Syracuse University Magazine

In the First Person

A DISHONORABLE LEGACY: Reflections on

the Mass Evacuation of Japanese During World War II

By Satoru Tsufura 

satoru tsufuraExecutive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the beginning of a nightmarish experience that engulfed the personal lives of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans. In our family, it was the beginning of a cleavage to a once peaceful life. 

My parents were born in Japan; my two brothers and I were born in California. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, utter chaos gripped our nation. What about all the Japanese living on the West Coast? Were there spies among them who would be an immediate threat to our country? As fate would have it, our military, government, and media leaders’ distrust of all Japanese on the West Coast made it paramount for President Roosevelt to authorize their removal, even though many were born in this country. 

In 1942, Japanese families were shipped by bus and train to 10 camps hurriedly put together in isolated desert areas of the country, where they were held for up to four years. We were only allowed to bring clothes, personal grooming items, and bedding. We had to leave our pet dog behind to scavenge for itself. Most families lost their homes, property, and cars. Furnishings had to be sold at bargain basement prices to enterprising neighbors.

Our family was shipped to Canal Camp of the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona. Barbed wire fences and guard towers surrounded the camp. All of us internees called this a concentration camp. Our 20-by-20- foot living quarters were located in an Army barrack building, number 13 of block number 3. There were no toilets or running water. A central wash and latrine building was provided in the middle of each block, consisting of 15 barracks. The shabby buildings had wooden floor planks 1/8 - 1/4 inch apart. The ceiling rafters were equally porous, especially during the summer dust storms that deposited lots of sand in our living quarters. Winter in the desert was bitter cold; summer piping hot. 

We attended regular classes taught by teachers who came from outside communities, and such sports activities as football, baseball, softball, and volleyball were available. But within two years, life in the camp took on a different mood. Close knit families began to crumble. Our parents struggled to keep us together as a family. But we teenagers had our own individual thoughts about the future: “Why are we here even though we are American citizens? Is our future to be as prisoners of war?”

Suddenly there came a break, a small crevice, if you will, when some of the camp’s high school graduates began enlisting in the U.S. Army. My brother Hitoshi, having graduated from a high school in Michigan through the auspices of the War Relocation Authority, announced he, too, wanted to volunteer for military service. Needless to say, a stinging furor commenced. My mother shouted to Hitoshi, “Will you dare point that rifle at my brother and sister and your cousins?”  My father broke in to say, “We will be going back to Japan shortly on an exchange ship because this country cannot treat you citizens as criminals. This is no place to raise you properly!” Listening to the heated argument from behind a bamboo curtain just a few feet away, I answered, “I will jump from the truck taking us to the port of embarkation and you will never see me again!”

My brother turned his back on our parents and joined the Army. Through the War Relocation Authority, I continued my high school education in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where Cornie and Polly Scheid agreed to be my surrogate parents. I’ll always be indebted to them both for taking care of my personal health and well-being during this difficult time in my life. 

More than 60 years have passed, and I hope that never again shall there be another ethnic evacuation based on the whims of politicians and prejudicial leaders to defame our country’s history. 

 

Satoru “Sat” Tsufura’s story about life in an internment camp was a winner in the 2009 Legacies Writing Contest sponsored by the Essex County Division of Senior Services in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. A former sports magazine publisher and photographer, Tsufura graduated from Syracuse University in 1954 with a degree in visual and performing arts. He has appeared in several national commercials and voiceovers, including ones for Snickers, Fox Sports, and BMW (directed by Ang Lee).