From fences to freedom
Publication Date: Wednesday Aug 9, 1995

From fences to freedom

V-J Day meant release for the hundreds of Midpeninsula Japanese-Americans held captive during World War II

This is the first of a two-part series on Palo Alto-area residents who were imprisoned during World War II and who found freedom 50 years ago. We begin with local Japanese-Americans who offer their stories of captivity and the lives that awaited them when they returned home.

by Elizabeth Darling

The sign has yellowed with age. A jagged hole marks where a nail once held it in place on a telephone pole. "Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry," Civilian Exclusion Order No. 15 reads, "It is hereby ordered that from and after 12 o'clock noon, PWT of Thursday, April 30, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien . . ."

Today, Atherton resident Sally Nakai keeps the sign and another like it that were posted in front of her parents' property in Salinas 53 years ago. Her brother tore down the signs and hid them shortly before their family was sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona.

"I felt this was a very, very important document because it's a piece of history," she said. For years, she kept them folded in half and "dusty," but eventually they were framed for an exhibit.

"When we were going by bus to the armory we went past our ranch," said Sally. "I remember my mother crying. My father said, 'Don't cry, we'll come back.'"

Unlike many Japanese-Americans who were freed from internment camps 50 years ago this summer, her family did come back. And they were fortunate. They had retained ownership of their land because her brother served in the U.S. military.

Tens of thousands of other Japanese weren't so lucky, forced under the Alien Land Law to turn over their West Coast property to the U.S. government. Even those who were U.S. citizens lost thousands in money and valuables in their rush to sell or secure their possessions before they were ordered to report for relocation.

Estimates of monetary damages to Japanese-American families have exceeded $200 million in 1942 dollars.

For Sally and her family, life offered few freedoms between Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing the forced "evacuation" of more than 110,000 residents of Japanese decent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, and Aug. 14, 1945 when Japan surrendered.

Poston was just one of nine internment camps set up around the nation: Gila River, Ariz.; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; Granada, Colo.; Jerome and Rohwer, Ark.; Manzanar, Calif; Tule Lake, Calif.; and Heart Mountain, Wyo.

According to 1940 clippings from the Palo Alto Times, 4,049 residents of Japanese ancestry lived in Santa Clara County at the time. Of those 1,220 were aliens and 2,829 were American born.

San Mateo County was home to 1,218 residents of Japanese decent. Of those, 418 were aliens and 800 were citizens.

Palo Alto had 184 residents of Japanese decent. Menlo Park was home to 69. Unlike many other cities, however, many of these local Japanese-Americans did return after the war.

Native Palo Altan Floyd Kumagai, now a NASA engineer, was 10 in the spring of 1942. "We stuck everything in the station wagon," he said, and "ran for the hills up to Placerville" from their home near what is now the Baylands in Palo Alto. They were hoping to buy some time. "We would bury things associated with Japan--dolls, swords, pictures." Finally, the FBI reached the Sierra, and Kumagai and his family were rounded up and taken to Tule Lake, on the northern border of California.

"Tule Lake was considered the camp for all the rowdy people, the protesters," he said. The camp, located on a flat plain, was made up of "blocks," or barracks, covered with tar paper. The whole camp, the size of a small town, had barbed wire around its circumference. Towers were staffed with armed guards. Internees were subjected to occasional military searches, he said, looking for weapons the internees might be stashing.

Floyd's life settled into relative normalcy as he attended school with the other camp children, English in the morning and Japanese in the afternoon. He participated in a sports program for children and adults, including football and baseball.

The children had few toys, though, and Kumagai laughs, remembering the time he and some buddies, looking for some makeshift rubber bands for their sling shots, slashed the tires of military trucks so they could use the tubing for their cops and robbers games. Needless to say, "the commander of the camp called us in with our parents," he said.

When the end of the war came, many were sent home. Other camps were closed by the winter of 1945.

But Kumagai she he and his family did not leave the camp until February 1946 because his father had to help oversee the cleanup.

After that, his family had virtually nothing. They came back to San Jose, stayed with relatives, and eventually returned to Palo Alto. At one point, they bought a 1936 Chevy for $500.

Before the war, his father, a U.S. citizen, owned 20 acres of land on Embarcadero Road and what is now U.S. Highway 101. He sold the house to an Italian family before heading for camp and they tilled and harvested the land for the Kumagais.

When they came back to Palo Alto, Kumagai recalled, "three families lived in a garage for three months," he said. Then his father bought an old army barracks that sat near the Palo Alto Airport for $50 and moved it to their property. The tar paper-covered barracks looked just like the ones at Tule Lake, Floyd said, but his family fixed up the long, boxlike building and called it home for several years.

Eventually his father sold part of his property in order to start a flower business. The family built a new home on the remaining 10 acres, and then had to give up five acres and move their house to a different part of the property so the state could build an overpass for Highway 101.

When he came back to Palo Alto, Kumagai entered seventh grade at Jordan Middle School. When he graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1951, there were four Japanese-Americans in his class. Throughout most of high school, Kumagai worked as a gardener, as did his father. His mother was a housekeeper. Today, Kumagai lives on Moreno Avenue in Palo Alto, near some other family members.

"Those who were probably hurt the most were college-bound people," he said of the internment years. "It's a big interruption."

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Ted Sumida, then a freshman at UCLA, gathered with his friends, other Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants), near Royce Hall and talked. "We decided that there was no point in going to school anymore," he said. "We didn't go to class," Sumida said. "We stayed there and pondered our fate." Sumida's father, who owned a small electronics store in Los Angeles, was soon taken away to be interned in Montana. A short time later, Sumida and his mother and four siblings assembled with about 18,000 other Japanese-Americans at Santa Anita racetrack before being interned in Arkansas. All the family had was $240.

"The government carefully broke up communities," said the Palo Alto resident today. "You could live across the street from a childhood friend, but if that was the boundary," he said, they might be sent to a different camp.

Sumida, now a retired U.S. Geological Survey administrator, left camp with $25 and a train ticket to Des Moines, Iowa, to go to welding school in 1943.

When his draft number came up, he was sent to military intelligence school in Ft. Snelling, Minn. Though most of the Japanese-American enlisted men scored well enough to qualify to become officers, they never did. "We ended up getting out of class with three stripes and not a gold bar," he said. "It was grating."

When the war ended, Sumida was able to go back to college at Georgetown University on the G.I. Bill. He studied political science and diplomacy in the school of foreign service before graduating and accepting a job in the military's geological unit in Tokyo. He later went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park and in Saudi Arabia, becoming the administrative officer for one of the divisions. He settled in Palo Alto with his wife and two children.

"The real impact to me of the forced incarceration of the Japanese affected adversely our parents," Sumida said. "Most of them lost everything they worked for. Prominent businessmen ended up working with their hands again. There was a whole lost generation. My father never worked again. We liquidated (the store)."

Like Sumida, other Japanese young men in internment camps were expected to serve in the United States military if they were needed. Each man had to answer a military questionnaire. But when it came to answering the last two questions, numbers 27 and 28, Al Nakai, now a retired flower grower living in Atherton with his wife, Sally, couldn't do it.

"Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" read question 27. "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces . . ." read question 28.

Before he answered, he turned to a military official nearby. "If I said yes, would you guarantee that you would look after my father, mother, sister and brother?" he asked. The officer's response was no.

So was Al's response to question 28.

"They classified me as a disloyal American. I was segregated to Tule Lake," he said.

"We called it a concentration camp. We had barbed wire fences. There was a sentry there. Even if you did sneak out, it was desert," Al said.

When the internment order came down, Nakai was 23 years old. His family had to leave their sugar beet crop in Hollister unharvested, turning the crop over to their landlord, who profited from the harvest. "We were really shortchanged on that. There's nothing there to compensate," Al said. "We sold everything we had. Our parents' bank accounts were frozen. We weren't able to pay our bills." With the money from selling the land, he bought $8,000 in war bonds.

Al was later sent to an internment camp in Arizona where he met Sally. She was 19. She had lived in Salinas on her family's lettuce farm and had just gotten her license to be a beautician in late 1941 when the war broke out.

"I did not renew my license because who would let a Japanese person do their hair?" she asked.

In 1943, Sally and her sister were allowed to leave the camp and move to Idaho, where they lived with a brother who was in the military.

"I felt finally I was free," she said. "I was not locked up anymore. I had my freedom back."

But like other Japanese-Americans, they were not allowed to go back to the West Coast until after the war. When Sally did make her way back to Salinas, she worked for a tailor, but it wasn't the home she left. "It was terrible," Sally said. "Salinas was very anti-Japanese."

Al wasn't released until after the war ended 50 years ago this week.

"When we left camp, they gave each one $25 and a ticket to their destination," Al remembered. He got a job working in a pear orchard in Santa Clara because they provided housing. He and Sally were married in 1947, and lived on that orchard. "It was just a shack," Sally recalled. "It's not what you'd call a home."

A few years later, they saved enough to buy a house and 1.5 acres of land in East Palo Alto. But it was not easy to find a bank to lend them the money. Despite the fact that their families had at one time owned land, the war obliterated their financial pasts.

"The bank said 'we have no record of you.' Banks in this area wouldn't loan you any money," Al said. "We had no collateral."

Al worked as a gardener in Atherton, until he and Sally, at the urging of a friend, decided to start a flower business growing chrysanthemums. "We had to scrimp and scrape" to buy lumber to build the greenhouses, Al remembers. "It took us about 15 years before we could even say we had a little extra money to do something. We try to save what we can and not squander. We lived frugally until we could afford it. When you're in a desperate position you start thinking," he said, so you don't get into that situation again.

They eventually did well in the flower business, earning a shoebox-full of satin ribbons from state fairs and flower competitions before they retired in 1992.

But the war still took its toll.

Sally still gets emotional thinking of the war and internment's effect on her parents. "It bothered me that my parents, at their age, became farm laborers again in their 60s," she said. "They were farm laborers twice in their lifetime. When I think of my parents I do (get upset)," she said. "I wish my parents knew this country apologized."

"This evacuation thing, it (made) you feel that all your friends you went to school with are no longer your friends," said Al. "They didn't help me. I guess they figured their hands (were) tied. You start thinking, who have you got for a friend? Nobody."

But Al still attends his high school reunions in Hollister where he sees those old classmates, old friends. "There are no hard feelings," he says.

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