La Verne Magazine
The Fairgrounds Summer of Infamy
by Kenneth Todd Ruiz
photography by Sylvia Castellanos
Reflecting on important unforgettable memories, Yosh Kuromiya surrounds himself
with natural beauty in his Alhambra home. Yosh remembers a time when his loyalty
to America was questioned, and the freedom of Japanese Americans vanished.
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 Yoshs 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; wed 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
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
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
Japs 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 Roosevelts
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 thats the
last we saw of our truck and our belongings. We never were told anything more
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 Fairgroundscelebrated
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 homebut suddenly . .
. like a foreign land.
In another part of Los Angeles, 25-year-old Frank Emi was building his fathers
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 youre 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 werent a threat; I knew this whole thing was a mistake.
We figured that they would soon realize they were overreacting; that were
not a threat, not a danger, and they would let us all go back. But of course
that didnt 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 outsideunder
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 Pauls 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 childrenlots
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, Id 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 dont quite mix with your Haydns
A Major Quartet, and that extra half-hour of deep slumber in the
a.m. is Gods special gift to mankind.As if being locked away was
insufficiently humiliating, camp officials felt the centralized toilet facilities
need not include doors. The mens and womens latrines were
ranged in fully exposed rows, shocking the decency of everyone, wrote
Estelle of the arrangement. We couldnt 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 cooks 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
wed 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, Nations 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 didnt 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 youre considered loyal enough to fight, to
be fighting for your country, than what are you doing locked up? The Committees
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 Washingtons Puget Sound. Franks
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 Franks 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.