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75 years later, Americans of Japanese ancestry recall internment

Internment survivors Mitsue Salador and Madeleine Sugimoto, along with Robert Machida, whose uncle and aunt were among thousands of Japanese-Americans interned by the U.S. federal government during World War II, share their experiences and discuss how the 1940's atmosphere relates to today's rhetoric. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

Tom Hasegawa was 4 years old on Feb. 19, 1942, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the order allowed the government to exclude “any or all persons” from regions of the country it designated as “military areas.”

Soon, Hasegawa and his family were moved from their Los Angeles home to the Santa Anita racetrack which had been converted into an internment camp. The rules banned reading any material printed in Japanese. Eventually, the family was sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming.

“I remember the barbed wire and seeing the guards on these big towers with their rifles,” Hasegawa, 78, a retired Commack high school biology teacher, said. “Wyoming was a stark place, especially for a family from Southern California that didn’t have warm clothes for the winter. As a little kid, you really didn’t know what it was about. But my father was very angry.”

Today, 75 years later, Japanese-Americans who were rounded up pause to reflect on Feb. 19, during what has become known as the Day of Remembrance. More than 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry — including actor George Takei, of “Star Trek” fame — were sent to detention camps.

Many of these families lost everything they had, including homes, businesses, farms and automobiles.

One of those 120,000 was Hasegawa, who was born in 1938 to Japanese immigrant parents living near Los Angeles City Hall. Another is Mitsue Salador, 93, a retired West Islip schoolteacher, whose father emigrated from Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture before the war.

Hasegawa speaks of lessons learned then that now he fears may be applicable in today’s political climate.

“We’re very concerned about the same kind of prejudice taking the rights of minority groups — the kinds of things that happened in the ’40s,” said Hasegawa, who nearly became the victim of a sudden attack himself on 9/11, when he fled to safety from the World Trade Center’s north tower. He had taken a job in the city after retiring from teaching.

The wartime internment of Japanese-Americans is now widely considered to have been a moral stain. In 1988, Congress passed legislation that offered an apology for Roosevelt’s executive order, and paid out $20,000 in reparations to each surviving victim of the internment camps.

Many Japanese, Hasegawa among them, were deeply embarrassed by their imprisonment. Hasegawa said that for decades he rarely spoke of his experience, and has only recently begun sharing his memories of the camps at educational forums. Even now, he has made no plans to participate in Remembrance Day activities.

The mass incarcerations of Japanese-Americans during World War II will be the subject of a Feb. 23 symposium, “Japanese American Experience and Incarceration During World War II: Could This Happen Again?” at the Japanese American Association of New York in Manhattan.

One of the scheduled speakers is Madeleine Sugimoto, 80, of Manhattan, whose family was given 48 hours to settle their affairs before they were ordered to report for eventual resettlement to the Jerome War Relocation Center, a camp in Arkansas.

Her immigrant grandparents, who had farmed in California’s San Joaquin Valley since the early 1900s, had been able to find a white neighbor who was willing to look after their farm. Others who could not find sympathetic caretakers typically lost everything.

“It’s important to remember this was an event in American history because it has come up again, with people speaking of the Muslim population as a group that cannot be trusted,” said Sugimoto, a former educator at the Cornell University school of nursing. “We were innocent people, but faced discrimination because of questions about our loyalty.”

Salador, whose family lived in Oregon when FDR signed the executive order, said her parents reacted stoically, arranging for a white neighbor to care for their Hood River orchard, and obediently following orders to report for their incarceration.

“There was a lot of fear,” Salador said. “My parents had been there for 20 years, running their orchard. And now they were considered the enemy.”

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