SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For nearly 20 years, Reiko Nagumo has been a fixture at the California Museum, telling visiting students about the bravery of her childhood friend, Mary Frances White.
Nagumo, 83, lives in Sacramento but grew up in Los Angeles. Attending elementary school there, she said she faced racism and antipathy after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
But her pal, Mary Frances, refused to turn her back on Nagumo, despite the wartime rhetoric and anti-Japanese sentiment. She refused to abandon their friendship.
The students "love this story about this tall, blonde second-grader and her little Japanese-American friend," Nagumo said. "There are thousands of kids who have heard the story. Mary Frances has become this mythical person. They say, 'I want to be just like Mary Frances. What ever happened to her?' "
Nagumo, for decades, wasn't able to answer that question. She and White lost track of each other in the 1940s. "I was afraid I would die before ever getting the chance to thank her for being such a good friend," Nagumo said.
That fear, however, recently evaporated. A British documentary film crew working with TV journalist Ann Curry got wind of Nagumo's story from a Japanese-American historian and featured it on a new PBS series, "We'll Meet Again."
In July, the film crew took Nagumo to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park where she was reunited with Mary Frances White Peters. The two women had not seen each other nor spoken in 73 years.
"I saw this shadow standing under the archway, and because I'm pretty blind, I called out, 'Mary Frances!' " Nagumo said. "We had this big hug."
"Over the years we were separated, I often thought of Reiko," said Peters, who now lives in Cadiz, Ky. "She's amazing. She's got a mind like a steel trap and remembers a lot more than I do."
Still, Peters said she recalls the pressure she felt from her parents to end her friendship with Nagumo. "I remember we went back to school Dec. 8, the Monday after Pearl Harbor, and my parents told me 'We're at war with Japan. You can't play with Reiko any more.' "
But even at a young age, Peters had a mind of her own, she said. "Did you always do what your parents told you to do?" she asked rhetorically. "I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog. Why should we stop being friends if we hadn't done anything wrong? It sounded like a 'grown-up' problem to me."
Nagumo, her parents and her five older sisters and brothers were eventually sent with about 10,000 other Japanese Americans to the internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., for the remainder of the war. They were released in August 1945.
When Nagumo returned to her school in Los Angeles in September, "I was afraid to go back," she said. "But the teacher … made a very nice welcome-back speech, and Mary Frances was the first kid to come up to me and take my hand."
Soon after, Mary Frances and her family moved away. In adulthood, both Peters and Nagumo went on to help others.
Peters lived in Arizona where she volunteered for hospice care, created a bereavement group and worked with families of alcoholics. She moved to Kentucky in 2006, where she continued to help bring comfort to the ill.
Nagumo became a public health nurse, then joined the U.S. State Department and worked in Cairo and Cambodia before resettling in Sacramento.
At her home, Nagumo showed her second-grade class photo as well as a photo from her recent reunion with Peters. Looking at them, Nagumo recounted her story of "friendship in the face of racism. She was very courageous!"