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Memoirs - Part 1 of 4: War Breaks Out, Everything Changes

Friends and family have asked me to chronicle my life experiences during World War II. Since I was barely thirteen when Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese, my remembrances and interactions are limited to an early-teenaged Japanese American growing up in a chaotic, prejudiced, "Japan-hating" society.

However, family and friends who shared these experiences with me are rapidly diminishing. For example, one of the more memorable experiences was my family's volunteer evacuation from California to Colorado which was implemented in two segments. The first segment of the notorious "caravan of Japs" consisted of six people and three vehicles. Of the six people, four have passed away leaving just two, my brother Ted and myself. The second segment consisted of two persons and two vehicles, only one person remains, my other living brother, George.

My hope is that future generations who may read these experiences can glean a better understanding of the difficulties and prejudices borne by the Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. More importantly, I sincerely hope that society has learned from these past indiscretions and will be more tolerant should similar situations arise in the future.

Start of the War

December 7, 1941 was a warm, lazy Sunday in Southwest Los Angeles, California. My friend, Jay Takaya and I were allowed to go see an early matinee at the Arlington Theater (located near the intersection of Arlington and Jefferson Boulevards). I remember it cost us ten cents for the early matinee which was really a bargain because we were given a nickel candy bar when we entered and a nickel ice cream bar when we left. In essence, the movie was free for kids. We entered the theater a few minutes before 11 a.m. to see an early double-feature (I don't recall the movies but I'm almost certain that one of the two was a cowboy movie) and left the theater around 3:30 p.m.

As we left the theater, Jay and I noticed an eerie scene, there was no one walking the streets and only an occasional car passing on the streets. We rushed to our separate homes. As I walked into the house, my family was huddled near the radio listening to the news accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack started about the time Jay and I were entering the theater earlier that morning.

My family members were in a state of shock and disbelief. We discussed what actions we should and should not take but from the scant information available to us we were limited to only temporary plans. Thus it was decided that until the situation became clearer, we would continue as though Pearl Harbor never occurred.

Thus when Monday, December 8, 1941 came about, I walked my regular route to Foshay Junior High School. Normally I would meet my school friend at the corner of 36th Street and Western Boulevard. After meeting at this location, my friend, Edwin Lee and I would walk together for the final two blocks chit chatting about school or friends. But on this morning, Edwin failed to show up, even after waiting for an extra long time; I didn't want to walk alone onto the schoolyard on this first day after Pearl Harbor. When he again failed to show up at our regular recess meeting place, I assumed that he was sick at home and wasn't able to attend school.

Then at lunchtime, I went to the cafeteria and there I saw Edwin sitting with other oriental students. Each of these students wore dark jackets with "I AM KOREAN" or "I AM CHINESE" imprinted on their backside in bold white letters. The Japanese American students were upset and offended by this discriminatory act. We confronted them and challenged their dishonorable motives and let them know that they would pay for their stupid behavior after school and outside the school grounds. They were afraid to face us alone, since the Japanese American students outnumbered them two-to-one.

By the time the afternoon recess arrived, they solicited and received the support and alliance of the Caucasian and Chicano students that put us into a huge minority situation. However, as we made our way to the playground gates, a large group of African Americans joined us. When the two factions confronted each other, there was shoving and bumping and name calling. But before things could get heated, we heard police sirens fast approaching and the crowd immediately dispersed. In the remaining days at Foshay, all of my school friends were Japanese Americans or African Americans.

Destroying Japanese Keepsakes

Every Thursday night, I participated in Ken Bu (Japanese Samurai sword dance) at a dojo located in Japanese Town. December 11, 1941 was the first Ken Bu class following Pearl Harbor and the last class to be held ever. The instructors and sponsors were very fretful about the public's reaction to the teaching of Japanese martial art. As a result, they dismissed us immediately and advised us to destroy all of our Ken Bu paraphernalia, specifically our ceremonial swords and uniforms. The swords were nonfunctional and made of chrome plated, low grade steel. Because of the uncertainty and the volatility of the times, my family decided to bury all questionable items in our backyard that very night.

Besides my two ceremonial swords and uniforms, we buried our photo camera, a bolo knife and hatchet (that we used in our everyday gardening route), and Japanese dictionary, magazines, and textbooks. We learned later that our friends also got rid of their valuable possessions that might be considered subversive. The more expensive possessions included firearms, shortwave radios, and prized collections of Japanese arts and crafts. All were destroyed, never to bring joy and pride back to the owners.

Indication of Possible Incarceration

One of my brother Roy's customers on his gardening route was a man by the name of Mr. Zeno. Mr. Zeno was the Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Around January 25, 1942, Mr. Zeno wanted to know if there was anyplace outside of California that Roy could find a safe haven. Mr. Zeno related that plans were being developed to convert the horse stalls at Santa Anita Racetrack into facilities to incarcerate all persons of Japanese ancestry. He advised Roy to move out of California if he possibly could.

Plan for Volunteer Migration

After being alerted about the impending incarceration, the family felt fortunate to have other options. The Inouye family had strong ties in Colorado—our father was responsible for the migration of nine Japanese families from Stockton, California to the San Luis Valley (southern Colorado) in 1925/1926. Seven of those families still lived there in 1942.

The State of California legislature enacted the Alien Land Act in 1924 which prohibited Japanese aliens from owning/leasing land in the State of California. For this reason, the nine farmer families left Stockton to start anew in Colorado. Due to mother Inouye's high blood pressure and upon the doctor's advice, we moved mother to sea level in 1939. Now two years later, we are moving her back to Colorado for fear that if she stays in California, she could be incarcerated as "enemy alien."

When the family decided to voluntarily leave California and return to the San Luis Valley, Colorado, plans were quickly laid and executed. We solicited family friends to join us but only two agreed to join us. Mr. Sunao Kawanabe and his brother Mr. Soichi Kukita. Sunao was a long-time family friend whom we knew since 1934 when he ventured onto our farm looking for employment. He was an illegal immigrant who slipped into the U.S. through Mexico with bogus identification papers that he had bought for that purpose. His brother was also an illegal immigrant (thus the different surnames) and they both wished to join us for the trip to Colorado.

Once the complement of people wanting to migrate together to Colorado was established, the available resources to transport them and their possessions included one car and three pickups. We needed an additional truck to transport all the household goods. The Japanese owners who ran the wholesale fruit and vegetable (produce) markets were in an uncertain dilemma (this was just before forced evacuation or internment was announced). We purchased a practically new, 1941 GMC, two-ton, ten-speed truck with eight-feet-high stock racks for $400 cash. This was the ideal transport to move household goods and later to work on a farm to haul farm goods.

Part 2 >>


© 2008 Herbert Inouye