Santa Anita Assembly Center
Tetsuzo “Tets” Hirasaki loved to read and write. He became a “bookworm,” he joked, because he had the “ironic fortune to be a neglected child.” His mother died when he was five. His father, Chiyomatsu, a barber in San Diego, worked long days. When Tets was eight, in the late ’20s, “on strict orders not to stray and get into trouble,” he went to the children’s section of the public library, upstairs at Eighth and E. He became fast friends with Clara Breed, the librarian, who showed him “the tools for survival in that great temple of knowledge.” Breed sparked Tets’s lifelong passion for reading whatever came his way: books, newspaper and magazine articles, the backs of cereal boxes.
“Someone said, ‘Knowledge is free,”’ he wrote, “‘but you have to bring your own container!’ I sure tried to fill mine. The strangest part is that, as the filling takes place, the more knowledge is required to fill the voids that keep appearing.”
Years later, he wrote to Breed that poverty and “man’s inhumanity to man” are “directly tied to the growing numbers of people who…lack the key that opens the doors — THE ABILITY TO READ.”
While a junior at San Diego High, Tets injured his shoulder. This gave him more time to pursue reading, but a tubercular lesion developed on his right arm. During his first year of college — late November, 1941 — it flared up and needed reconstructive surgery. He had to drop out of school.
On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a blow to everyone, wrote Breed, “but to the young Japanese Americans it was as if the world fell about [their] ears.”
Tets was 21. Within days, the FBI sent his father to federal prison at Bismarck, North Dakota. The charge: he was an “Issei” (a first-generation immigrant) and a “leader of the Japanese-American community” in San Diego: therefore, a prime suspect. Like over 1300 others instantly incarcerated, Chiyomatsu became an “alien.”
Somehow, Tets kept his sense of humor. At his doctor’s office on December 10, he joked, “Boy, did the orderlies cutting off the cast have fun with me, vowing to get even for Pearl Harbor!”
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066: the Army would establish a military zone, especially on the West Coast, “from which any or all persons may be excluded as deemed necessary” — meaning everyone of Japanese ancestry.
On the night of April 7, four months after Pearl Harbor, the Army boarded 1150 Nikkei into two 16-car trains at San Diego’s Union Depot. Three boxcars carried all their possessions.
Clara Breed drove Tets and his young sister, Yaeko, to the station. They brought only what they could carry, which meant Tets had to leave behind his personal library. After a four-hour wait, they rode with all blinds drawn to an “assembly area” at Santa Anita Racetrack.
For the next two-plus years, Tets wrote letters, giving a guided tour — what he called the “inside poop” — on the Japanese “relocation.”
The Santa Anita Assembly Center consisted of rows and rows of black tarpaper and wood, one-story barracks on the infield of the famous racetrack. One laundry area served 16,000 people. Toilets were few, in rows of four with no partitions, and flushed automatically every 15 minutes. A single sheet of toilet paper became known as a “Rose Bowl ticket.” Bartering sessions often began: “I’ll trade six Rose Bowl tickets for…”
Armed guards patrolled the grounds and searched the barracks. “No matter what efforts were taken to normalize life at Santa Anita,” writes Donald H. Estes, “it was a concentration camp…. The presumption of the government of the United States was that the residents were enemy sympathizers whose loyalty was questionable at best.”
An internee named it “Santa Japanita.”
April 8, 1942, letter to Clara Breed: “I have been informed that it is possible to receive small postal parcels…. It seems the boys here all are asking me to cut their hair, so…please send my electric clippers that are in an unpacked box. The razors are not needed just now. My blanket roll is needed as I found that my barber towels are rolled inside.
“I haven’t any place to put books yet.”
April 13, 1942: “Little did I think that I would see Santa Anita, where once trod the millions of pleasure-seeking fans of the sport of kings — horse racing. Why, I’m actually treading the ground where the mighty Seabiscuit won his great duels. The staterooms are not bad since the roof didn’t leak at all during the rains we had.”
The “staterooms” were 8x20-foot horse stalls where Nikkei from San Diego had to live. They disagreed which was worse: lack of privacy or the smell, a combination of horse manure and urine.
Tets roomed in “bachelor quarters” near the barbed wire. He was several years older than most of the young people. He had two jobs: messenger by day, barber at night.
“Yesterday I covered the whole section — pretty close to 80 barracks. What a walk!!”
April 16, 1942: “We are eating in mess halls that seat anywhere from 750 to 5000 (Mess Hall #2). We have electrical facilities but no gas. Every day is so much alike that I have trouble remembering the date.
“I can’t seem to find my wolf’s clothing so I am still alone as far as feminine companionship is concerned.”
April 22, 1942: Breed sent Tets a large box of books and barbering equipment. After thanking her, he said he wished she’d sent the items in installments: the box made “many of the other people feel bad seeing one fellow getting so much at one time.
“The postal setup is getting better now.... The employees from Arcadia [took] a beating. We did too. They did not know one Japanese name from another and we had to stand in line for hours before we could get our mail. Finally the postal authorities ‘got wise’ and placed the Japanese boys back on the job.
Read Part Two