A dark chapter in America’s civil rights history played out in Pomona, when the fairgrounds were transformed into a temporary internment camp for Japanese Americans
by Kenneth Todd Ruiz
photography by Sylvia Castellanos
Oh, it is summer
vacation of our life-time!
Let us enjoy it!
(Haiku excerpts by Satoru Tsuneishi, fairgrounds detainee)
Yosh Kuromiya always enjoyed the Los Angeles County Fair. He and his friends would clamber aboard the truck Yosh’s father used on their farm in Monrovia and drive out to Pomona. A day spent playing games, watching shows and just goofing around was one of their few breaks from toiling in the strawberry fields and in the classroom. “In high school every year when the fair opened, we would all get together and go,” remembers Yosh, who turned 80 in April. “It was like spring break; we’d get out of school, jump in the car and drive out there.”
That was before the Pacific fleet was devastated by Japan in a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Before Yosh, his family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans were declared “enemy aliens” by their own government. Yosh graduated from high school and was studying journalism at Pasadena Junior College when the Army ordered his family to report to the fairgrounds in May 1942. He was 19.
Instead of a throng of rowdy youths, this time the truck was hauling Yosh, his parents, his sister Kimiye, his brother Hiroshi, his sister-in-law Emiko, and all the personal possessions they could fit. This time, Yosh would not be returning home to Monrovia. For the next four years, Yosh would be a guiltless prisoner of wartime hysteria and racial prejudice in the only country he had ever known.
Executive Order No. 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, designated eight western states a military zone, while simultaneously authorizing the army to remove anyone without trial or due process. While the newly established War Relocation Authority scrambled to prepare several internment camps, temporary “assembly centers” were hastily constructed at the Pomona fairgrounds and similar locations, such as the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia.
“Racial affiliations are not severed by migration,” argued Western Defense Command General John DeWitt in his 1942 report calling for internment. “The Japanese race is an enemy race.”DeWitt was, to put it mildly; a paranoid bigot. It was his insistence, despite a lack of evidence, that resulted in the presidential order being issued. He employed a novel logic when confronted with the fact that no acts of sabotage had occurred: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken,” he asserted with a straight face. “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”
Although DeWitt was not the only one suspicious of the Japanese, he had Roosevelt’s blessing to draft any orders he deemed necessary, essentially placing the West Coast under martial law. The first “Exclusion Order” to relocate ethnic Japanese was issued March 24, less than four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many more would soon follow.
In April, workers hurriedly built 420 prefabricated barracks in what was then a fairgrounds parking lot, where the Pomona Raceway now sprawls. The army took control of the fairgrounds within days after Pearl Harbor; there would not be another fair for more than five years. “I thought it was ironic that it was the same place we went to for fun,” Yosh muses. “All of a sudden it had barbed wire fences all over the place. They had guards with bayonets on their rifles. I never considered running. They had guard towers with people up there with rifles.”
When the Kuromiyas arrived at the fairgrounds, soldiers forced them to abandon everything except for the personal items they could carry. The rest of their possessions, along with their freedom, had to be surrendered at the gate. “Other families had the same idea; quite a few cars and trucks were impounded,” Yosh says. “Through the barbed wire, we could see the truck sitting for several days. Then all of a sudden they all disappeared, and that’s the last we saw of our truck and our belongings. We never were told anything more about it.”
Paul Tsuneishi is a small, grandfatherly man whose stature is dwarfed by his own smile. Sixty-one years ago, he was a young intellectual who identified more with white Americans than other Japanese. Paul was going to the same college as Yosh, who considered him something of a snob. He remembers the day in May his family reported to the fairgrounds, the day he realized his family was no different from other Japanese. It was a warm day, but that did not stop him from wearing a heavy overcoat. His pockets were loaded with all the personal items he could not fit into his suitcase, which was full of books. The Tsuneishi clan also left everything behind; the same story repeated by every new family walking through the gates.
“NEED FARMERS TO TAKE OVER JAP PROPERTY,” announced the Pomona Progress-Bulletin on April 16, 1942. Most Japanese at the time were farm owners or agricultural workers. Prior to the euphemistic “evacuation,” 85 percent of fruit and vegetable farms were Japanese owned. According to the newspaper article, 1,850 farms covering 1,458 acres of land in the Pomona-Covina area alone were seized by the Farm Security Administration, which offered loans to help Caucasian Americans take over the land.
Estelle Peck had moved from San Francisco to attend art school at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. While there, she fell in love with and married Arthur Ishigo. When relocation orders came for Arthur, Estelle refused to leave his side and accompanied him into the camps. During their stay at Pomona, Estelle sketched and painted her observations and emotions. “People stared at us from the streets and pointed, nodding to each other with approval, as we were driven through the city and down the highway to the Pomona Fairgrounds—celebrated as a place for fairs and carnivals,” she wrote of the experience. “One young girl, shocked with the realization of being taken in this manner, hid her face in her hands and began to cry. Then she was seized with a heart attack . . . her family was permitted to remain with her in the city where she died. Later, they were sent to join the rest in camp.”
“The first sight of the barbed wire enclosure with armed soldiers standing guard . . . stunned us with the reality of this ordered evacuation. Here was a camp of sheds, enclosed within a high barbed wire fence, with guard towers and soldiers with machine guns. Not 25 miles from home—but suddenly . . . like a foreign land.”
In another part of Los Angeles, 25-year-old Frank Emi was building his father’s market on Vermont Avenue into a successful business. Frank had just married and become a father when the family received its evacuation order. “We sold everything for whatever we could get for it,” recollects Frank, who now lives in San Gabriel. “For our market, which we had invested $25,000 into, we were offered $500. Even our customers could not understand it; they told us, ‘We know you’re not the enemy.’“
Despite this dramatic and sudden reversal of fortune, few Japanese Americans felt any enmity. “I almost felt sorry for the government,” Yosh recalls. “I knew that we weren’t a threat; I knew this whole thing was a mistake. We figured that they would soon realize they were overreacting; that we’re not a threat, not a danger, and they would let us all go back. But of course that didn’t happen.” Nor would it for almost four years. If anything, the Issei and the second-generation Nissei were ashamed of the suspicion cast upon them. Paul, like most Japanese, trusted authority. He recalls arguing passionately on the debate team in high school for the values of American democracy over communism and socialism. “I was a true-blue patriot, the whole nine-yards,” says Paul, who now resides in Sunland. “When they sent us to Pomona, we went with a sense of duty.” They were not aware of other motives. The government went so far as to import more than 2,000 Japanese from Latin America to add to the American camps. The administration wanted a body of hostages to be used as a form of currency for American prisoners of war in Japan. Hundreds of American and Latin American Japanese were forcibly deported and sent on a circuitous and dangerous trip back to Japan for such exchanges.
Stopped abruptly by
the fence, a tumbleweed hangs
devoid of its soul.
What the Kuromiyas, Emis, Tsuneishis and other families found upon their arrival in Pomona was a small city that had sprouted almost overnight from asphalt and weeds. Streets with signs and addresses were laid out in a grid over several acres. In addition to housing, the center had a general store, police and fire facilities, a library and a hospital. There was even a “Broadway” and “Main Street.” At its peak, the center housed 5,434 residents. Four months after opening, all were transported by rail to permanent internment camps farther inland.
The first two weeks in the Pomona Center were tedium. Children and adults, who days before had been living normal lives, found themselves with little more to do than watch the new arrivals streaming in daily. Hanging over the heads of the internees was the uncertainty of not knowing what was coming next. “Not knowing what was going to happen to us became a way of life,” Yosh explains. “But human nature has a way of surviving through anything. You rationalize things, and there is always a little glimmer of hope.” Their only communication with the outside world was through Caucasian friends who could visit them, and then only from opposite sides of a barbed wire fence during permitted hours. “We went like prisoners in our camp clothes to a fenced area where we could sit and talk for a short time with those from the “outside”—under the watchful eyes of armed guards,” Estelle wrote of such visits.
A growing sense of anxiety, fear and rumor was compounded by a lack of information regarding their fate. Five young internees volunteered to print a newspaper and on an old mimeograph machine produced “The Pomona Center News” twice weekly. The paper became an essential means of communication from May 23 until the final issue Aug. 8. Serving as “a medium of information and expression for the center,” the paper published official announcements, reviewed camp events, interviewed personalities and announced the many births that contributed to the camp population. “It will be our aim to make the story of everyone just a little better,” declared the editor in the first issue. The newspaper staff grew to 19, including Estelle, who provided sketched illustrations and hand-drawn headlines. Most of the team had been professional writers and illustrators prior to relocation. One of the first big stories the paper reported on was the June 8 opening of the school. Staffed by camp volunteers, including Paul’s mother Florence, 550 children attended class.
More than dull, life in the center was difficult. Surrounded by open fields and expansive citrus groves, the camp itself was crowded and cramped. The 100-foot x 20-foot wooden barracks were subdivided by thin panels into five “apartments,” with a family in each. If three is a crowd; try eight or nine. Unlike the post-nuclear family of today, these included grandparents, spouses, siblings and children—lots of children. Like the rest, the Emi clan lived and slept without any semblance of privacy. The softest speech could be heard not only from nearby families, but also every surrounding barrack.”My brother had just gotten married,” Yosh says. “What a honeymoon!” Minnie Negoro wrote an editorial in the newspaper headlined simply, “I’d Like to Get Some Sleep!”
“We are not alone in our apartments,” Negoro pleaded in her article. “There are five or six rooms, void of any hint of soundproofing. The alluring strains of ‘The Lone Ranger’ don’t quite mix with your Haydn’s ‘A Major Quartet,’ and that extra half-hour of deep slumber in the a.m. is God’s special gift to mankind.”As if being locked away was insufficiently humiliating, camp officials felt the centralized toilet facilities need not include doors. “The men’s and women’s latrines were ranged in fully exposed rows, shocking the decency of everyone,” wrote Estelle of the arrangement. “We couldn’t believe it,” Frank says, disbelief still registering six decades later. “My sister would wait until few people were using them and try to use the stall at the end so there was less chance of someone passing by.”
Despite the difficult and near-surreal living conditions, residents tried to establish a sense of normality. “Everybody was encouraged to work,” remembers Yosh. “My dad worked in the mess hall as a cook’s helper. He never spoke too much about it.” Workers were offered meaningless wages that went unpaid for weeks, but employment gave them something to do. Yosh worked in the poster shop as a silk-screen printer. They produced posters for the camp and received contracts from the military to produce materials encouraging conservation of tires and fuel. “About that time, my attitude toward the government was at a pretty low ebb,” Yosh says. “The irony is that I was happy to do the work. I really felt I was doing my part for my country.” Frank, the one-time student and former grocer, found an outlet through his martial-arts training. “Judo classes under instructor Frank Emi will begin upon the arrival of the canvas necessary for the completion of the mat,” announced the newspaper on May 29.
One unintended by-product of internment was a resurgence of traditional Japanese art among a generation more interested in swing-dancing and Tommy Dorsey than Kabuki theater. Assembly Center detainees made the most of circumstances. For Paul, who had always been a bookworm, the camp was his first real social experience. “I had never been around so many Japanese people before,” Paul remembers. Lacking activity or entertainment, talented singers, dancers, musicians, comedians and magicians were found to perform in weekly “talent reviews,” although paranoid officials forbade Japanese from being spoken. An athletic field with several baseball diamonds was created, and teams competed in baseball, softball, volleyball and sumo wrestling matches on Sundays. Ping-pong, an international sensation at the time, was an especially popular and competitive pastime. “When we’d see our friends, we would kid about our situation rather than to take it seriously,” Yosh remembers. “Part of us felt that it had to be a joke. It was so absurd, the whole idea, that my mother was going to blow up the dam or something. Maybe picking up my dad and questioning him, but my mother? My kid sister?”
Eager to demonstrate their loyalty, residents held a huge Fourth of July celebration, rivaling that held in Ganesha Park a mile away. An independent drive held to raise funds for the United Service Organizations was so successful that USO officials visited the camp to express their gratitude.
Train after train that
pass ours is full of soldiers.
Ah, Nation’s autumn!
By August 25, 1942, the camp was empty. The majority of Japanese were loaded onto trains and sent into the northern Wyoming desert where they would spend the next four years at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp. “We figured that once they realized they were just overreacting, and that we were not a threat, not a danger, they would let us all go back,” Yosh recalls. “But of course, that didn’t happen. They took us further in to a real concentration camp.” Paul, eager to escape the monotony of the Pomona Center, had volunteered to leave two weeks earlier to help finish construction of the camp. It was his first time on a train, and the first time he had been out of Los Angeles. “We went by Las Vegas at night, and I could see the lights, but near any populated areas we had to pull the shades down.”
For Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya, their ordeal and growing indignity was compounded when the Army launched an effort to draft the young men from the camp. Even though being a father and husband exempted him from the draft, Emi led a movement at Heart Mountain to resist the draft until their constitutional rights were restored. Frank, Yosh and the rest of the “Fair Play Committee” sent a letter to the President explaining that they would gladly serve their country once their families were released from the camps. “Our condition was that we were reinstated with our civil rights, which I thought was only fair and sensible,” Yosh explains. “Who ever thought of drafting recruits out of a concentration camp? If you’re considered loyal enough to fight, to be fighting for your country, than what are you doing locked up?” The Committee’s requests were ignored, and when they were instructed to submit to pre-induction physical exams, Frank and Yosh refused to show up.
“Being sent to Europe to kill Nazis while my parents were still behind barbed wire under the thumb of the government that I was supposed to be fighting for was just too much to stomach,” Yosh says. “How stupid did they think we were?”These “resisters” were branded traitors by the Japanese American Citizens League, who urged all Japanese to submit to the call.
Ultimately Frank, Yosh and 80 others would face worse than the condemnation of their peers. In June 1944, Yosh was tried for draft evasion, along with 63 others and imprisoned on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Frank’s leadership role earned a conspiracy conviction and a cell at Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas that November. “When we first got to Leavenworth, we decided to hold a judo demonstration,” Frank recollects. “We had our smallest guy throw around the biggest one. It was good for ‘public relations’ with the convicts.”
One month after Frank’s conviction, in December of 1944, President Roosevelt, anticipating an unfavorable ruling from the Supreme Court on the matter, ended the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. This did not help Frank and Yosh, who would remain in prison.
On awaking from
A nap, I found myself back
An appellate court overturned their convictions Dec. 26, 1945. By the time Frank was released from Leavenworth the following June, Heart Mountain had been closed, and his family was living in a shelter. In 1981, a Congressional committee determined that the internment program was a “grave injustice” resulting from racial prejudice, panic and a failure of political leadership. Nine years later, a signed apology from President George Bush (Sr.) and $20,000 in reparations were paid to surviving internees. For some, especially the surviving first generation Issei, the apology helped to mitigate five decades worth of cultural shame.
Almost 60 years later, many of the survivors, all children or young adults at the time, reunite regularly. After Estelle Ishigo died in 1990, Yosh, Frank, Paul and other former internees returned to Wyoming to fulfill her request that her ashes be spread on Heart Mountain. Many are devoting their golden years to educating others about what they experienced, lest this chapter of history and its lessons are forgotten. “My brother went to Germany once and visited the site of the concentration camp at Dachau,” Paul tells. “He told me that he was standing in the barracks and realized how identical they were to the ones we had lived in.”