By Ken and Terry Yagura
The year 2022 marked eight decades since more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, including our families, were forcibly removed from their homes, housed temporarily in fairgrounds and at horse racetracks, and then transported to hastily constructed prisons located in desolate areas that ranged from Southern California to Wyoming and Arkansas. Ken was 3.5 months old when his family reached the Poston camp in the desert near Parker, Arizona. Terry was born later near the Santa Anita racetrack where many of its 19,000 internees were housed in horse stalls. Then Terry’s family was shipped to the frigid Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming.
The barracks in all 10 camps were constructed of 2-by-4-inch wood studs covered only with tar paper, inadequate to keep out the hot Arizona heat and the sub-freezing cold of Wyoming’s winter. A wood burning stove at one end of the 120-foot-long barrack was the only source of heat for four families of up to six members each who were housed in the 20-by-30-foot spaces with only sheets or blankets hung from the ceilings for privacy.
Toilets were located in separate barracks, as were communal showers and mess halls. There were often hours-long lines for meals, to use the toilets, and to take showers.
We would spend three years in these and others of the 10 internment camps. Meanwhile, Ken’s Uncle Mits fought with the U.S. Army’s segregated Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team/100th Infantry Battalion in Italy, France, and Germany, earning him a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, a Purple Heart, and a Congressional Gold Medal. The 442nd/100th was the most decorated unit of its size in World War II.
Terry’s Uncle Mas was a member of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service (MIS) team in Burma. They interrogated captured Imperial Army soldiers, decoded intercepted messages, and translated captured documents. We have a photo of Terry’s 15-year-old Uncle Shig standing in front of one of Manzanar Camp’s machine gun towers, with the guns pointed into the camp, and a later photo of him as a U.S. Army Military Police member in occupied Japan. Terry’s dad joined the U.S. Army from Heart Mountain and was shipped to Utah for training while her family moved to Lone Pine, California, where the Manzanar camp was located. That camp is now a landmark preserved for visitors and reunions.
Internment in these camps dealt a punishing blow to our families. Most families lost all of their personal belongings, as well as businesses, vehicles, the opportunity to attend college, and, in many cases, their homes. Ken’s Aunt Eunice said that her parents were finally able to buy a new car after losing so much during the Great Depression, only to have it taken when they were interned.
In addition, the hierarchy of leadership and authority by our elders was destroyed when our English-speaking parents were chosen to represent internees in the camps instead of our Japanese-speaking grandparents. Children ceased to eat meals with their families, choosing instead to eat with their friends in the mess halls.
It is no wonder, then, that our family structures were damaged and some Japanese Americans, including one of Ken’s uncles, who left behind a widow with a baby and two small children, died by suicide after being released from the camps.
Despite these losses and traumas, our parents never complained about their lives or the injustice they experienced. Instead, they encouraged us to do well in school, work hard, get a college education, and never embarrass our families.
We were released at the end of the war, given $25 per adult and train tickets to return to what was left of our lives, near Fresno for Ken’s family and Los Angeles for Terry’s.
After a bad year of crops, Ken’s family moved to a poor area south of downtown Los Angeles and later to Boyle Heights in East LA, a neighborhood ruled by the White Fence gang that the Los Angeles Times called “the most violent gang in the 1950s.”
Terry’s family moved back to their home near the University of Southern California, not far from the birthplace of the violent Bloods and Crips gangs. We still recall the time when we were dating during the Watts riots, and an Army jeep with a mounted machine gun was stationed on the corner of Terry’s family’s block.
We married in 1966; Terry moved to the Bay Area after she completed her graduate school assignments, and Ken was working in the silicon microchip industry. We lived in Sunnyvale for more than a decade until Ken’s health condition deteriorated from working 100-hour weeks. We moved in 1980 to the small ski cabin that we had bought in Tahoe Vista. It was a big risk, with neither of us having a job, and our son, Ryan, only 8 years old. But we were elated to get away from Silicon Valley and the money-oriented go-go environment that existed at the time.
Our excitement of finally living at Tahoe was dampened one day when a note was left on our front door that read, “God does not want you in our neighborhood. You have to move.” Later, another neighbor showed us the CC&Rs for our development that stipulated that “people like us” were not allowed to buy a home in our neighborhood. However, we were not intimidated, and instead resolved that we would help our community through our volunteer work. We chose to focus on Truckee/North Tahoe school programs and children.
We will be forever grateful to the members of the North Tahoe, Truckee, and Incline communities, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, North Tahoe Public Utility District, North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, and Placer County for supporting our efforts to provide services to the children of this region. Without their involvement, none of these wonderful opportunities for kids would have happened.
We have always been amazed by the support of our communities and, although never calculated, we are certain that on a per capita basis the generosity of our residents, nonprofit organizations, and school system far exceeds that metric in wealthy Silicon Valley.
We have never regretted moving to this area and we hope that every resident feels or will soon feel the same as we do.
~ Ken and Terry Yagura have been Tahoe Vista residents for 42 years.
Remembering the Incarceration
As the editing came to a close of the Yaguras’ compelling first-person account, two regional events popped into our Moonshine email inboxes that also focus on this troubled chapter in U.S. history.
• Feb. 8 to 16: The 2023 Sierra Writers Conference celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sierra College Press and Standing Guard, its landmark book of stories about Japanese internment during World War II. Writers Maxine Hong Kingston, Kim Bateman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul Tran, Gary Noy, and others will expound and provide instruction on stories of social justice, environmental concerns, and the craft of writing. Online and in-person. General tickets are $65; critique workshop is $40.
Schedule of events: sierrawritersconference.wordpress.com/schedule/
• Feb. 16, from 6 to 8 p.m.: Nevada Humanities hosts “Memory and Resistance: Remembering Japanese American Incarceration” at the Downtown Reno Library Theatre, featuring Dr. Meredith Oda, Frank Abe, Miya Hannan, and Reno Taiko Tsurunokai. “Memory and Resistance will be a powerful conversation about a shameful and difficult time in American history,” said executive director Christina Barr. “The evening event will showcase the scholarly and creative work of our panelists, as they tell the stories of Japanese Americans who resisted incarceration and charted an important legacy of activism that inspires us today and into the future.” Register for the free event.