Losing the memory of a brave generation

Internment camp in Poston, Ariz.

It’s a sobering and sad thing to be a pallbearer. I took a train to Sacramento and flew down to Los Angeles with my mother for the funeral of my aunt, who died from Alzheimer’s at age 91. I helped carry her casket.

My aunt Shizuko “Shiz” Shiraishi was born in 1925, and she was part of the generation of Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps during World War II. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Americans of Japanese descent like my aunt were sent by the tens of thousands to camps, without any due process. Such was the state of panic in 1942, after Pearl Harbor. My aunt was sent off with her husband Shiro to the camp in Poston, Arizona.

Poston was a hell of a place. As a journalist, I visited it in the 1990s, and saw the bunkers where the internees lived. They were broken down and scrawled with obscene graffiti. I interviewed a Native American named Orlando Lafoon who lived on the reservation where the Poston camp was placed. He talked about how Japanese Americans returned to the place, as a kind of pilgrimage, and how he enjoying having “fellowship” with them. I remember interviewing other Poston residents. They talked about how the sandstorms blew grit into their barracks, which were covered with loose boards, like someone was spraying a “firehose.” In the LA Times, I wrote a story that began, “50 years ago, the only thing that was free to come and go as it pleased here was the wind.”

There were nine children and two parents in the family, and they were separated during the war.

One of Shiz’s brothers, Mac, was just 18 when he went into camp. He had tuberculosis, but was not allowed to go out for treatment. He died in the camp. Many years later, at the National Archives, I found a short autobiography he wrote, where he referred to himself as a “shrimp.”

My mother, Hiroko, and her sister Tami were with their parents. They visited Japan just before the war broke out. After it started, they could not return. They were on the southern island of Kyushu, in a town called Yatsushiro. My mother did not fit in, as she was viewed by her classmates as an American. One of my mother’s sisters repatriated to Japan during the war. That was a mistake. Later in the war, food was scarce. They ate the same turnips just about every day, and rice was a luxury. They often saw American bombers overhead. My mother mentioned once that she saw the atomic bomb go off in Nagasaki. Afterward, they were all to return to California.

While Shiro’s family was interned in Poston in violation of their constitutional rights of due process, Shiro volunteered to join the U.S. Army. He was part of company A of the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most-decorated unit in the war. He came back as a sergeant, with a combat infantryman badge and a Purple Heart.

The family farm, where Shiz and my mother and their many siblings grew up, was in Kingsburg, California, which my cousin Jane joked had the “best dirt” in the world. It was a Swedish town of a few thousand people, where athlete Rafer Johnson came from. I remember going to the farm and riding my Uncle Ky’s tractor, and picking nectarines, grapes, and walnuts.

The farm was saved by the family next door, who worked the land and paid the mortgage while my mother’s family was in camp. Because of that incredible generosity of their neighbors, my mother’s family was able to return to the farm after the war. It is still in my extended family’s possession to this day. There were many others, including my father’s family, who lost farms and property forever.

After the war was over, Shiz and Shiro returned to Los Angeles and had a daughter, Sandra, my older cousin.

Shiz and Shiro lived on to have rich lives. Shiro passed away in 1991, and Shiz lived another 25 years. At Shiro’s funeral, I learned about his history in the 442nd. Sandra mentioned he used to have nightmares.

Shiz went on to travel the world, and by the time she stopped traveling, she had been to 23 countries. By the end, she didn’t recognize her own daughter, but Sandra said Shiz still had the nicest demeanor.

Shiz was the second relative that passed away this year. A few weeks earlier, my aunt Margaret in Denver, died. She was 100 years old, and was another survivor of the internment camps. I find it sad that this generation lived through some important periods of history that we should never forget.

Thanks to the bravery of resisters like Fred Korematsu, a Heart Mountain, Wyoming internee who challenged the legality of the internment at the time. Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Mitsuye Endo challenged the constitutionality of the internment. During the war, it went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the internment could proceed.

But this argument didn’t end there. It went on for generations, and it involved the sansei (third generation) and yonsei (fourth generation) of Japanese Americans. In the 1970s, they started a movement for redress and reparations. Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in 1983, mainly because the government had submitted false information to the Supreme Court. In 2011, the Department of Justice said it was in error.

In the 1980s, the American government ultimately apologized. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the redress bill into law, and each survivor received $20,000.

My father, who was interned at Tule Lake when he was 11 years old, never forgave the government for serving him macaroni for 30 days straight. He played baseball in the camp, but he always felt like the internment stole his childhood. His family had answered “yes-yes” to the questions about whether they were loyal to the U.S. and would serve in the armed forces. But the camp included a lot of “no-no” people, and there was tension between the groups.

My father’s family was never able to return to the farm that they had in Florin, California, before the war. They started over, and eventually had a strawberry farm again. My father grew up and served in the U.S. Army intelligence in the Korean War. When he received his $20,000, he took our family to Japan for the first time. During my trip to Japan, I had a conversation with a distant family member about internment. She had never known that the American internment camps existed, and was shocked to hear about them.

After 9/11, Fred Korematsu and many others in the Japanese American community criticized those who wanted to deny the rights of Middle-Eastern Americans because of military necessity. I remember discussing 9/11 with my journalist colleagues, and some of them favored internment for Muslims. I did not. I reminded them of our history from World War II.

We are still in need of remembering this sorry episode in American history, based on the ignorant statements of politicians like Donald Trump, who now want to deny due process to Muslims who are in the U.S. or want to travel to the U.S. Sure, there was hysteria across the country at the time of Executive Order 9066. But it was the stroke of a single man’s pen that made it possible.

And here, before they die, these survivors lose all memory of what they once lived through. Alzheimer’s robs them of that.

But life is a wheel. The kids remember, and we are passing on the memory to our children. I am a writer, covering technology and video games. I don’t write about our family on a regular basis. I don’t remember the calculus I took in high school. I don’t remember how to program in Pascal. I don’t remember the 15th story that I wrote during the Consumer Electronics Show.

But I do remember this little bit of family history. And what a wonderful world this could be, if only we could all remember what my aunt Shiz forgot.

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