Tetsuzo “Tets” Hirasaki, his sister Yaeao, and 1200 other Japanese-Americans from San Diego were “relocated” to Poston, Arizona, in early September, 1942. After a 20-hour train ride, with shades drawn and no idea where they were headed, they came to a military-style camp in the midst of a bone-dry wilderness: rows and rows of bay-type barracks, many still under construction. The nearest town, Parker, Arizona, was 12, 16, or 20 miles away. No one knew for sure.
They’d spent the previous six months in a cramped “assembly center” at Santa Anita Racetrack. Many slept in former stables with tar-papered floors. Someone named it “Santa Japanita.”
Poston was three separate camps four or five miles apart, and would incarcerate almost 18,000 Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) ordered from their homes, on short notice, four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
When she saw Poston for the first time, Louise Ogawa wrote: It’s “so far away from civilization, it makes me feel like a convict not allowed to see anyone. I’d much rather sleep in the Santa Anita horse stables.”
Many called Poston the end of the world. They also wondered why no Japanese Americans from Arizona — and only a few from Hawaii — had been sent to relocation camps.
As he did at Santa Anita, Tets wrote letters “home” to San Diego librarian Clara Breed.
September 7, 1942: “Dear Miss Breed. This is ole prodigal writing you amid the heat and dust of this h- hole called ‘The Colorado River War Relocation Project.’ The natives told us we were lucky to have come ‘on a cool day…only 104 degrees and not dusty at all. Wait ’til it really gets hot and dusty.’ How true those words — how true!
“After ‘signing away my life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness’ [War Relocation Authority enlistment documents], we were assigned quarters in a 12´ x 20´ room. Then we went to the mess hall for our first supper. Rice, wieners, pickled cabbage, bread, and water…. Dining room seats 300.
“Have been keeping busy helping everyone so I won’t have time to get heartaches thinking of SANTA ANITA and the friends left behind. Somehow it works most of the time.
“The evenings are wonderful, cool and refreshing. The sky so black that the stars fairly pop out…aside from that, the view is very drab, unless I look through my green sunglasses.”
Along with temperatures reaching the mid-120s, coarse sand and fine dust coated everything, even in the barracks; the knotty floorboards had wide spaces between them. Internees learned to leave shoes upside-down, so scorpions couldn’t climb inside.
Showers and latrines stood along walls with no partitions. Blankets or sections of cloth, hung from laundry lines, afforded the only privacy. The heat was so oppressive, the military had to construct a second roof over the first, leaving an open space in between, to keep the barracks from boiling.
September 7, continued: “On the eve of my birthday, I went out for a walk at night by myself. I sure felt blue. Things around here just got me down. Felt so small and bewildered. Saw a moth fluttering against a street lamp. That’s the way I felt. Like butting my head against a brick wall.
“My whole being rebels against some things — the WRA [War Relocation Authority] set up sloppy, no foresight, red tape, grafting…. That’s why Poston is a He- of a place to live in. We’re so d- far away from the public who are interested…. At an Assembly Center on the coast complaints can be seen by a visitor, but what fool would venture out to this forsaken land just to see if the Japs are being looked after?
“So ran my thoughts until I just ran out. Then I figure, well, I’m here so I gotta make the best of it! And SOOOO to the Future — may it be what it shall be???”
October 3, 1942: “Life is beginning to settle down to the monotonous regularity that is truly depressing. People have gotten so that they don’t leave their own block. Let alone leave their ‘home’ (apt.). Not much sociable visiting going on at all…. And who wants to walk in dust up to the ankles.
“We have to buy what we used to get free from S.A.A.C. (Japanita). Brooms, buckets, baby food, fresh fruit, mattresses. At the present time, soap is being delivered to the mess halls since we fought for it. After all, the dishes had to be washed.
“There’s quite a bit of graft going on, and I think we’re going to get rid of that now that we ‘agitators’ from S.A.A.C. are waking up the people of Poston.
“I hope to have more ‘inside dope’ soon.”
Tets worked in the mess hall, and as a barber. Joe Yamada, one of San Diego’s foremost landscape architects, had known Tets before relocation. They shared a barracks: Unit 14A, Block 322, at the western end of Camp III. Yamada, age 12 at the time, remembers Tets as a “genius with carpentry.” He “made furniture and it was perfection — no nails showing.” Tets and others scrounged wood from piles of scraps left over from the barracks.
Tets also taught himself the ukulele and, Yamada remembers, was one of the best dancers in camp: “All the women, even the married ones, wanted to glide around with him. The rest of us just did the ‘Poston Shuffle’ — you know, one stiff leg at a time.”
What Yamada remembers most: “He played an important role to us younger kids.” And Tets encouraged everyone, as did his mentor, Clara Breed, to develop a love for reading.
The year before, he’d had a tubercular lesion removed from his right arm. It continued to give him trouble.
November 16, 1942: “Guess who? Yup, it’s ole unreliable again. Gosh the wind’s been blowing all night and all morning. Kinda threatening to blow the roofs down. My arm is all right. Not near so strong as at Santa Anita…. Have been doing a little carpentry, as many of us don’t have no furniture other than cots.
Read Part One