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Surviving internment. Japanese Americans shed light on a dark history

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When he was a teenager, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura once saw a train arriving, full of Japanese citizens, at the train station in Gallup. He thought to himself, “Where are they going?” There were so many of them, he recalled.

Miyamura – a Japanese-American, Korean war veteran, and Medal of Honor recipient – had no idea at the time that these Japanese Americans, peeking through the train’s windows, were being sent to a nearby internment camp.

“I was 16 when the war broke out in 1941,” said Miyamura, a lifelong Gallup resident. “I was surprised and couldn’t believe it. But, by that time the Japanese community was very well integrated into to community.”

According to Miyamura, at that time, there were 25 Japanese-American families residing in the Gallup area. His father owned a restaurant and remembers the area being a “town of immigrants that all grew up together.”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the dreadful day of Dec. 7, 1941, as many as 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to internment camps throughout the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took it upon himself to enact Executive Order 9066, which would ultimately displace Japanese Americans to desolate areas around the country.

About 6,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent by train to four New Mexico confinement camps with locations in Santa Fe, Ft. Stanton, Old Raton Ranch, and Camp Lordsburg.

As part of a project called, “Confinement in the Land of Enchantment,” or CLOE, under the New Mexico Chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League (NM JACL), Victor Yamada, special projects coordinator, spoke to an audience at the University of New Mexico-Gallup campus about plans that are underway to educate students about the history of his people Nov. 19.

“Some of the examples and materials that will be in the project … we are going to include materials that have never been seen before, or certainly, never been widely distributed,” he said.

He describes a Buddhist priest that kept a diary that started on Dec.7, 1941 and ended when he was released. He was imprisoned in both the Lordsburg and Santa Fe internment camps. The diary is about 1,000 pages, written entirely in Japanese, and so far, a few pages has been translated by researchers.

“I think that it would be very interesting because being a Buddhist priest, he would have had a different perspective on being imprisoned and his observations day-by-day,” Yamada said.

The CLOE project hopes to complete their final stage of initiatives by spring of next year, which include a website, public outreach brochure, and new historical markers that will be placed in Lordsburg, Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch.

The project is funded by the National Park Service’s Japanese-American Confinement Sites grant program.

Under this federal grant program, this forum allowed the sharing of three personal experiences of surviving prisoners that aims to educate a wide and diverse audience.

Sam Mihara, project director, and former child prisoner of the Heart Mountain, WY prison camp, shared his experience during that difficult time as a child before departing from his home in San Francisco. He said buses were loaded and that they were only allowed one suitcase per person.

In route to their destination, buses stopped at temporary locations in which his people were taken to horse race tracks and lived in horse stalls.

“The first camps that we went to were horrible!” Mihara said. “All the horserace tracks were closed during the war and the government put in barbed wire fences, guard towers, and weapons to make sure we were enclosed. They started filling it with people.”

Exactly three months after arriving at the horserace track prison camp, prisoners were loaded into a train. Not knowing where they were going, after four days and three nights, they made it to Heart Mountain, WY, near the area of Cody.

Upon arrival, there were nine guard towers that surrounded the camp and the signs were obvious – that anyone that tried to cross the fence would be shot.

It was eventually reported that two prisoners died in the early morning hours at the Lordsburg prison camp on July 27, 1942 for trying to escape. However, it was said that both prisoners were both physically unable to run. Many interpretations have been heard, and it is still being determined.

Mihara goes on to describe that conditions within the prison camp were difficult, which included the sharing of 16 toilets lined up in a row that served 500 people. They were given food such as bread, potatoes, powdered milk, and mutton that was shipped from Australia.

“We said to the government, ‘let us grow our own food.’” Mihara said, since they did not eat such foods. The Japanese-Americans were allowed to clear and irrigate a section of land, and within a year, they had food that brought them some satisfaction.

UNM-G Executive Director Dr. Christopher Dyer, who attended the event, said the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WWII was an act of social injustice and racism.

“There was never really any definitive proof that anyone, any significant persons of Japanese-American ancestry, had anything to do with betraying the United States of America,” he said. “In fact, the most decorative groups of soldiers were Japanese-Americans fighting in Italy for a country, which at the same time, imprisoned their families.”

The twisted irony is that 33,000 Japanese-Americans, which included men and women, joined in the U.S. military during WWII.

“We had sons and daughters of the people inside the prison camp that are going into war for the government,” Mihara said. “The same government that imprisoned the families that were with these people that volunteered for the military.”

Dr. Nikki Nojima Louis, a humanities scholar and program designer for the event, recalled that on her fourth birthday, her father was taken away from his Seattle home by the FBI and spent time at Lordsburg and Santa Fe prison camps.

“We were part of the last generation to have directly experienced removal from our homes on the West Coast by our government,” Louis said. “To live behind barbed wire and under gun towers in isolated parts of the country for three years.”

It was not long before Louis and the rest of her family would be taken to temporary prison camps that once served as racetracks and stockyards. Eventually, in November of 1942, Louis and her family were taken to the Minidoka, ID prison camp.

Meanwhile, Herbert Tsuchiya, a retired pharmacist and actor, has vivid memories of when he lived in the Minidoka prison camp.

“I was 10 years old. I remember my address: Block 13, Barrack 6, Apartment C.” Tsuchiya said.

Japanese-American citizens would eventually find an ally in James Percell, an attorney from San Francisco, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of those interred. He would go onto win that lawsuit.

This led to the release of all the Japanese-American prisoners in late 1945.

In the late 1970’s, a redress committee was developed by the descendents of former Japanese-American prisoners and surviving prisoners to allow for an investigation into internment camps. The investigation called for compensation to imprisonment victims and an apology by Congress.

Some 50 years later, in 1998, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that allowed for the families that were imprisoned to be compensated. Then, in 1990, President H.W. Bush sent a formal letter of apology.

Meanwhile, English Professor Myrriah Gomez participated in the event, said the internment camps are a repressed part of New Mexican and U.S. history.

“I think that this is a very neglected part of not only New Mexico history, but U.S. history at large,” she said. “I think that it speaks to the relevance of what is happening in the world today because when the New Mexico governor is coming out and saying ‘we are not accepting refugees,’ this whole history is being repressed and that is part of that.”

The president of UNM-Gallup’s Asian Club, Ariana Joe, found the NM JACL’s presentation to be intriguing mainly because in high school, she vaguely recalled the topic being discussed, but never learned more until hearing the personal testimonies of internment camp survivors.

“I think that it teaches people, later in the future, so that history won’t repeat itself,” she said. “And ultimately, I think this teaches people to try not to make the same mistakes again.”