John Matsushima was only 14 years old when he lost everything.
The Kendal at Oberlin resident was among the 100,000 Japanese-Americans wrongly imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II.
He spent two and a half years in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho and all he remembers is panic.
After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, everyone pointed fingers at Matsushima and his family, even though they had nothing to do with the war.
“Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. You’re Japanese, so you attacked Pearl Harbor,” they accused him, he said during a Feb. 15 talk at Kendal’s Heiser Auditorium. “That attitude permeated the entire country.”
Japanese-Americans were given only 24 hours notice before they were forcibly evacuated. Matsushima remembers how the flyers were posted on every telephone pole in his city, and soon the doorbell to his house rang.
His neighbors walked into his living room and began making bids on his family’s items. “We’ll take the piano for a dollar and the lounge chair for 50 cents,” Matsushima remembered hearing. “These items are worth much more than that,” his mother replied. “That’s OK,” the neighbors retorted. “We’ll just come take them tomorrow when you’re not here.”
Without charges, trial, and due process, Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes by army troops. They were forced to make their home in a cow pen at a fairgrounds or a horse stall at a racetrack.
After five months, Matsushima was transported to a permanent wartime residence — a barbed wire confine with sentry towers and machine guns.
“Whenever I walked past (the guard tower), I would walk very carefully and very deliberately. I made sure to never run,” he said. “The soldiers could look down and I’m pretty sure it looked like a bunch of fish in a barrel.”
Families squeezed into tar-papered barracks with their sparse collections of clothing and possessions. Each unit had its own entrance and a window in the front and back. Families relied on pot-bellied iron stoves to keep warm during the winter. Walls were short and did not meet the ceiling, Matsushima said, so if people wanted privacy, they had to string a clothes line across the room and hang a blanket. The rooms were unfurnished, so people gathered scrap wood to make benches and tables.
Life took on familiar routines. However, eating boiled dinners in common facilities and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural patterns and diminished any semblance of family life, Matsushima said.
“All the boys would sit together with their friends and all the girls with sit together with theirs,” he said. “Any controls that parents had over kids seemed to disappear.”
In 1943, recruiters came to his camp in hopes to assemble a segregated infantry unit.
Japanese-Americans had been classified as enemy aliens and were forbidden to serve their county after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Washington reversed its policy on military service in response to Japanese propaganda — the camps bolstered their depiction of the war as a racial conflict — and under pressure from civil liberties organizations, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the enlistment of Japanese-American men into the the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team.
Recruitment exceeded all expectations. Some 2,100 men in the camps stepped forward for the new unit along with 10,000 from Hawaii.
But not all Japanese-Americans were eager to serve a government that had forced so many of them and their families into internment camps. Matsushima felt the new unit would be a “suicide squad” meant only to save the lives of white men.
He was 16 at the time and attended the meetings out of curiosity. His first thought was, “Wow! That’s a lot of bologna. They’re going to put the guys up front like cannon fire,” he said.
As the war drew to a close, the relocation centers were slowly evacuated. While some Japanese-Americans returned to their home towns, others sought new surroundings.
Oberlin College was one of the first colleges to accept Japanese-Americans from internment camps.
The stories of close to 40 students are currently on exhibit for four weeks at the Baron Art Gallery, 65 East College St., Suite 5. They are part of the exhibit “Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.