Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Train to Minidoka

The Train to Minidoka
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this article appeared in the Puyallup Herald on September 2, 2009)

With the Fair making its annual return, it would be easy to forget that there were four years—1942 through 1945—when there was no Fair. Most notably during that time, Japanese-Americans were evacuated to the Fairgrounds in May 1942 for internment. They called the place “Camp Harmony.”

But Camp Harmony was only a temporary evacuation center while federal workers finished construction of a long-term internment camp near Eden, Idaho. In September, when the cows and pigs stayed home from the prize stalls, when the wooden rollercoaster sat motionless and the Boy Scouts who once kept the Fair running went off to war, the aroma of Fisher scones and onion burgers was replaced by the diesel exhaust of the buses that came to remove the internees.

Internees could only bring what they could carry onto the buses. They were taken to the train depot in Tacoma, where the thousands of Japanese-Americans boarded a passenger train.

The train-ride is an especially haunting memory for many of the Japanese-Americans who lived through that time.

Sam Ueda, who had immigrated from Japan in 1899 and spent most of his career working for Colonial Gardens in Fife, suffered a stroke on the train. “There were no medical doctors,” said his son, Herb Ueda, 13 years old at the time. “All we could do was place boards across the seat for a bed.”

Sue Fujikedo, a 1939 Sumner High School graduate, recalled the long train ride. “They pulled all the shades, so we didn’t see anything until we got almost to Idaho. Then we could see sand on the banks. We were in a different place.”

Some internees had heard that the new location, as the name suggested, was like the Garden of Eden. But as Bob Mizukami of the Fife High School class of 1940 remembers it, “We got out there in the middle of the dessert, and the train stopped and they said, ‘Okay, get off.’ There was nothing but sand and sagebrush out there. It was about four miles to the campground from there. They picked us up on buses and hauled us into camp from there.”

The 964 internees from the Puyallup Valley and the 6,185 internees from Seattle called their new compound Camp Minidoka. “They just scraped all the sagebrush off and built a camp there,” said Mizukami. “Everytime the wind blew there was a dust storm, you could hardly see across the street.”

Mae Fujii of Milton recalls those dust storms amid the blockhouses and watchtowers. “The windows were not tight inside. We had a lot of dust inside the house.”

Internees lived with their families in cramped quarters, dining in large mess halls and organizing social activities such as Saturday dances. From the time the internees entered Minidoka, they were surrounded by electrified, barbed-wire fence. Later, realizing that these measures were unnecessary, camp authorities de-electrified the fence and removed guards from the watchtowers.

Herb Ueda was a teenager, and he and friends would sometimes slip under the barbed wire. “All that was out there was jackrabbits and rattlesnakes,” he said, though occasionally they hiked to Eden to buy alcohol. While Ueda acknowledges that many of his peers were straight-laced, good students in the camp schools, for him, Minidoka “was a good place to learn bad habits. I skipped more school than I attended.” Ueda joined a gang with other boys on his block. “We had competition, not violence.”

Ueda took a job as a messenger in the camp, which was a major advantage when it came to getting meals. “I had a bike. And I could eat in any mess hall I wanted because I could get around.”

Ueda’s father Sam was the first patient in the Minidoka hospital after arriving in camp. Sam Ueda spent the next three years not only behind barbed wire, but bedridden from the effects of the stroke he suffered on the train. He died three years after the war.

Internees were allowed to apply for work releases away from the camp if they could line up employment. Sue Fujikedo worked for an English couple in Twin Falls as a housekeeper, then found a job in a tomato cannery, and finally joined her sister in Salt Lake City, again working as a housekeeper.

Bob Mizukami spent the fall of 1942 harvesting sugar beets and potatoes near Minidoka. After the harvest, he volunteered for the Army and spent the war serving with the all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry regiment.

Min Uchida, a 1940 Fife High School graduate, got out of the camp to work on a farm in Montana, then moved to Chicago where he worked days for a soda pop maker and nights at a bowling alley. Then, he too volunteered for the Army. He spent the rest of the war repairing Army trucks in France and Germany.

All told, 211 Minidoka internees volunteered for military service.

Hans Zeiger is documenting the World War II generation in the Puyallup area. If you have memories to share, contact or 253-905-8160.