By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor in Chief
ARCADIA — “I was 15 when I came here, we were in the stables, my family and I … I don’t recognize anything yet,” said Grace (Kaminaka) Tsuida as a tram drove through the stable area of Santa Anita Racetrack on March 29.
“I used to think, ‘Why are we here? What are we going to do?’” Tsuida said. Her family had arrived at Santa Anita, known famously as the home of Seabiscuit, on April 8, 1942.
More than 350 gathered for the Santa Anita Assembly Center reunion to remember the time 72 years ago when racetrack was an assembly center. In the morning tram tours took the group to the barracks, where many took photos and tried to recall where their families had lived.
During its peak, nearly 19,000 Japanese Americans lived in converted horse stalls and hastily constructed barracks at the center, which was open from March 27 to Oct. 27, 1942. The center had a post office, six mess halls, a hospital and a newspaper, The Santa Anita Pacemaker. The men, women and children, who came from Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Clara counties, had to suffer through discomfort and a lack of privacy.
Margie Kito of El Cajon was among 53 who came to the reunion by bus from San Diego. For Kito, it was an opportunity to see where she was born. Her family, including husband Nob, joined her for the excursion.
“I said before I die, I would like to go at least one time to see it,” said Kito.
“My uncles would always tease me. When somebody would say, ‘Close the door!’ They’d say: ‘She doesn’t have to because she was born in a barn!’”
Jeanne (Marumoto) Elyea, director of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, was three during her time at Santa Anita. She recalled that her mother, who had just given birth to her sister, joined the family later. A sympathetic Border Patrol officer drove Elyea’s mom to Santa Anita from the hospital in San Diego.
“My mom told me the other day that he detoured to Redlands so my grandma and grandpa could see the new baby, then he brought her here,” Elyea said. “His name was Allyn Stone, so my mom named my sister Allyne after him.”
At the luncheon, Rafu columnist George Yoshinaga was honored for his efforts to perpetuate the history of the assembly center through his columns and a monument installed near the entrance to the racetrack.
Gardena Mayor Paul Tanaka declared that March 29 would be “George Yoshinaga Day” in the city, only the third time he has given the honor. The mayor noted that he has known the columnist since he was a kid.
“I’m as afraid of him today as I was back then,” joked Tanaka, who is a candidate for L.A. County sheriff.
Yoshinaga was also given proclamations from Arcadia Mayor Mickey Segal, L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who was represented by former Assemblymember George Nakano.
The reunion committee, many clad in bright yellow shirts printed for the occasion, presented Yoshinaga with a drawing of the columnist created by cartoonist Willie Ito.
Throughout the day, attendees shared stories and looked over the horse racing form, including the featured race, the Tokyo City Cup.
Hal Keimi, a member of the reunion committee, offered a hot tip: jockey Corey Nakatani, who rode aboard Sushi Empire in the second race. Nakatani finished in the money in second place.
Bacon Sakatani, reunion organizer, was pleased with the large turnout.
“Everything fell into place. The Korean War vets had done it four times previously and Horse had done it several times previously, but somehow Santa Anita Assembly Center reunion amongst the camp people really caught on this time,” said he said.
“It’s the kids and teenagers of Santa Anita. They don’t know the injustices or anything like that, they’re remembering the big adventure they had here.”