The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan, on Dec. 7, 1941, not only swept the U.S. Into World War II, it blew a chilling wave of fear and anger across the home front as well. Fearing the possibility of espionage and sabotage, even invasion, the government within months ordered U.S. Army troops to round up 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry and ship them to detention camps throughout the western U.S. Most were American citizens; all were denied their basic rights. Now, 45 years later, Congress is preparing to issue a formal apology and $1.2 billion in reparation payments to the 60,000 surviving Japanese American evacuees. Among the sponsors of the legislation is Norman Mineta, a Democratic Congressman from California, who was 10 years old when he and five family members were uprooted from their home in San Jose and brought first to a temporary camp at a California racetrack and then to more permanent quarters in remote Heart Mountain, Wyo. In an interview at his Capitol Hill office, Mineta, 56, spoke of those painful childhood days.
I had just returned home with my family from a service at our neighborhood Japanese Methodist Church when we heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. All the adults were very quiet, and my father went into his office off the porch and closed the door. That was the first time I ever saw him cry.
My father had crossed the Pacific in 1902, at age 14, on a steamship. His original plan was to return to live with his family in Kumaiden, Japan, after learning new farming techniques. Instead he decided to stay in America and within 10 years had saved enough money by working as a farm laborer to book passage for a wife from Japan. My mother, Kane, was the younger sister of one of his friends. She was from the same village as my father, but they hadn’t seen each other since childhood.
By the time World War II began he was making a good living running the Mineta Insurance Agency in San Jose, and my mother was busy raising three daughters and two sons. Our home was sort of Spanish-style stucco with a red-tile roof. There were three bedrooms and one bath—a comfortable home. By law, the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, my father couldn’t become a citizen, and California didn’t allow noncitizens to own land. A local attorney, J.B. Peckham, would hold title to the land for Japanese families until their oldest American-born child turned 21. The children were automatically citizens by birth, and he would then transfer the title to them. He did this for hundreds, if not thousands of families in Santa Clara County.
I had my 10th birthday in 1941, and then came Dec. 7. Our next-door neighbor was director of a Japanese American social group, and that day he was arrested by the FBI. I remember his daughter crawling under the hedge and running over to our house, screaming that the police were taking her father away. She wouldn’t hear from him again for several months. In the weeks that followed there was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the community. Then, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which proclaimed that all people of Japanese ancestry, citizens or resident aliens, could be moved from the West Coast because of “military necessity.” Notices were posted on telephone poles and sides of buildings.
Under the new curfew law we had to be inside from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. We couldn’t travel in groups of more than five, and we couldn’t travel more than 25 miles from home without a special permit. When my sister in San Francisco was married, we had to get a permit because it was 47 miles away.
Before long, the insurance agency that my father owned for more than 20 years was shut down, and his broker’s license was stamped “suspended for the duration of the War.” Our savings accounts in the Yokohoma Species Bank were confiscated forever, and we even had to give away our dog, Skippy, a wirehaired terrier, to a stranger. We were told that we could take to the camp only what we could carry. People would just come and knock on your door and say, “I’ll give you five bucks for your refrigerator.” They would just walk the streets, going in and out of Japanese homes, offering to buy stuff. Very quickly our house was leased to a professor at San Jose State College.
When it came time to evacuate, some families had to move within hours. In coastal areas in particular, families had 72 hours at most. On May 29, we gathered at the train station carrying just a few belongings—clothing, bedding and kitchen utensils. I wore my Cub Scout uniform and took along my baseball bat and catcher’s mitt, but I had to leave my bat behind. I guess they thought it was a dangerous weapon. We did not know until that day that we were headed 400 miles south to the Santa Anita racetrack, where the Army had turned the horse stables into temporary living quarters. On the train the shades were drawn, and armed guards stationed at each end of the car made sure no one tried to peek outside. “My heart just broke,” my father later wrote to a friend, “and suddenly hot tears just came pouring out.”
When we arrived at Santa Anita the next morning, we were each given a mattress bag and told to stuff it with hay. Because we were late arrivals in the camp, we were lucky and were assigned to barracks that had been built. I remember going to visit friends who were in the horse stables during the heat of that summer. The stench was still there, and frankly, how they lived in that place I’ll never understand.
Our living space was maybe 15 feet by 20 feet and wall-to-wall beds. To shower we had to walk 10 or 12 blocks to the paddocks. The barracks were near a guard tower, and the searchlight would sweep across my face all night. It was so bright that no matter how I tried to cover my eyes, I always knew it was there. The Arcadia Theater was directly across the street outside the camp, and we would look through the fence to see what was on the marquee. It was just 100 feet away, but it may as well have been 100 miles, because it was on the other side of the barbed wire.
In July the local police tried to arrest a woman in the camp for possession of an iron. Irons were banned because they were heavy and could be used as weapons and because the Army didn’t want to overload the electrical circuits at the camp. Then the Army came in to make a complete inspection of the camp, which led to a major riot. My friend Eddie Kimura and I saw the jeeps come in with their machine-gun mounts, and we went to the grandstand area to see what was going on. We were sitting on the fence around the track, and all of a sudden we heard what sounded like gunfire, so we hit the deck and got out of there.
We left Santa Anita three months later bound for a more permanent internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo. We were greeted by a blinding sandstorm when we arrived. I remember the sand whipping up into the barracks through the cracks in the floorboards. It was cold, bitterly cold, and since we were all from California, most people had to make do with light jackets and blankets. Of course we couldn’t go shopping. There were 12,000 people in the camp living in crowded barracks. We had an 18-foot by 25-foot space with a potbellied stove, and we ate in a large mess hall. Everyone knew that Wyoming would be it for the duration of our internment, so we had no choice but to try to feel at home.
I attended sixth grade at a camp school. After school sometimes Eddie and I would play in some big cardboard boxes. We’d roll around in them in the wind, kind of like human tumbleweeds. One day in February 1943, we were sledding down a hill and accidentally slipped under a barbed wire fence around the camp border. Then suddenly we saw an Army MP patrol approaching. They had guns, and we were terrified. Later, when they took me back to my father, he really chewed me out.
We were treated as prisoners of war, really—not Americans. You have to imagine how we felt looking up at the guard towers, knowing that their guns were pointed not outward but in, at us. And I think that the stigma of being accused of disloyalty was even worse than being sent to camp. But the human spirit seems to cause people to try to make the best of whatever circumstances they are in. In fact many Japanese Americans thought that by going along with what the government was doing, they could prove their patriotism.
During 1943 members of my family were given permission to leave the camp, one by one. My father was permitted to go to Chicago and take a job teaching Japanese to U.S. Army soldiers under the Army specialized training program. Then in November they let my mother and me out. There was no big opening of the gates, no mass exodus. We just got on a bus outside Heart Mountain, then stayed overnight in Butte, Mont., before catching a train to meet my father.
We had dinner that night in a restaurant across the street from the hotel. After my mother and I ate, I stood up and began stacking the dishes the way I always did. In the camp mess hall we always had to bus our own tables. My mother watched me for a moment and then said very softly, “Norman, you don’t have to do that anymore.”
At that moment, for the first time, it hit me that I was free.