Day of Remembrance: Readers Stories
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan alike. February 19th is now recognized at the Day of Remembrance (D.O.R.) to commemorate Japanese-American Internment so that we do not forget.
Here are the readers who contributed their personal stories:
Cordelia Kiharu (喜春) Larsen
Michael Ken Stewart
Joseph Shoji Lachman
Name: Aaron Amodt
Current City: Brooklyn, NY
By chance, I heard about an obscure internment camp in the wilderness of Idaho, and some friends took me to the site to poke around. It was called the Kooskia Internment Camp, along the Lolo Pass in the panhandle of the state. Before World War II, the camp existed for the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who were there to build US Highway 12 that connected Montana to Washington. From the story I was told, the area was so remote (Lewis and Clark actually used this pass on their way to the West Coast) that they didn’t even bother building fences or guard towers, as it was unlikely anybody would survive if they tried escaping.
My friends went on to tell me that most people in the area had heard rumors of this place for years, but nobody had any real memories of it since it was so secluded. So the local university sent a team of archeologists to examine the site, and they’ve written a couple of books about its history. The story went that all of the internees had volunteered to be transferred to Kooskia because the camp paid a meager wage in exchange for their labor: finishing construction on the highway that the CCC started a decade earlier. Once the war was over the department of corrections turned it into a prison, and then sometime in the 1950s the whole complex was dismantled brick by brick. Nobody I spoke with knew why, and there’s no marker for the site today.
When we went to check it out, we parked on the shoulder of the highway and had to hike into the forest for a few minutes until we reached the only structure left: a concrete trash incinerator. There wasn’t really much to see, so I started digging with my hands near the incinerator. Immediately I started finding bits of ceramics, a lot of plates and coffee mugs. I found a lot of what looked like WWII-era tin cans. The most interesting things I found sitting in the dirt were some eyeglass lenses and a double-edged safety razor (the same kind that I use). I cleaned and restored that razor and use it to this day as my regular shaver.
There were a lot of memorable things that I saw and did on that trip, but this is the story that I think about the most. Mostly because it's all such a mystery. Why was the place dismantled, and why is it so obscure?
I don’t know much more beyond what I've recounted here, I can only speak to what I personally experienced that day. So here is a brief background:
Name: Cordelia Kiharu (喜春) Larsen
Current City: New York City
My family is of Japanese descent, living in the Bay Area, California. My grandmother, my hero, my everything—the most reserved and wise woman I’ll ever know—was part of the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Her, her two brothers, and her parents were shuffled around between three internment camps during the war, finally landing at Tule Lake, where most of my grandmother’s wartime memories were formed. My jiji-chan (great-grandfather) was a Japanese citizen, making him an enemy of the state, hence their placement at the labor camp. All of this happened even though my great-grandfather’s greatest wish was truly, honestly to be an American citizen.
My grandmother doesn’t often share memories from the camps—except with me. The first time she mentioned anything was when I was about 7 years old. I had brought home a lanyard I was working on from summer camp and proudly showed it off to my ba-chan (who I lived in California until moving to New York City a couple of years back). She took it somberly and gently smiled, saying, “We used to make these at camp, too. Well, not these ones. The boys made these ones. We made bracelets to give to our mothers.”
I was so confused. What camp was she talking about? How young was she? Like any curious child, I went to my mother for the answers. Her eyes went wide and her jaw dropped a little. “She was talking about camp?” I remember how stunned my mama looked. She sat me down and explained, to the best of her ability, what a 7-year-old could understand, our painful family history during WWII. I was warned never to push her about it, you never knew what would push her too far, what would upset her, touch a nerve.
Obedient and ever devoted to my mother and grandmother, I heeded her advice. Slowly, over the years, my ba-chan let on more and more of her memories of the camps. “We could hear the tanks rolling by, during camp. Right by the window, where the soldiers waited with guns.” She could never relax, telling me her fear of big dogs (which I never understood as a little kid) stemmed from being chased down by a large German Shepherd dog the soldiers kept. It tore her dress trying to bite her. She refuses to go near big dogs to this day, save one lovely pit bull that policed next door growing up. It was so gentle with me and my sister, so she just kind of accepted it as a loving, gentle giant. It brought so much happiness to my mom to see that.
Now, my grandmother and I talk more openly about her time at the internment camps, as I’m working on a memoir for my family about their experiences. These are stories that cannot die. We cannot let these events be forgotten or erased. The pain is so real, so tangible, so visceral, but we can never allow it to happen again.
Name: Michael Ken Stewart
Current City: New York City
My grandparents on my mother’s side are both connected to pivotal moments in the Japanese diaspora. My grandfather was interned on the west coast of America, and my grandmother was a teenager in Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. However, being an adoptee complicated accepting these stories as my own. Without direct blood ties, I actively separated my personal history from the family that I was adopted into. I was protecting myself from being called a fraud and falsely claiming a story that is not my own. Growing up, I pushed back against any suggestion that these stories of internment or escaping U.S. bombs were a part of my lineage.
Leaving the comfort of home and moving across the country to New York changed things for me. I began to see my parents’ tendencies (good and bad) in my own actions and values. After much soul-searching, I came to realize that we pass things onto others whether we realize it or not. In raising me, my parents passed on their lessons, fears, trauma, and joys as a remixed version of those same lessons, fears, trauma, and joys they received from their parents. Finally, there was a path for me to embrace these stories.
These are my grandparent's stories and lessons that live in me today:
My grandfather was interned, and the family had to sell their printing business in Fresno, California. At the time he was 20 years old and in the middle of this college studies. A bright student, he had the potential to be a great researcher, something he did eventually become, but internment changed things. In a narrative, he wrote about his experience when Executive Order 9066 was announced, preparing to head to the camp, and arriving at the first site. The most startling thing I read was when my grandfather realized that his white friends’ construction summer job at the local fairgrounds was actually to build the very barracks he would be interned in. That is haunting. Not much is said about the family’s time in the camps, but I have been told some of my family was forced to make a horse stall home. I can’t imagine. My grandpa eventually got pulled out of the camp to do war related research and ended up being one of the first Americans to go to Japan when the war ended. This was before the official tour by General Douglas McArthur. The one lesson that stays with my family is echoed by my mother, “They can take away everything except your knowledge and education.”
My grandmother grew up in Hiroshima (Kure) during the war, the same city the movie “In This Corner of The World” is set in. Her school became a bullet-making factory, and she willingly helped in the war effort. We have a journal she kept during this time, filled with memories that I couldn’t imagine living through as a teenager. It’s moving reading how she had to run into the hills to find safety in bomb shelters, and in the chaos, was separated from family members. My mother often tells the story of how my grandmother was unable to make it into downtown Hiroshima the day the A-bomb was dropped due to a flat tire on the public bus. She went back home that day, was out of blast range, and her life was saved. Seeing the destruction of war first hand, my grandmother developed a deep distaste for violence that was then passed on to my mom.
The transformative experiences of my grandfather and grandmother shaped the way they see the world, and these worldviews have found their way to me through my mother. These stories transcend my identity as an adoptee. They have become a part of who I am today.
Name: Matthew Weisbly
Current City: Los Angeles, CA
I'm only a quarter Japanese. My maternal grandfather was 7 years old when EO 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt, and he was actually one of the few sansei (third-generation Japanese-Americans) at the time. His parents were both born in the United States, and they lived in Gilroy, California. When the first Civilian Exclusion Orders came out, they fled east hoping to avoid incarceration. They made it as far as Turlock, California, before all Japanese-Americans were forced to remain in California. As a result, they weren't sent to Manzanar like they would have been if they had remained in Gilroy. Instead, they were sent to Gila River, Arizona, in the summer of 1942, where they remained until mid-1944. My grandfather’s older brother contracted tuberculosis and needed proper medical attention. Under armed guard, the family traveled to Phoenix for his treatments. Since Phoenix was split in half by the exclusion orders, another Japanese-American family in Phoenix, north of the exclusion zone, sponsored my family to live with them and work on their farm. My family is still friends with them today.
But I didn't learn about the story of the incarceration until I was about 10 or 11 years old when my parents were watching the film, Come See the Paradise. My father’s family is Ashkenazi-Jewish and members of our extended family were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I grew up learning about the Holocaust but not the incarceration. What I learned from Come See the Paradise changed my life. I talked to my grandfather as much as I could afterward, but he passed away less than a year later. Learning about the Japanese internment led me to become a history major, with an emphasis in Japanese and Japanese-American history. I'm currently finishing my senior year, and just completed my senior thesis on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the men who volunteered from within the camps. I've gotten involved with the JACL and my school’s Japanese-American club, Asian-American student services, and devoted much of my time to the Japanese-American community.
Name: Joseph Shoji Lachman
Current City: Seattle, WA
I am a fourth/fifth-generation half-Japanese-American -- born, raised, and currently living in Seattle, Washington. I work full-time as the civic engagement program manager for a nonprofit organization serving the local AAPI population, including immigrants and refugees.
My mother’s family came from two areas of Japan. Her mother’s grandparents came from Shizuoka Prefecture (West Coast of mid-Honshu, the main Island) in 1905, and her father’s parents came from Akita Prefecture (Northern Honshu, just below Hokkaido) in 1907. My mother’s mother’s side came to what is now the Covington, Washington, area and worked in agriculture. My mother’s father’s side came over because my great-grandfather Gennosuke Shoji (東海林源之助) was recruited by the Episcopal Mission to be one of the first non-white Episcopal ministers in the U.S., specifically for the Japanese immigrant population in Seattle. For the Day of Remembrance, I’d like to talk about this side of my family, although both went through incredible hardship and experienced trauma that has persisted for generations.
Executive Order 9066 and the following removal orders were devastating for the whole local Japanese-American community, but stories from my relatives have helped me understand how it affected my family in particular. In 1923, the main church building for St. Peter’s Episcopal was completed. My great-grandfather Gennosuke served as the minister there. However, after the order came out the, church was quickly converted into a storage space for Japanese immigrants’ belongings. He was tasked not only with helping his own family prepare for their imprisonment, but also many other local families who needed a place to leave the belongings they could not carry with them. His oldest son, my grandfather Joseph who I am named after, was tasked with carrying one of the most precious things in the family -- his youngest sister Florence, who was paralyzed down one side of her body and suffered from other mental and physical disabilities due to a childhood illness. This highlights how certain intersectional aspects of the incarceration period can be overlooked. Many fathers were rounded up by the FBI long before EO9066, and families were forced to move their belongings without their help, and of course, there were never any considerations of accessibility needs for folks like my great-aunt Florence.
The family, including great-grandfather Gennosuke, great-grandmother Kane, eldest son and daughter (and fraternal twins) Joseph and Elizabeth, second son Samuel, and the youngest daughter Florence, all moved to the Puyallup Assembly Center, euphemistically called Camp Harmony, where they were forced to live in horse stables for several months. After that they and all other Japanese-Americans were transferred to Minidoka, in the Idaho desert. Because of my great-grandfather’s faith role in the community, he took it upon himself to try and help countless other families cope with their situation. He eventually fell ill and was taken to the very crude camp hospital facility. Even after he recovered he felt compelled to help his community, and he spent countless hours traveling to provide ministerial services at multiple concentration camps. He did not go home until the camps closed.
The inhumane conditions in the camps were hardest on Auntie Florence because of her disability. Her childhood illness left her without the ability to speak, walk, and perform most basic functions. However, the family loved her dearly and did everything they could to accommodate her needs. Over the years, she made significant progress, learning how to drag the paralyzed half of her body around their home in Beacon Hill, and tug on someone’s pant leg when she needed to use the restroom. However, the family’s imprisonment destroyed all this progress. They weren’t able to help her bathe properly, use the bathroom, or even feed her adequate food. Eventually, she started suffering severe seizures and was taken to the Idaho State Hospital. This family separation undoubtedly caused a great deal of anxiety and trauma for Auntie Florence, as well as the rest of the family who were uncertain what would become of her. Their greatest fears came true when the hospital reported to them that Auntie Florence died there, alone and afraid and away from her loved ones. We celebrate the theme of “gaman” (perseverance) for the many who survived their imprisonment, but it’s always important to acknowledge that not all could persevere, whether it was because of disability, mental illness, or other conditions that may have been beyond people’s control. There should be no shame in this inability to fit with the mainstream narrative.
The rest of the family was able to return to Seattle after their incarceration ended, but they were forced to live in the church building since the house they had been renting was now occupied by different people. St. Peter’s was converted from a storage facility into temporary housing for a large number of displaced families.
While my great-grandparents and their family were able to reestablish their lives in Seattle, many other families were not able to do so. More importantly, they did not come back to Seattle whole. My great-grandparents were never able to overcome that feeling of blaming themselves for Auntie Florence’s death, even though it really wasn’t their fault at all.
Decades later, we received an apology and even reparations, but much of the trauma and stigma persist which make it difficult for older and younger Japanese-Americans in a family to have open dialogue about what their families went through, and we risk many of these stories being lost to time. Sadly, my grandfather passed away long before I was born. However, I’m very fortunate that my great-uncle Sam took the time to write down our family’s experience as part of his testimony to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians during the Redress Movement. Much of what I’ve written is based on the 16 pages he wrote. I’m lucky I still have relatives alive today (in their late 80s and 90s) who remember the experience and are willing to talk with other family members about it.
What I found most profound about reading the testimony that Uncle Sam wrote was how incredibly forward-thinking he was and how ahead of his time he was. Not only did he see the apology and reparations as righting a past wrong, but he also saw it as setting a precedent for the future to help prevent the same kind of discrimination and oppression toward other minority groups in the U.S.
Discovering Uncle Sam’s Redress testimony was a turning point in my life, which coincided with the rise in bigotry and xenophobia toward Muslims, Latinx folks, and other minority groups in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign. I reached out to the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Washington, and ended up completing a six-month internship with them. I have formed bonds with their staff and the Muslim community that have lasted for years and I believe will continue for my whole life. It truly felt meaningful to help strengthen ties between the Japanese-American and Muslim-American community in these times. I realized after that internship that I wanted a career devoted to working with underserved and underrepresented communities, including migrant communities today facing persecution similar to what my family went through.
I now serve as the Civic Engagement Program Manager at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in Seattle, and I feel so lucky that I now have a job doing exactly what I had set out to do. Every single day I feel like I’m helping to empower other communities to make their voices heard and build their power. ACRS is a 45-year-old social service nonprofit that provides a variety of important services including mental health counseling, substance abuse and problem gambling treatment, citizenship and employment classes, youth empowerment programs, a food bank, pharmacy, and elderly services, among others. The agency primarily serves the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities in the Greater Seattle Area, but also serves immigrants and refugees more broadly. My role means I help lead our civic engagement team to work with our numerous staff and clients to teach them about civics and empower them to teach more of their community members to engage with our local democratic process. I love the work and as a mixed-race person, it feels wonderful to honor the legacy of my Japanese-American ancestors.
There's also a documentary on my family's story now available online! http://time.com/5531184/minidoka-internment-camp-doc/