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.
“I am glad to report that Dr. Tanaka [from San Diego] was finally placed on the staff. Now that I am barbering my arm seems to be getting better all the time. I am glad you heard from my father. I have not received news from him as yet.
“The food situation can be improved greatly (the tea and coffee are such in name only). I have spoken to the officials in charge and I am sure after talking with them that conditions will improve.”
May 4, 1942: Now that we have a number of San Diego men working in the kitchens, the food has improved a bit. I heard we are to receive meat soon, but I think it will mostly be stew meat, because we are not allowed knives, only spoons and forks as eating utensils.”
In late May, many left the camp for “seasonal leave,” to work the fields. Others sought new, “relocated” lives in the Midwest.
May 26, 1942: “Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and St. Louis are the ‘big towns’ that are attracting the most,” Tets wrote.
“What a difference time makes! The cry was ‘Go West’ (young man), now it’s ‘Go East’ (young Nisei).
“The outlook for a family to relocate outside is not very encouraging. Many families came into camp with only two to three suitcases per member. They had sold their furnishings for the home. Furnished houses are very rare or are too expensive. As a result, if the family goes out, they must start all over to furnish a house on an income that has…decreased during the past year.
“Another thing: many things that were sold are now not available or else priced much higher. This problem alone keeps many in camp. Couple that…with the uncertainty of the attitude of the people, jobs to support a family (majority of jobs now are menial), and then you have the bottleneck to relocation. So at present those who can afford the expense…are the ones relocating.
“I am sorry to report that many have begun to like this camp life — so easy-going with hardly any worries aside from what other way time can be more leisurely spent. I think that it harms the youths more than anyone else…. Live on the government is their creed — after all, ole Uncle Sammy will take care of them so why worry about the future? They are pretty disillusioned and cynical. However, there is hope, because now with all the young fellows going out many are becoming conscious of the outside.
“Nothing definite regarding relocation of either my sister or me. Too many things uncertain.”
July 28, 1942: “The hot weather is really sapping my energy so that I flop on my bed for a few hours after work to recuperate.”
August 3, 1942: “Monday morning and blue as usual. Feel a little bit stiff as a result of an afternoon of badminton yesterday….On Saturday I had one of the doctors here in camp check my lungs. He told me there was nothing to worry about. Later I am going to have him x-ray both my lungs and arm.
“Ten men came into Japanita from North Dakota. Four were former San Diegans. They told me dad is getting along all right and that he is barbering in camp. He had his trial but as yet does not know the verdict.”
On August 9, military police made an unannounced search for contraband. Along with scissors, knitting needles, and other potential “weapons,” they smuggled out money. A small group of Nikkei caught a uniformed thief in the act and beat him with chairs. Newspapers screamed “mass riot.” The Army shut down the camp for three days.
August 10, 1942: “Dear Miss Breed: You have by now read about the presence of military police here in camp. They were here Tuesday afternoon to Friday afternoon. The only people working were those in the mess division and certain sections of the maintenance and recreation department. Even the U.S. Mail was at a standstill.
“What a sad surprise when mail was resumed. I had a letter from dad saying that he had received notice of internment for the duration. There is a chance of reopening his case. In order to do so, he requires an affidavit of conduct.”
Breed petitioned William Fleet Palmer, United States Attorney, on behalf of Tets’s father. Along with a strong character reference, she added, “If Mr. Hirasaki could be sent to Santa Anita, the family could become a unit again before they are moved to a relocation center.”
Santa Anita had been a way station. For six months, the Nikkei speculated about their ultimate destination. Most rumors said it would be far inland: the “snow country” of Utah, Idaho, Colorado, or Wyoming — or even Arkansas. “Wherever we go,” Fusa Tsumagari wrote to Breed, “we all realize it will be ‘rough going,’ because other people have refused to live there before us.”
On August 20 the camp newspaper, The Pacemaker, announced: “The complete evacuation of the Santa Anita Assembly center will begin on Wednesday [August 26], when a contingent of approximately 600 persons will leave by train for the Colorado River at Parker, Arizona. An additional group of 600 evacuees will leave for the same destination on Thursday [August 27]. The two groups will be made up of families evacuated…from San Diego city.”
Parker, Arizona, wasn’t on many maps. Eighty miles from the nearest service station, it had only one telephone. Poston, the “relocation center,” was 16 miles south of Parker in what looked like endless wasteland: one of the nation’s hottest areas (said to be ten degrees hotter than the Libyan desert), and one of the windiest. Storms flared up in seconds and coated everything — skin, hair, teeth, sinuses, eyes — with a layer of fine dust almost impossible to remove.
August 26, 1942, written on a blue postcard: “Dear Clara: Leaving for Poston tonight.”
- Roger Daniels: “Their guilt was their ancestry.”
- Michael O. Tunnell: “Japanese Americans were as stunned by the attack on Pearl Harbor as the rest of the country… ‘They are attacking us!’ yelled a Nisei high-school student.”
- The San Diego Union, June 2, 1941: “The Escondido Humane Society has been called upon to handle stray animals [estimated in the thousands] from Encinitas to the Orange County border…We need help in mopping up after the Japs.”
- Breed, Clara, “Americans with the Wrong Ancestors,” Horn Book Magazine, July 1943.
Daniels, Roger, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, New York, 2004.
Estes, Donald H., and Estes, Matthew T., “Further and Further Away: The Relocation of San Diego’s Nikkei Community,” Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1993.
Hirasaki, Tetsuzo, letters, gift of Elizabeth Y. Yamada, Japanese American National Museum. (93.75.31G)(93.75.3EL)(93.75.31FK).
Oppenheim, Joanne, “Dear Miss Breed” True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference, Singapore, 2006.
Tunnell, Michael O., and Chilcoat, George W., Children of Topaz, New York, 1996.
Interviews: Joanne Oppenheim, Joe Yamada, Lynn Eller.
Read Part Two