By GEORGE SUGIMOTO
There is one element of life we have no control over, and that is time. There are seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, etc. The only thing we can do with time is to utilize it the best we can.
That sounds trite, but that is what we did to utilize the time to visit Gila River incarceration camp the weekend of Nov. 16.
We had the good fortune of having Carrie Morita to plan our sojourn. Our trip started for most of us checking in at Residence Inn at Chandler, Ariz.
Our call to order Saturday was having buffet breakfast around 7 a.m. Our next instruction was for all the participants, wherever they were, to gather at Casa Blanca Market Station, 2577 Casa Blanca Rd., Bapchule, Ariz. (Exit 175 on I-10), at 9 a.m.
On Saturday the 16th, a Gila River land use ordinance officer met us and escorted us to the monument site via car caravan. Before entering the site, participants were required to provide their names and descriptions of their vehicles.
We got back on I-10 and traveled near a town called Sacaton, Ariz., where we exited and traveled on essentially a dirt road for about 5 miles. We noticed adjacent to the dirt road there was a lot of farming. There was acreage of cotton, alfalfa, orchards of almond, citrus trees, etc.
The reason I mention this is because all that land next to our camp site was barren with virtually no farming. When we were there, the internees cultivated the land and grew many type of vegetables — lettuce, carrots, cantaloupes, cabbage, etc. — thus proving that this barren land, if irrigated, can produce many varieties of fruits and vegetables.
We arrived at the base of Butte Camp, where the monument stood on a hill. Cars were parked at the base of the butte. From there we walked up a path a distance of .10 mile (about two city blocks) on a dirt path covered with gravel and rocks that had a slope of approximately seven degrees. For us old guys, it was quite a trip up to the monument.
Our visit was for picking up trash and painting over graffiti at the base of the water tower. Supplies, such as trash bags, paint, brushes, gloves, as well as drinking water, were provided for participants. We were advised to wear appropriate outdoor work clothing, footgear and sun protection.
I did not know it but the monument was built by internees when they were in camp. They somehow managed to get the concrete and steel rebar for structural strength to build it. Our thanks to the people who took the time to build this monument.
We were advised you can take photos for your personal use only, such as family and social gatherings.
There were several speeches prior the conclusion of our work by Brandon Zenimura and Nikiko Masumoto. I had the pleasure of expressing my personal camp experience from August 1942 until being drafted by the U.S. Army in March of 1945 after turning 18 and answering affirmatively the two loyalty questions.
At the end, we were entertained by a fairly loud drum. To express our appreciation to the Gila River ordinance officer and the Arizona Chapter of JACL, all the attendees contributed $10.
I had the pleasure of giving $200 to the officer for helping us and escorting us, and later $200 to Arizona JACL.
I would like to discuss a little of our camp experience and mention the hardship and difficulty we had to tolerate. Summers were miserably hot, 115 degrees at times (with no air conditioners) and winters were cold, below 32 degrees. There were very windy days with dust storms.
The total number of blocks for Camp 1 (Canal) and Camp 2 (Butte) was approximately 80. A block consisted of 16 barracks and 14 of them were used to accommodate families. Each barrack had four units and each room was assigned to a family. One barrack was a mess hall where we all ate and one was for a block manager and included what we needed to store.
Our family of six was assigned a room that was 20 by 20 feet square. We were given cots and blankets to sleep on. No partitions — we had to make our own.
For each block there were two buildings for men’s and ladies’ restrooms. Each restroom had about eight toilets with a wash basin and an open room for us to shower. Each restroom was used by approximately 200 persons.
Around 12 noon we departed for a lunch reception at the Chandler Museum, 300 S. Chandler Village Drive, Chandler, Ariz. We thank the Arizona JACL for catering our lunch. It was a generous lunch with sandwiches, drinks and dessert. After lunch we were able to view “Gaman: Enduring Japanese American Internment at Gila River,” which will be on display until April 18, 2020.
The exhibit includes a wall for names of all former incarcerees at Gila River and geographical plan views of Camp 1 and Camp 2. If you are ever in that area, plan on stopping by to view the museum.
George Sugimoto was born in Parlier, Fresno County in 1926. After being drafted from camp, he served with the 6th Army Occupational Forces in Korea. He later became a pilot and founded KGS Electronics, which provides civil and military aviation products. He volunteers his time with many community organizations.
Photos by JANIS HIROHAMA