Like other Americans, Saburo Masada vividly remembers Dec. 7, 1941.
He and his family were working on a newly purchased farm in California. While taking a break, they turned on the radio to listen to a program. That program was interrupted by a news flash: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I still remember saying, ‘What a stupid thing Japan is doing. Who do they think they are bombing our country?’” Masada said.
But within a short time, rumors circulated that Japanese Americans had something to do with the bombing — that they were loyal to Japan.
Soon, Masada would never forget another date: March 16, 1942. That day, a U.S. Army truck drove into the front yard of the Masadas’ farm. All nine family members were loaded into it and taken to the Fresno fairgrounds. Once a fun place, the fairgrounds now was surrounded with barbed wire fences and guard towers with soldiers manning guns pointed at Saburo and other Japanese Americans.
It was only the beginning.
During World War II, some 120,000 Japanese Americans and loyal permanent residents of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast and taken to camps where they were imprisoned for up to four years.
On Monday, Masada and his wife, Marion, shared their experiences in the camps with students at Wahoo High School. Students from other schools throughout the state watched via a live video feed.
The Masadas, born in California, served 43 years in the Presbyterian pastorate before retiring 17 years ago. They have spoken to clubs, churches and at schools.
They were eager to speak to students in Wahoo.
“I want them to be aware of an important part of American history which has been left out of the history books,” Saburo told the Tribune. “Most people don’t know how it could have happened or what did happen.”
Anti-Japanese sentiment actually emerged decades before the war. Saburo cited a May 1905 gathering of organizations in San Francisco to form the Asian Exclusion League to promote the anti-Japanese movement. In 1924, Congress passed the Asian Exclusion Act which prevented any further immigration from Japan to America.
Saburo attributes the forced incarceration to various factors, which included economic competition because Japanese Americans dominated the vegetable and fruit market in California. He also said there were bigots who only wanted Caucasian people in the United States.
These were but a few voices, but Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor provided them an opportune time to exploit fear.
“The government said it was for national security reasons. We were a danger to the national security because we were Japanese — the face of our enemy, but it was all based on lies, rumors and propaganda and the newspapers just didn’t print what the intelligence agencies were saying — that there was no truth to the rumors.”
Saburo said the public was duped and politicians — wanting to be elected or re-elected — backed the mass incarceration.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration, on Feb. 19, 1942.
“The government tried to say in the propaganda that it was to protect us, but the towers and the guns were pointed at us,” he said. “And you don’t protect innocent people by imprisoning them.”
Raised to obey authority, Saburo said people didn’t try to escape.
He cited an instance when a hearing impaired man was shot to death. The man, who had befriended a stray dog, was trying to retrieve the animal which had gotten past the fence.
A boy trying to get a ball that had rolled away and went to the fence was shot to death as well.
While he said the camps in which Japanese Americans were held were nothing like the German ones — those were death camps — he still calls them concentration camps.
To Masada and other children, the incarceration was traumatic. Two-thirds of the prisoners were children under age 15.
Marion was just 9 when she and her family were uprooted from their home and business. Her parents were successful truck farmers in Salinas. Marion had five siblings. They and other Japanese Americans were kept on a rodeo grounds for five months, before being transported in old, rickety trains to an Arizona camp. They got to take two duffel bags of belongings per person. They were given tags with numbers.
“My mother drummed it into us that we were to remember our number because ‘they will not know you by your name from now on. You are a number.’ It was a way of dehumanizing us,” she said.
She remembered the thick dust storms in Arizona. The family of eight lived in one room with no partitions. Beds were side by side. There was a community bathroom with showers for women and for men. There was one mess hall; her father was a cook and her mother a dietitian. Marion washed all the family’s clothes by hand and did the ironing. She had little time to play.
One day, a friend invited Marion and her sister to stay overnight in her barracks. In the night, that girl’s father molested Marion, who kept the incident to herself for many years.
“My whole experience in camp was a traumatic one I was made to feel that I started the war. I felt being Japanese was bad. … I felt a hurt I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know how to fight back, I would be so angry I would take it out on others,” she said.
After the war, the family discovered that their valuables, left with a landlord, had been looted.
“Even our car was an empty shell,” she said.
The family had difficult time finding housing. No one wanted to rent to them.
She did make friends with a girl in high school, who invited her home on weekends. Marion fought tears as she told how she was loved like a member of that family.
After their talks, the Masadas answered questions from the audience, which gave them a standing ovation.
Wahoo junior Zach Groppe thanked the couple for coming and said they amazed him.
“Most people I know would not be able to do that. It’s really enlightening to know that there are people who are brave enough to share their stories,” he said.
Zach said he plans to become a teacher.
“Teach our stories. Please tell our stories, OK?” Marion asked Zach. “Don’t let our stories die.”
Zach agreed that even thought he was going to become a math teacher, he would tell their stories.