Hannah Semba remembers how ashamed she felt at 17 as her family huddled in the back of a U.S. Army flatbed truck that drove right through her small hometown of Mount Vernon, Wash.
“I was so humiliated,” said the Minneapolis woman, who turns 92 next month. “Some of the people in our town felt sorry for us, others said ‘Good riddance.’ ”
Ed Yoshikawa, a 92-year-old former Munsingwear executive who lives in Apple Valley, recalls how his parents received only one-tenth of the value for their Sacramento grocery store and stashed their washing machine in a church basement.
Retired Bloomington teacher Sally Sudo flashes back to age 6, “walking through the gantlet of armed guards with their bayonets pointed at us on the train” as it screeched away from her Seattle home.
And Jim Kirihara, a longtime accountant from St. Louis Park, looks back on the six months his family lived in the stables of a racetrack outside San Francisco while the government constructed the massive Topaz detention camp in the desert outside Delta, Utah, that incarcerated 11,000 Japanese Americans from Sept. 11, 1942, until Oct. 31, 1945.
“It was a prison, that’s all there is to it,” said Kirihara, 91. “Whether you were born in this country or not, it didn’t matter. It was surreal.”
Semba, Yoshikawa, Sudo and Kirihara were just four of roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans rounded up 75 years ago along the West Coast. Now in their 80s and 90s, they’ve all lived in Minnesota for decades.
On Feb. 19, they will commemorate the 75th anniversary of a grim day in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 that forced the removal. Nearly 70 percent were American citizens.
Given just weeks to sell off their possessions and pack what they could carry in suitcases, they were scattered to remote desert prisons in Utah, Idaho and California after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II.
Since she retired in 1995, Sudo has visited Minnesota middle and high school classrooms to share her detention experiences. “On the West Coast, what happened is more well known,” she said. “But in Minnesota, many kids can’t believe it. They say, ‘That couldn’t happen in America.’ ”
But it did. And on Feb. 19 the Minnesota History Center will hold a Day of Remembrance ceremony at 2 p.m. in St. Paul. The free event will include readings of internees’ diaries and letters plus firsthand memories from local survivors of the mass incarceration. Co-sponsored by the Twin Cities chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, the event will explore the question: “Could it happen again?”
In an interview, Semba said she “just fears for the Muslims today because they are just as innocent as we were.” She remembers a knock on her family’s door on Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after Pearl Harbor.
“The FBI was there and said we couldn’t go further than five miles and had to be in by 8 p.m.,” she said.
Never mind that her father had been in the United States since riding a freighter to Vancouver at age 17 and crossing the border, working first for a dairy farmer and later renting land to grow potatoes for the U.S. Army.
She couldn’t go to school because it was outside the 5-mile radius, “so we sat, waiting, until all of a sudden we were given two weeks and only allowed what we could carry.”
Before her family was sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California, she remembers the estate sales where families sold pianos for $5 as buyers waited until the last minute before the sellers’ forced removal.
“In the camp barracks, there was a bare light bulb, a potbellied stove for heat and latrines so far from our bunks you had to wake your sister to walk through the dark,” said Semba, the middle child of five siblings. “There was no privacy to undress until my mother was able to find a sheet to hang up as a wall.”
She said she was “so ashamed” she couldn’t talk about her confinement until just recently. “Our kids don’t want to hear about it,” she said. “It’s one of the subjects you don’t talk about.”
That reticence has slowly faded, thanks in part to a website called densho.org — whose mission is “to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished.”
Launched in 1996 by former Microsoft general manager Tom Ikeda, Densho means “to pass on to the next generation.” The website includes 16 Minnesota oral history video interviews and transcripts — including those of Sudo, Yoshikawa and his wife, Pearl.
Part of Densho’s mission is to strip the government-imposed euphemisms used in the era. In the group’s handbook of preferred terminology, “assembly centers” are detention facilities, “relocation centers” are concentration camps, “non-aliens” are American citizens and “evacuation” is forced removal.
“They said the camps were to protect us,” Semba said. “But they weren’t about protecting you, they were about denying you.”
She wound up moving to Minnesota after the war, studying nutrition at the University of Minnesota and raising four children, all of whom became doctors.
“When we left the camp,” Semba said, “we were so determined that we would rise above what happened, that we made sure our children were well educated.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.