Linda's Orchard

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Month: September, 2012

Librarians: Linking a Community to its History

Linda Okazaki and Andy Rodriguez

Visiting a site for research purposes is always interesting. But meeting the members of the community  really brings things to life. When planning my trip to Crystal City, I had been in contact with a number of individuals. Werner Ulrich was a former internee and great source of information. Werner was responsible for some of the displays currently on view at the former internment camp, including the map of the site. He put me in touch with Andy Rodriguez, the librarian in Crystal City.

Andy was helpful throughout our email correspondence, providing me with details about the city and the camp. He also agreed to meet me during the visit. I knew from previous research trips that librarians were usually well versed in local history and resources. What I didn’t expect was that Andy would take me on a personal tour of the former internment site, guiding me through areas not accessible to the average visitor. He took me to each marker and explained its significance. Andy grew up in Crystal City and his father had been employed at the camp in the maintenance department, giving him a unique perspective on the local history. He escorted me through Zavala Elementary school, along with Vice Principal Carmel Dias. As with most small towns, everyone seemed to be connected with one another, and Andy knew Carmel from his days as a teacher’s aide.

Behind the school, yet only accessible THROUGH the school by escort, was a display marking the educational system at the Crystal City Internment Camp, as well as two buildings original to the camp. Imagine my surprise as I looked more closely at the display which included a photo from the 1945 high school graduating class of Japanese American students. Looking up at me from that display was my American citizen father in law, proudly wearing his cap and gown, standing in the back row of his class photo. The picture was taken shortly before he and his family were “repatriated” to Japan at the end of the war. It’s hard to say who was more touched, me, Andy, Carmel, or my husband who sat there staring at his father. Ironically, Tee called our cell phone a few minutes later, not realizing we were in Crystal City. Maybe it was he who was most touched hearing that his photo was right there memorializing this bittersweet time in American history.

Andy continued the tour which included the former swimming pool and slabs of concrete foundations which were near what had once been the Okazaki “home”. Andy interspersed his knowledge of the internment camp with the history of Crystal City. When we finished our tour and returned to the library, Andy allowed us some research time with documents and books pertaining to camp. Despite all the research I have done over the past six months, much of what he shared was new to me. Additionally, his staff was helpful, cheerful and professional. Though brief, our visit to Crystal City was rewarding in many ways, due primarily to the assistance of Andy Rodriguez and the other members of the community. Thank you.

Primary monument honoring those Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned at Crystal City, but does not recognize the Germans, Italians, Japanese Peruvians and others who also were detained here.

Marker located in front of what had been the German School

Tee Okazaki, student body president, back row, sixth from left.

Ted on a concrete foundation near the location of the Okazaki family duplex.

In front of city hall and the public library in Crystal City.

Crystal City, Texas

Crystal City is an interesting name for an agricultural community. The area is often called the spinach capital of the world and the unofficial mascot is Popeye. However, there is more to this locale than just spinach. Mexican Americans have lived here for generations and there is a rich and robust political activism within the community.

In addition to agriculture, politics and a nearby jail, Crystal City is perhaps most infamously noted for its World War II Internment Camp established by the Department of Defense. Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the 10 internment camps run by the War Relocation Authority, where the vast majority of individuals were confined.  The Department of Justice Camps were unique in that internees included Germans, Italians, Japanese Peruvians and others. And among these, Crystal City was particularly unique because it was a family camp. It also was a camp with the most polished image and therefore presented to the world as a model for how well internees were being treated by the U.S. goverment. Obviously, not every camp was like Crystal City and there was an element of propoganda in the way it was promoted.

Japanese and Japanese Americans had been swept up in a frenzy of anti-Asian sentiment which began well before Pearl Harbor. Unlike Caucasian immigrants, Japanese immigrants had been prohibited by law from becoming citizens or owning land. Once that fateful attack in Hawaii took place on 7 December 1941, those of Japanese descent residing on the west coast were removed from their homes, regardless of citizenship. Women and children were often separated from their husbands for many months, sometimes not knowing where the other was. In the case of Issei, or first generation immigrants who were the minority of those detained, there also was a language barrier.

Uprooted from schools, jobs and communities, taken first to assembly centers and then relocation centers before arriving in Texas, Crystal City was both a blessing and a curse. Families were finally reunited and housed in cottages. The Okazaki family had a three room duplex with a shared bathroom. Internees attended school, held jobs, joined athletic teams, grew gardens, and swam in the pool. Those who were older children at the time have fond memories. Tee remembers riding his bike and playing baseball. He was even student body president at the high school. Additionally, the internment camp provided many jobs for those who lived in the town of Crystal City.

Not all memories were or are positive. Adult internees were bitter and depressed. Those who were young remember the profound sadness of their mothers, aunties and obachans. There also were ill feelings among individuals who lived outside of the camp. Some of the residents resented the U.S. government taking over their town and building homes for the “prisoners”, homes that often were newer and bigger than their own.

After the war, some families were repatriated to their ancestral homes while others remained in the United States. Either way, post war life was difficult for all, including the residents of Crystal City.

Lordsburg, New Mexico

Gila River was desolate. Comparatively, Lordsburg, New Mexico brings new meaning to the term “remote”. Situated along highway 10, between Tuscon and El Paso, Lordsburg is all desert and not much else. There are the requisite gas stations, fast food chains and at least one family style restaurant. The population is just a  bit over 2,000.

We followed the internet instructions and GPS coordinates to the memorial marking the Lorsdburg Internment Camp. This facility was operated by the Army . The inmates, enemy aliens, were considered prisoners of war. We found the marker just off the highway on POW Road. I wonder what Ichimaru thought as he and Jimmy Osuga found themselves in such dire circumstances.


Gila River, Arizona

Gila River Landscape









Gila River Memorial









It was 100 degrees when we got out of the car on this late September afternoon. Dry. Barren. Windswept. Flat. Beautiful mountains in the distance. We parked next to what had formerly been the Native American Gift Shop. Surrounded by chain linked fence and litter, it had been closed for about four years. Supposedly there was a tribute to the internment camps inside, but there was no way to know for sure.

Just outside of the fence stood three plaques honoring the internees and also those who lost their lives in WWII. As we approached the markers, dozens of dark-colored birds flew from the overhanging tree. We carefully cleaned the droppings from the display in order to read the inscriptions.

Visiting the actual internment camp would have been more challenging. The site sits on Native American land and a permit is required. Unfortunately, this $200 permit takes up to six weeks to secure. If we ever have the chance to return, we will  be sure to obtain the paperwork in advance.

Imagine what Hamako must have felt arriving here. She left Japan as a 17 year old newlywed who barely knew her husband. After living the American dream for a few years and starting a family, her husband was arrested by the FBI. Communication with him was infrequent and heavily censored. She and her children were forcibly taken to first live in the horse stables at the Tulare fairgrounds before being sent by train to Gila River. Tee and other Nissei recall listening to their mothers, grandmothers and aunties weeping, but not really understanding why.

Now I weep for them.

Gaijin Girl at the Japanese American National Museum, Day 2

Sid Okazaki and Richard Watanabe

We arrived at 11 on Sunday, just as the museum opened. Sid greeted us and introduced us to several docents; Richard Watanabe was kind enough to be our guide. Enthusiastic and a natural story-teller, Richard walked us through the main body of the museum. We began our tour in an actual barrack from Heart Mountain. Richard explained that all WRA camps were similar in composition, modeled after army encampments in every way imaginable, except that the actual residents were civilians. Families and singles, young and old were housed in wooden buildings that provided little protection from the weather. Communal latrines and showers offered little privacy. Meals were served in mess halls, virtually eliminating the sense of a family dinner. The majority of individuals held in these camps were American citizens. The Department of Justice Camps had better living conditions as they were considered prisoner of war camps and therefore governed by Geneva Convention requirements.

The exhibits within the museum were arranged in chronological order and Richard moved through time in his description of the Japanese American experience before, during and after World War II. As his oration became more compelling, our group grew. What began as a tour for two soon became three, then four, then 8, until, I don’t know. 15 or 20? Emotions stirred within the group as he described the injustices placed upon the Japanese Americans. His knowledge was extensive. I was appreciative that he took the time to describe the experiences of the Germans and Italians who were interned in the DOJ Camps. He told of those of Japanese descent from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. He explained that some native Alaskans were inadvertently interned and he described the unique ordeals of the Japanese Canadians.

Richard continued to educate the group about resettlement. He explained that each internee was given $25, the same amount given to newly released federal inmates. Imagine starting over in a country brimming with animosity toward the Japanese, with little money and no home or job. Some moved east to where jobs were available. Some Issei (Japanese born immigrants) chose to be repatriated, bringing their American citizen children with them back to Japan, as was the case with the Okazaki family. Others stuck it out and returned to their former communities.

Finally Richard explained reparations and redress to the group. Ronald Reagan signed the American Civil Liberties Act in 1988, after which internees who were alive on that date received a financial compensation as well as an apology for the injustices served.

It was a full and productive day, educational and moving. Richard Watanabe is a natural educator and I am so glad to have been part of his group today. My suggestion to anyone visiting JANM: have a docent give you a tour. Following this experience, we were able to spend a few hours using the on site research center to gather some additional data for our genealogical project.

Tomorrow? Gila River.

JANM: Part 1

The Japanese American National Museum is located in the historical area of Los Angeles known as Little Tokyo. As recently as ten years ago, this neighborhood was run down, filthy, and somewhat depressing. Since then, it has been revitalized. There is an interesting mix of old and new. Young people of all ethnicities wander the shopping areas, participate in karaoke, eat in neighborhood gems. Some of them dress up like Harajuku girls. The old sidewalks have markers indicating what Japanese businesses occupied the former sites, from barbers and bakeries to confectionaries and hospitals.

JANM offers a variety of community events, classes and educational opportunities.  We have been museum members for years but since we don’t live in the area, we don’t often participate. This weekend, however, Ted and I spent most of Saturday in a workshop presented by Chester Hashizume entitled “Discovering Your Japanese American Roots”. The class was well-organized and thorough, with excellent handouts. At the end of the day, we had the opportunity to briefly meet Greg Kimura, the new JANM president and CEO.

Following the class, it was time to catch up with family. This meant not only eating delicious Japanese food and exchanging news about the extended family, but also was a chance to talk with Sid and Yukie about their personal camp experiences. The Nii’s were Northern California landowners and interned at Tule Lake. Sid showed us documents from the Crystal City and Lorsdburg Department of Justice Camps which I had never seen. There was a letter from Ichimaru in which he practiced his English writing skills in anticipation of reunification with his family. There was a list of inmates at both facilities, along with their house numbers and jobs held. There were copies of immigration records and more. Pouring through these pages with a fine tooth comb was going to be interesting. And we still had one more full day at the museum to gather data.

A Day Off in Santa Barbara

Taking a day off from the genealogical pilgrimage, we wandered through downtown Santa Barbara, grabbed coffee, shopped a little, ate lunch at an outdoor cafe, enjoyed the sunshine on a street side bench. All that was interrupted by an unexpected request from a Japanese journalist. Would I mind answering a few questions about the upcoming presidential election? Would I consider sharing my political perspective? How did I feel about Obama, Romney, Bush, Reagan? There were several individuals on his team including the sound man, the videographer, the personal assistant. Normally I keep politics to myself, but this was really interesting. The show would be broadcast the day before the election. Besides, how could I refuse NHK?

Day 2

Santa Maria Valley Historical Society

Santa Maria California is a beautiful coastal community. Agriculture is the predominate industry, and strawberries are a primary crop. The Osuga’s arrived in Santa Maria in the late 1920’s, with the Okazaki’s following in the early 1930’s. Maru, Sid and Tee Okazaki attended Fairlawn elementary school and Santa Maria Union High School before being forced to leave their community during WWII. Jimmy Osuga was a produce distributor and worked all over southern California, from the Santa Maria Valley to the Imperial Valley. Ichimaru Okazaki was his foreman. The two families lived just a few doors apart from each other on Church St. and attended the Japanese Union Church on Mary Dr., a methodist house of worship. Although the houses no longer exist, the two schools and the church are still vibrant community fixtures.

Our next stop was the local historical society. These organizations can be hit or miss. The docents might be uninformed or unwilling to help. My expectations were low, but I also knew that there was a rich Japanese American history in the town.  What I found was thrilling and beyond imagination.  The city directories, while not comprehensive, provided much needed addresses of the Okazaki, Osuga and Hiratzka families. Then Ted and I poured through the high school year books.  Maru, Sid and Tee lost their yearbooks along with the rest of their family possessions during the war years. We were able to photocopy many pages from those annals and can’t wait to show them to the family. The icing on the cake? The vertical files. Most libraries and historical societies have such holdings, which are essentially folders filled with loose articles, newspaper clippings and other emphemera. As we frantically photocopied all that we could, we were stunned to find letters from both Sid and Tee, written from the assembly center in Tulare shortly after they were forced from their home. On Saturday we will be at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I can’t wait to share these findings with the docents there.

We  spent just a few short hours in Santa Maria, but thanks to the kindness of the volunteers at the historical society, we had an amazing discovery. I am so glad to have met these women, including Jo Ann McBride the head docent, Mary Lou Rabska, Sharon Eames and the newly appointed diretor of the society, Cindy Ransick. I hope they realize how helpful they were. Thank you, ladies!

Gaijin Girl Hits the Road

Day 1

Road Trip! It probably would make more sense to write about the chronological path the Okazaki family experienced. In terms of my road trip, it makes more sense to travel from point A to point B and piece together the puzzle at a later time.

First stop, Tulare. It took me about four hours to reach the hot and dusty Tulare County Fairgrounds.

Seventy years earlier, in the spring of 1942, Hamako Okazaki, her three children and her sister in law, Hatsue Osuga, boarded a Greyhound bus near their Santa Maria California home with the other community members of Japanese ancestry.  Hamako’s husband, Ichimaru, and his brother in law, Jimmy Osuga, had already been arrested in El Centro, their warrant issued by the FBI  on December 7, two and a half months before executive order 9066 was issued. Hamako and Hatsue hastily sold most of their possession, though some items were held in storage. The women and children packed what they could carry; hours later they arrived in Tulare. The US government had hastily built quarters for the families where they resided for several months before being transferred to actual internment camps.

None of the buildings from the war years exists today. A massive fire in 1952 detroyed the structures except for the grandstand.

So Many Ancestors, So Little Time

Every time I get excited about a new project, an old one gets in the way. Take for example my crazy ancestor Emerson Corville, aka Richard Harvey Emerson. I have been researching him for about 15 years. I’ve got the facts (or thought I had), I’ve published that illustrious first article, and now I just want to tidy things up and get the full narrative ready for the family, complete with maps, charts, photos, wills, index plus everything else that should go in the mix, and be done with him! But I also am getting ready to go on a Japanese American road trip, a pilgrimage of sorts. And, and, and. I’m usually great at multi-tasking but it’s a bit overwhelming right now. What to finish, who to research, when to stop? I suppose that these questions still put me in a beginner category, despite my years of hard work. I have got to “finish” Emerson Corville. Fortunately the writing class at CGS is giving me deadlines. Unfortunately I keep finding holes in the research. One set of children’s baptismal records don’t quite add up. Another set of death records make me question which Edward Emerson was which. Will it ever end? Can I ever completely move on to the next project? I want to put Emerson Corville behind me and move on to bigger and better stories. Is that even possible?