Among the dwindling number of Japanese-Americans who lived through that frightening time, Friday was Remembrance Day.
The 19th of February marks the anniversary of the signing of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, under which 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the United States were forced into prison camps as potential saboteurs.
Mitsue Salador, 92, of West Islip, was an 18-year-old college freshman in the spring of 1942 when they came for her.
The daughter of an immigrant farmer from Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture, she was 100 miles from home when U.S. authorities had all people of Japanese ancestry rounded up and sent to detention centers in the months after Pearl Harbor.
Sent to a different facility than the California prison farm that housed her parents and two of her three siblings, she wondered what would become of her.
“There were guard towers set up and United States soldiers with guns up there, supposedly protecting us,” Salador recalled of the Portland Assembly Center, a converted cattle exhibition center where she and 3,000 other Japanese Americans were housed in Portland, Oregon.
“But we felt they could easily turn the guns on us,” said Salador, a reading teacher who retired from the West Islip district in 1984. “I remember the first day I got there I was crying the whole day . . . I did not eat that first night.”
Roosevelt’s executive order gave the secretary of war broad powers to ban people from loosely defined “military areas” for security reasons. But although the United States also was at war with Germany and Italy, only Japanese Americans were imprisoned — a decision some historians called racially motivated.
Forced to leave quickly, many Japanese-Americans lost stores, homes, farms, automobiles and belongings.
The fact that Salador’s older brother was a U.S. soldier — he joined the Army eight months before the war began and was wounded while serving in Europe with the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team — did not spare the family from imprisonment.
Though many of those who were arrested spent the duration of World War II in the prison camps, military authorities freed Salador and her family after several months, on the condition that they leave their home and live far from the West Coast. Her parents were sent to work on a beet farm in Montana. Salador was allowed to enroll at a college in Missouri.
Bob Machida, 71, a retired teacher from Glen Cove, was among Japanese-Americans who pressed for an official apology from the U.S. government more than three decades ago. His mother’s sister had been among the internees.
“I grew up hearing about it in bits and pieces, but for some reason, that generation was not very vocal about it,” said Machida, who in 1984 drafted resolutions passed by the New York legislature calling the wartime imprisonment of Japanese-Americans ‘an inappropriate act and wrongful injury.’ ”
“But my generation, couldn’t let it go,” he said. “We felt justice had to be served.”
In 1988, Congress passed legislation calling for an apology to surviving Japanese-Americans who had been prisoners in the camps, and for tax free grants of $20,000 to each living survivor — totaling some $1.3 billion in all.
Some opponents of the legislation defended Roosevelt’s order. Imprisoning Japanese citizens “was not a dishonorable act,” Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming) said during the debate.
“It was the option of a nation in the first days of war.” The official apology approved by Congress never fully erased the emotional hurt that the long-ago imprisonment imposed on Salador, said her daughter, Deborah Smith.
Smith, who is the principal of Connetquot Elementary School, said her mother never spoke of the internment as Smith and her brother were growing up.
“I think there was a sense of embarrassment that this had happened,” said Smith, of Islip Terrace. “Japanese are very proud, and I think they were humiliated that citizens born as Americans being treated like that. It took her a long time to reconcile with it and come to terms with it.”