Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 started out as a nice day.
The sunlight was streaming through the bedroom window; I didn’t want to get up and go to Sunday school. I suppose it was close to 10 a.m. when my father startled everyone by shouting with excitement to my mother. Father always tuned in Radio Hawaii every Sunday morning on his shortwave Philco radio. We all rushed to the living room to see what the commotion was all about.
He said Japanese war planes were attacking Pearl Harbor at that very moment. I did not understand or comprehend the significance of all of this.
We didn’t go to Sunday school that day, nor did we go to school after that Sunday. Even my father came home carrying his lunch pail the next morning, being told that he was no longer needed. We were now scared, worried about how we would survive with no food on the table. Father trekked out to see the local grocer, Mr. Morris. Having known us for many years, he kindly extended credit for us and all the other Japanese families.
Christmas and New Year’s were not the same as before. They came and went without fanfare — no real celebration like the year before when the menfolk, with headbands around the heads, would pound the hot steamed rice with large wooden mallets into a huge pasty dough to make the traditional mochi. We now lived in fear, wondering what to do or when the gang of town rowdies were going to come across the railroad tracks to harm us.
We were now considered the enemy.
The days were spent playing indoor games with my younger brother Bill and my older sisters, Mary and Kathy. By night we huddled in fear. Then, in late January of 1942, some men came to us to inform the family that we must pack belongings we could carry, that we would be leaving that night. Our destination, however, we did not know.
Awakened from our sleep, we were herded into state patrol cars and rushed out into the darkness.
I cried and cried myself to sleep off and on. We traveled for endless miles in the darkness of the night. The roads no longer were smooth and the bumpy ride and the talking by my parents woke me up. The blackness was now replaced by a glimmer of mountains! My father finally had a smile on his face. The monotonous high plains we had lived in were now replaced by tall pines and mountains. The trees seemed to reach to the skies. The mountains were snow-capped and beautiful.
We moved into a portion of an old, abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps barracks. The first night’s experience would never be forgotten, for not long after we went to bed we were awakened by being bitten all over our bodies. When Dad turned on the lights, hundreds of bed bugs were crawling all over the place!
I’m sure the adult folks were not happy with the detention and confinement, but for the children it was like an extended vacation. We romped through the empty barracks, chased each other in wild games, searched for Indian artifacts such as arrowheads and broken pieces of pottery, romped in the mountain streams, and played every conceivable game we could imagine. We became close with the Kimura family, for they too had an army of kids.
Once the war started, certain food items and soap were rationed. My dad volunteered to make soap for everyone to use and it was quite a project, for he mixed lye and animal fat and made a considerable mess. The final product was so strong that it not only cleaned the dirt off of your body but seemed to nearly “burn” and shed the skin off too!
The major parental concern was the education of us kids, and once we were quite settled in the issue was brought to the attention of the authorities. (After all, the Constitution guaranteed the right to an education for all American citizens.)
One day, we found ourselves being transported some 12 miles to the town of Capitan to go to school. The schoolhouse was a simply two-story structure that housed all the grades. The children looked pretty much like American Indians and they disliked us, taunting us and calling us “dirty Japs.” I don’t recall learning anything in those few days of school, and I retain only a vague recollection of the town itself except for the memory of a tall, wooden, carved Indian statue and a large piece of petrified wood in front of a general store.
My sister Amy’s efforts to teach us reading, writing, and arithmetic were perhaps in vain, for we could care less about learning. This was vacation land for me and I was going to make the most of it. We communed with nature daily. We harvested wild watercress and pine nuts in season and also trapped feral game for the dinner table.
When winter came this joy ended, for all the families were now told that we must move to the several larger federal detention centers located throughout the remote parts of the West. Our family decision was to join our brother Henry in Utah in the Topaz Relocation Center, where he was already confined. In the middle of December 1942, with our belongings packed, we bade tearful goodbyes to the Kimura family, perhaps never to see them again, and boarded the train from Carrizozo, N.M., to Delta, Utah.
What a horrible change! The winds of the desert seemed to blow constantly, blasting our faces with large grains of sand, bone-chilling cold nights, nothing but desert beyond the barracks. We experienced lines of people for chow time and were surrounded by so many Asian faces. Our detention camp featured high barbed-wire fences and armed sentries in lofty towers.
We were prisoners of war!
I hated every day that I spent in Topaz. I refused to learn and often jumped out of the schoolroom window when the teacher was not looking. Kids taunted us and also laughed at us because we talked with a southern accent. We were the only Japanese family in camp with a southern accent! Our family was not welcomed by others, for my sister Amy seemed often to be at odds with the relocation authorities or the pompous leadership in the “block” of barracks where we lived.
Brother Henry argued for the need to volunteer for the service to prove our loyalty to America at a time when morale was low and the imprisoned people were angered by their treatment as second-class citizens. Harsh words were spoken at the mess hall meetings. We were now hated by our “own kind.” I even had to fend for myself, being beaten up many times.
My sister Amy’s threat to walk out of camp, perhaps to martyr herself, forced the authorities to hasten our family’s exodus from Topaz. Henry and Amy were released to live and work in Cleveland, Ohio, the summer of 1943 and they were soon followed by my father. Then, in December 1943, the rest of us in the family left Topaz.
The trains were filled with men and women in uniform and they were frightening to me since many were drunk and rowdy, asking us if we were “chinks” or Indians. It was so cold when we arrived in Cleveland’s Union Terminal that we wrapped ourselves in the Indian blankets we brought with us. I could hear the people remark that a bank of Indians had arrived.
Life in Cleveland seemed no easier, for we were constantly harassed and badgered about our race. We passed as Chinese. I was nearly 10 years old now, and I was zipped through first grade and then into second grade, at a loss as to what was expected of me and not having any understanding of what was going on. In spite of my lost educational time, I seemed to manage to make up for it, and eventually graduated from high school at the age of 19.
I can now look back and appreciate the comfort, love, and security provided by my older brothers and sisters, as well as influence of my parents to succeed in education, to have faith in our country, and to be good citizens at all times. As Henry once stated, “The children in our family tried very hard against overwhelming obstacles to serve our country loyally and faithfully and to become useful, contributing citizens worthy of being considered Americans.”
Roy Usaku Ebihara is a retired doctor of optometry who resides in Oberlin. He was among the 100,000 Japanese Americans wrongly imprisoned by the government during World War II. In 1988, 47 years after Ebihara was removed from his home, the Civil Liberties Act was passed as a formal apology to those sent to camps.