Harry Kitano never served in Japan’s armed forces during World War II but, along with 112,000 other Japanese-Americans, he was a prisoner of war just the same. Kitano (who was 15 when Pearl Harbor was attacked) was moved with his family in early 1942 from their home in San Francisco to a temporary assembly center, and six months later they were sent to an internment camp. There they spent more than two years behind barbed wire in a desolate desert center called Topaz.
Last month, shortly after a Congressional commission labeled the whole episode a “grave injustice” and days before a group of former internees filed a $25 billion class action suit against the U.S. government, Kitano and a group of former inmates returned to Topaz for the first time since they were released. “It was the most nostalgic day of my life, says Kitano, now a UCLA sociology professor, “but also the most sobering.”
Topaz was located on a barren alkali flat 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City that current maps identify as Abraham. Today there is little evidence that from 1942 to 1945 it was the site of Utah’s fifth largest city because it became home to more than 8,000 Issei (first-generation) and Nisei (second-generation) Japanese-Americans. What remains are a few cement foundations, a fence marking the camp boundaries, and a marker erected, ironically, by the American Bicentennial Committee. Mostly, the area has returned to its natural state with its gray soil covered by greasewood and tufts of saltgrass. The only permanent residents are a few jackrabbits.
Roaming the former camp evoked memories for Harry, now 57, of a past that seems as improbable as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. “It reawakened many adolescent feelings about first girlfriends, playing tailback on the football team, and being a student body officer,” he says. “There were also darker memories about the tremendous narrowness of life, the terrible food, the routinized boredom.”
The roundup of the Japanese-Americans grew out of the fear, anger and anxiety rampant on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. It empowered espionage-wary officials to designate the Pacific Coast states as a “military area.” Asks Kitano, “What was our crime? Ours was a crime of race.”
The first edict that really affected him was a night curfew on all Japanese-Americans. Then in March 1942 came orders for all to abandon their homes and businesses and present themselves to authorities at temporary assembly centers for relocation. Harry’s father lost an estimated $50,000 in a San Francisco hotel he had invested in and leased, and others fell prey to unscrupulous fellow citizens. Then Harry, his parents and six siblings were rounded up with thousands of others and taken to Santa Anita Park, where they were lodged for six months in makeshift housing and even in horse stalls.
A more permanent solution came as the government spent an estimated $70 million to construct 10 major centers in Western states. Topaz, one of the smaller camps, was oddly referred to in welcoming brochures as the “Jewel of the Desert.” It covered 19,800 acres with rows of grim tar-paper barracks that provided minimal protection against temperatures that soared to 196° in the summer and 30 below in the winter.
The nine-member Kitano clan lived in a typical 20-by-25-foot room with a potbellied coal stove and furniture built by internees out of scrap lumber. Each block had communal washing and toilet facilities supplied with well water that was, by all accounts, almost undrinkable.
The prevailing mood of shikatagnai, the Japanese word for “realistic resignation,” was shattered at Topaz on April 11, 1943 when an elderly citizen named James Hatsuki Wakasa wandered too close to the outer fence and was killed by an MP. As a result of a vigorous protest, firearms were restricted and guards removed to outside the camp fences. The life-style remained Spartan. The food ration was a daily allotment of 42 cents per person and “Topazians” were expected to clothe themselves with a $3.50 monthly allowance.
National allegiance became a controversial issue for internees when they were asked to take American loyalty oaths. This posed particular problems for Issei like Harry’s father who were asked to renounce their Japanese allegiance, yet were deemed ineligible for U.S. citizenship. “Disloyals” were segregated at the Tule Lake Center in Newell, Calif., but many Nisei volunteered to serve in the military, most notably the much-decorated 442nd Regimental Combat team, ranked among the best in the European theaters.
Harry, like many, was eventually cleared for release and resettlement in “nonstrategic” inland areas. After graduation from the camp’s high school in 1944, he obtained government clearance to move to Milwaukee, changed his surname to the more Chinese-sounding “Lee,” and joined a touring big band as a trombonist. Other able-bodied, and presumed loyal, Japanese-Americans were also permitted to move inland and obtain jobs. It wasn’t until the final stages of the war that the older and very young Japanese-Americans were freed. Roosevelt’s evacuation order was lifted on Jan. 2, 1945 and by the end of that year most of the camps had been dismantled. The Kitanos moved to Berkeley, Calif., where Harry’s father established himself in the housing business. “It took five years to get back on our feet,” says Harry.
Kitano sorted out his own identity and took up his family name again in 1946. By 1958 he had earned a Ph.D. at Berkeley in educational psychology. The following year he visited Japan for the first time and was struck by the warmth and generosity of his relatives.
Harry’s four grown children have all explored their ethnic roots with college Asian studies, but Kitano has never given them a full “emotional account” of his internment. To work through his own feelings, he has written articles and lectured and has held conferences on the internment.
Now after decades of negligence on all sides, reparation efforts on behalf of all evacuees have gained momentum. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians is expected to make compensation recommendations to Congress by June. Legislation was introduced late in the last session that would have paid each interned citizen $25,000, but no action was taken. Washington Democrat Mike Lowry plans to introduce a similar bill in the near future.
Whatever the appropriate justice, few deny that relocation was a mistake. Prowling the sagebrush-dotted remains of Topaz, Harry offered more than just shikatagnai. “All of these years I have wondered,” he said, “if the conditions of racism could occur in this country during another wartime emergency. Looking out at the remains of Topaz, I realize they could. I won’t be back.”