdoor  and indoor games.

Alice Sameshima Abbott

Alice Sameshima Abbott sat next to me and shared her very touching love story! She met her Caucasian husband at the age of 17 in 1937. He used to come by her parents’ grocery store so often her family grew to know and like him. So when her parents saw Alice and her white boyfriend were attracted to each other, they had no objections.

But unfortunately society, as a whole, did have some strong objections. Alice was trying to tell me how difficult it was to marry at that time until I actually saw it in the Los Angeles Times and Googled it on the Internet. I didn’t know that until 1948, interracial marriages were against the law in California and until 1967 in the Deep South! This was not that long ago!

So Alice left with her family to Gila Camp and he joined the Marines. They kept in touch with frequent love letters. It wasn’t until 1954, when she was 32 years old, that they felt they could finally get married. A year later, they were blessed with a daughter, and they were happily married for 39 years before he died of malaria, which he had contracted while he was in the Marines.

Though 93 years  old, Alice is still very alert and volunteers as a  docent two days a week at the Lomita Railroad Museum. What an example she was to me. Her motto has to  be, “If you don’t know anyone, just talk to everyone!” And whatever you do as Yosh Nakamura said, “Keep going! Don’t quit!”

Nancy Shimooka

Nancy Shimooka was only four years old and her  brother a newborn infant, only four months old when they were first sent in 1943 to Turlock Assembly Center and from there to Gila. In addition to the fly-ridden horse stables in Turlock, the primitive community toilets were nothing more than extended outhouses with 15 cutout holes for women on one side and 15 holes on the men’s side, separated by a makeshift wall. Even as a child, I remember my mother and my aunts taking up smoking to drown out the horrendous smell.

Nancy Shimooka described her vague recollections of her mother passing away in the sweltering hot barracks at the Gila River camp, seen in an archival photo above.

Later in Gila Camp, the outhouses became flush toilets but again lined up 10 or 20 on each side. Living in thin, black tar-papered barracks, facing extremely hot, stinging dust storms while caring for a new baby and a four-year-old was extremely difficult for her young mother and she died tragically at age 26 not long after going to camp. All the way through  high school, Nancy had recurring nightmares of seeing her mother sending her to bed, giving her a cookie and then seeing people frantically running back and forth. There was no one to tell her what was going on.

She has vague recollections of going to her mother’s funeral in a bare barracks. Her brother knew nothing about what happened until years later when he was getting married and wanted to know more about his mother. Though she warned her brother to expect the worst, he cried for a week after finding out about her tragic death.

Her father did not cry but instead reacted in anger at his wife’s death. Possibly because she looked so much like her mother, he took his anger out on Nancy. He would always tell her that he considered women weak. She was determined to prove him wrong. Because she had no one to turn to, she began to talk to God. She grew up knowing God was very real and He was always there to help and protect her.

She remembers walking and talking with her dad to the camp’s one source of planned entertainment, the once-a-week outdoor movies. As she walked she waited to hear something about her mother, but her dad  would never mention her name.

Many years later when her father was over 80 years old, he told her he wanted to talk to her about her mother, but at that moment she said, “No, that’s all right.” Her dad died nine years ago without ever sharing his feelings with Nancy.

From age five, Nancy grew up feeling very responsible for the care of her younger brother and father as they moved from the home of one relative to another. Realizing her aunts had their own families to care for, Nancy, only 19 years old, worked, scrimped, saved and managed to save enough money to put a down payment on a house near Olympic and Crenshaw in Los Angeles.

She has since married, had two daughters and continues with that same sense of responsibility as wife, mother and long-time employee for a mortgage company. Her face is so serene and beautiful that if she hadn’t shared how difficult her life had been in hot, windy Gila, taking on the responsibility of being a mother at age five, I would never have known how life in camp had affected her life and the life of her family.

Jane Honma Hoshida

Cameras were not allowed but her dad drew pictures of the various camps and prisons. Jane Honma Hoshida said the worst of the prisons was in Lordsburg, New Mexico. This caught my attention as my dad was in Lordsburg and I recalled him having nightmares of prison bars closing in on him. When my dad was brought to trial, he said they had papers and records on him  that were more than 6 feet tall proving he had no criminal record, not even a traffic ticket. Yet he was put in prison.

June’s father had a similar story. He was imprisoned only because he was considered a community leader in Hawaii. Since no cameras were allowed, June’s father drew pictures of prison life. The pictures June’s father drew were on exhibit at JANM for a period of time.

June Honma Hoshida impressed me with her determination to research all her dad shared in his pictures. She told how she went through seven states to check out the camps and prisons her father was confined in during the war.

Even though he lived in Hawaii, he was among 1,500 Hawaiian residents who were taken from their homes in Hawaii and shipped to Jerome, Arkansas. They had to leave there when the U.S. government decided to convert it to a prison for German and Italian prisoners of war.

So many memories and stories — I hope to share more sometime soon.

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