George Nakata has idyllic memories of his childhood in Portland’s close-knit Japantown.
The happy recollections screech to a halt, though, at age nine when, like some dark, dissonant, horror movie, life took a hideous turn. That’s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, signed Executive Order 9066.
“This particular executive order was life-shattering for 120,000 Japanese,” Nakata told a packed room Saturday at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institution. “I happened to be one of them.”
The order sanctioned the relocation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to remote internment camps scattered in 10 locations around the country.
“American concentration camps,” Nakata calls them.
He described how his parents had two weeks in May 1942 to sell three businesses, home, cars and family heirlooms and to close their bank accounts.
“My mother wept as she sold her silk kimono she had brought with her from (Japan),” Nakata said. “My father sold his pickup for $35. My sister cried getting rid of all her Japanese Festival dolls.”
The journey into oblivion happened in two stages. First, his family and 3,600 other Japanese Americans from Portland boarded yellow school buses and were taken to the North Portland Livestock yards. Nakata still remembers the black flies, the pungent odor of manure and the pigeons and swallows darting around the place. His family was ushered to a 14-by-19 enclosure furnished with four Army cots. Canvas bags filled with hay served as mattresses. Guards carried M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets. Barbed wire surrounded the barns.
In September, they were bused to Union Station and herded onto trains.
“MPs ordered us to pull the window shades down,” Nakata said. “We were not to see where we were going.”
They got off the train in Idaho and were transported to their new home about 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls. As they got closer to the Minidoka internment camp, their hearts sank.
“All we could see was a sea of sagebrush and hundreds and hundreds of Army barracks,” he said.
Nakata still recalls all the numbers. The family was assigned to block 34, barrack 6, unit A. They were family no. 15066. The tar paper-and-wood structure wasn’t insulated and didn’t have plumbing and heating. The temperature dipped to 22 degrees below zero that winter.
“My sister and I put on every piece of clothing we had and huddled under the blanket waiting for morning to arrive,” Nakata said.
Thinking back, he marveled at the resourcefulness of the Japanese interned at Minidoka. Former teachers started a school. Doctors and dentists opened clinics and a hospital. They dug a swimming pool and started a baseball league.
In school, Nakata remembers “we had to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag for liberty and justice for all as I looked out the window at the barbed wire and the guard station.”
Some of the families displayed banners with gold stars on their doors, indicating they had lost a son in World War II. The soldiers had fought in the 442nd Regiment, made up of Japanese Americans.
“There was no regiment decorated more than the 442nd,” Nakata said, “with over 9,486 purple hearts and 21 Medals of Honor.”
When the war ended, the Minidoka detainees each got $25 and a train ride back to where they came from. Japantown was no more, however. Nakata’s former entrepreneur father got a job making mashed potatoes at a restaurant. The other family members picked beans and berries.
George studied international trade, worked for the Port of Portland and then started his own consulting business.
Despite his family’s incarceration, Nakata, a military veteran, reveres the principles on which the United States is founded.
“If I was president, I would require all Americans to read the Constitution every Fourth of July,” he said. “The Constitution is a wonderful document.”
He urges Americans to consider their nation’s roots.
“America is a country of immigrants — many, many immigrants,” Nakata said. “Unless you are a direct descendant of an indigenous person, you are the descendant of an immigrant.”
He quoted from a verse engraved onto the Statue of Liberty.
“On the base collecting dust is a short poem written by a Jewish lady named Emma Lazarus,” he said. “‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ Isn’t that what America is all about?”
After the talk, many of the audience members toured Tamastslikt’s current exhibit on another of the internment camps in Tule Lake, California. “The Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake” runs through Jan. 6.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or call 541-966-0810.