What was it like to be a Japanese American living in a “relocation center” (aka concentration camp) during WWII? This is Richard’s story.
My father, Richard Shigeru Nishimura, was born in Los Angeles in 1922 and celebrated his 94th birthday this year. He shares his memories and feelings much more these days with friends and family, but the most moving and emotional stories he tells are about his detention at Manzanar. My dad is speaking his truth with even more depth and feeling now, compared to when he used to tell me about this part of our family’s history when I was young. Richard Nishimura has a lot of important things to tell everyone about our history and I had to write the story for him and you…
The United States and world history during this period is well known, taught in schools, documented and is accessible from all types of retrievable archives. Yet Executive Order 9066 and the details of the deportation of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants to concentration camps and their suffering are scarcely known. To support my point: In 2015, my dad and I attended the opening of the Ansel Adams Manzanar Photography exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. As we went through the exhibit the photos and artifacts displayed brought back painful memories of his experiences in the camp and a young Asian woman stood by us as my dad recounted the story about leaving his home and arriving at Manzanar. This young woman, in her mid-twenties by my estimate, said she grew up in southern California but never heard of EO 9066 or Manzanar. She was learning about it now for the first time at the exhibit.
Understanding Richard Nishimura’s truth and what it means for the thousands of Japanese Americans who experienced this forced unconstitutional incarceration is important now and the future. Richard Nishimura survived the physical, material and emotional impact of Executive Order 9066 so we can remember and teach all present and future generations about these survivors who were subjected to the social injustice, racial discrimination, humiliation, isolation and illegal deportment by the US government and military.
Richard is the eldest or first son in the Nishimura family of eight children and was born in Los Angeles making him a natural born citizen of the United States. In 1942, the Nishimura family included his parents Mokutaro (Mark) and Take (pronounced tah-kay) his grandfather Chotaro, his three brothers; George, Donald and Bryce, and three sisters; Laura, Flora, and Katherine. All went to Manzanar. The fifth Nishimura son, John, was born at the prison camp. Aunt and Uncle Kado and Cousins Ida and Louis also went to Manzanar.
Richard Nishimura went to Manzanar ahead of his family and thousands of others, as a volunteer. He was one of a small group of young Japanese Americans to be the first to arrive at Manzanar. Crazy right? In hindsight, Richard realizes it was crazy and regrets being a pawn and naïve contributor to a cover-up of the truth, but he was asked to go as a volunteer by the pastor of the Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Church of Los Angeles, Father Lavery. The Nishimura family’s religion was Catholic which they embraced through their close relationship with the Barrymore family (actor John Barrymore) who they worked for since Richard’s parents emigrated from Japan to Los Angeles in the early 1920s and the Nishimura family lived and worked on the massive Barrymore estate in Beverly Hills. Richard had no reason to doubt the pastor and his motives.
Fr. Lavery was passionate about his idea to make a saintly example of the intelligent, peaceful, civilized Japanese and prove the fear mongering public was wrong about Japanese Americans being an enemy of the state and threat to national security. Fr. Lavery’s heart may have been in the right place for his beloved congregation of Japanese Catholic Americans, but the government and media used his young parishioners to show fellow Japanese and the rest of America that they were safe, happy and fearless to go off to a prison camp as a show of patriotism and honor. The concentration (prison) camp was called a relocation center to make it sound “nicer.”
The volunteers were promised their act of cooperation and volunteerism would make the way easier for their families and thousands of other Japanese that would soon follow. It was just a PR stunt that didn’t make any aspect of the evacuation and relocation easier. It only assured the rest of the Nishimura family would not be separated into different camps, and being together in the same camp was important to Richard. Also, his mother and father were proud that their eldest son made an honorable sacrifice for the family.
Many “news” reports were published publicly all over America during the internment about the status of the Japanese evacuation and relocation to the (prison) camps. These reports falsely indicated how well the “enemy” was being treated by their benevolent government and military. There were many propaganda films and staged photos taken that appeared to show how appreciative and happy these obedient Japanese were for the safe haven they were sent to with all the comforts of “home.” This is a gross lie that should be clearly understood to assure this never happens again to any other group of innocent Americans and immigrants.
When Richard left the Barrymore estate in Beverly Hills and the Maryknoll church for Manzanar he left behind a new car his Uncle Kado gave him to drive to college (Los Angeles Business College) and to his new job as a clerk for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Richard was the first in his family to be enrolled in college, studying business and accounting. He was excited and proud and had dreams of not only getting his degree at LA Business College but keeping his job at the LADWP and working his way up the corporate ladder. Richard planned on continuing his studies to achieve an advanced degree which would give him the qualifications to become a high ranking manager or director in the LADWP and have an esteemed career “for life,” as he often tells me and others who listen to his stories. Richard Nishimura left his opportunity to fulfill his dream of a life of honor, education, personal and professional success and financial security when he boarded that bus to Manzanar.
Richard boarded the bus dressed in his best Brooks Brothers suit, hat, and new Bostonian dress shoes which were high school graduation gifts from his parents. He looked sharp, like a successful American businessman. The local newspapers were there reporting on the departure of these cooperative and loyal Japanese going off to a camp and staged a picture of Richard smiling and waving goodbye from the windows on the bus along with two other young Japanese American women. All of the young men and women on the bus presumed they were going to a comfortable detention location that had adequate living accommodations.
After departing downtown Los Angeles escorted by military police, the bus stopped along the road and paper was put up on the windows so the passengers could not see where they were going. A few hours later they finally arrived at their destination – Manzanar. When Richard stepped off the bus along with the others his impeccably polished dress shoes met the dusty, sandy ground of the desert and a strong harsh wind blew dust all over his suit, shoes, face and stung his nose and eyes. The first thoughts that went through his mind were, “Why didn’t anyone tell us we were going to the desert? We should have been warned so I could have worn jeans and boots instead of my best suit and shoes.” His attire was just the first of many frustrations and difficulties that lay ahead for him and the rest of the Nishimura family that would soon arrive.
As one of the first arrivals to Manzanar, Richard was required to help finish constructing the barracks, latrines and other facilities at the camp. Manzanar was set up just a few days before Richard and the other volunteers arrived and there were only a couple of buildings completed for them to live in while they worked to help clear brush and construct buildings for the thousands that would be coming soon. Richard began to worry about his family and how they, especially his mother, were going to cope with the harsh climate – dry winds relentlessly blowing dust everywhere, the heat of the day and the cold at night – and the dismal public living quarters. Each barracks was to accommodate several families in one open room. There was no privacy to be grouped like that which was an uncivilized way to live for anyone, especially Japanese. The showers and latrines were also open and afforded no privacy. This was the humiliating and inhumane treatment of people who were not guilty of any crimes other than being Japanese Americans.
In the early days at Manzanar, before most of the internees arrived, there weren’t many internees or military personnel in the camp trained in medicine. There may have been a couple of women who were nurses that arrived there first, but if someone got sick or injured in camp they had to improvise to help the sick and injured. Often there weren’t enough medical supplies or the right kind of supplies for the treatment. Richard remembers a guy who had a severe toothache, but there wasn’t a dentist at the camp yet. The man was in excruciating pain and he was sick, probably from the tooth being infected. One evening they had to help him, so in the mess hall, after the last meal was served, they pulled his tooth with a pair of pliers and stuffed strips of cotton from a bed sheet in the cavity where the tooth was pulled to stop the bleeding. There was no painkiller for him during and after his tooth was extracted and he screamed, cried and moaned during and after the procedure. Richard witnessed this horror being done to help the man. It was one of many disturbing conditions that Japanese Americans had to endure and witness while imprisoned. Eventually, a crude hospital was built at Manzanar which was mostly staffed voluntarily by the Japanese American medical personnel who came to the camp to be interred. There was a doctor from the nearby town of Lone Pine that came to Manzanar to help from time-to-time.
Life at Manzanar in the first few months took a toll on everyone sent there, mentally and physically. Richard tried to remain hopeful that this unjust detention would be over soon, but days, weeks and months dragged on into years. John Barrymore attempted to get the Nishimura family released under his care and responsibility, but congress and the military denied his request.
Richard spent many monotonous days hanging out with other men from his block. They would find a fairly sheltered place like a large tree to hang out and talk and just pass the time which dragged on. Occasionally Richard joined the guys who would sneak out of the camp in the early morning to go fishing in the streams near camp. This, at least, helped add some fish to their diet of army rations being served in the mess hall.
There were a few violent incidents that occurred with the guards and military police that patrolled Manzanar. If MPs came upon a group of guys hanging out together some of the hostile patrolmen would break up the groups and address the men and women as “prisoners.” Richard remembers one of his buddies, fed-up with the attitude of an MP, yelled back, “Don’t call us prisoners! We are Americans! We have names!” For one thing, there was nothing much to do for the young men and women who had already graduated High School and didn’t have families of their own yet. Most everyone volunteered to do various work around the camp to make the best of what little was there and make the environment “livable.” But there was just a lot of free time that men and women alike had to fill and socializing in groups was natural for them to help each other cope emotionally. There was no need for the guards and Military Police to be aggressive with the internees. Being harassed for just talking with friends was cruel and unjustified, the whole situation was unfair and harassment from guards added insult to injury.
In the beginning, meals in the mess halls were served on metal trays from the military and were terrible and caused everyone to have diarrhea. Richard remembers there were only beans being served for almost every meal, and then some spam and some canned fruit were delivered. The food provided was surplus army rations that got sent to Manzanar. Soon rice was delivered but it wasn’t until Japanese took over the cooking that the rice was prepared properly. Later a small chicken ranch and a hog ranch were built at Manzanar and the internees took care of the livestock, did the butchering and distributed the eggs. Some vegetables were grown in small plots around the various blocks of barracks. Richard remembers his mother cooking rice on the stove inside the barracks on cold winter mornings and would give her family hot bowls of rice with a raw egg on top. When mixed with the hot rice, the egg would cook. It was a filling breakfast and better than what they might get in the mess hall, but it was far from the variety, quantity and quality of food the family had when they were home.
Most of Richard’s brothers and sisters adjusted to the camp life and formed close friendships with others of their age in the Manzanar School and families that lived in their block. His brother Donald was eleven-years-old at the time and found life at Manzanar was less isolated than life in Beverly Hills on the Barrymore estate. At home, he only had friends in school because he wasn’t allowed to make friends and play with the affluent children in the neighborhood. At Manzanar, he had many friends who were all equal in status and enjoyed the freedom to play with boys and girls his own age.
Richard’s father, grandfather, and uncle set out to create gardens around the camp to bring beauty and serenity and to feel that they were keeping their craft of landscape artistry alive in such a harsh desert setting. Richard’s father and his uncle Ryozo Kado created more than gardens in Manzanar while they were interned, uncle Kado, who was a skillful stone mason as well as a landscape artist, built the famous cemetery monument and he also built the stone sentry post building at the entrance of Manzanar. You can still see both of these structures and the remains of the gardens that Richard’s father, grandfather, and uncle built and created if you visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center.
As the U.S. involvement in WWII grew and young men enlisted in the military to fight in the war, many farms across the country were left without enough laborers to plant, harvest and attend to crops and livestock. Soon interned Japanese Americans were recruited to go to these farms and were paid a minuscule salary for the back breaking work they did. Richard spent time in Idaho on a potato farm during harvest. He hoisted 50-pound sacks of potatoes lined up along the path between rows of potato plants onto a flatbed truck that slowly drove along the row. This is a very physically demanding job and it was even more challenging for Richard as he was not as tall as men who usually did this work. When they reached the end of the row which was about a mile long, he would have a short break for water and then he would have to start the next row hoisting more sacks onto the next truck. For Richard, who was a young man from the city, this was a punishment from hell that seemed to go on forever. The bunkhouse for the farm workers was even less comfortable than at Manzanar and the food was on par with the dismal accommodations.
After the assignment was done he and the other Japanese workers were transported back to camp and they would be assigned to another farm job within a few days or weeks. Richard was apprehensive about future farm assignments, but he had better luck at a dairy farm in Vermont where he tended to the cows and did many other duties around the farm. It was still a demanding job, but it was much more pleasant than the potato harvesting. The family that owned the farm was very kind to him and he ate meals with the family often. He stayed in Vermont for a few months working at another farm that produced maple syrup. There he tapped the maple trees and collected the buckets of sap for processing. Richard also got assigned to work for a logging company and went out with crews into the forest to prepare cut trees to be trucked to the lumber mill.
All of the labor Richard did, paid less than the normal rate so businesses and farmers who utilized these “prisoner” workers benefitted from the cheap labor. Richard and the others who went out to work did it to earn money so when they got released from the camp they would have a savings to start a life again. They received so little and no recognition but all who volunteered to work did a valuable service for America by providing labor for the agriculture industry, helping the US economy remain strong and keep a variety of goods available for free American citizens to purchase and enjoy at an affordable price during wartime.
After returning to Manzanar from working the farms Richard enlisted in the Army. Hundreds of Japanese-American men had already enlisted and many of them were in the highly honored and decorated 442nd army regiment. Richard Nishimura was tested when he enlisted in the army and due to his high scores he was assigned to the 441st army regiment in the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) and after boot camp, he went off to Fort Richie in Maryland to the Military Intelligence Training Center. By the time Richard completed boot camp training Japan and the United States had signed the peace treaty and the war was over. Richard, a corporal in the US Army CIC, was deployed to Yokkaichi, Japan to monitor suspicious individuals and groups that might disrupt the occupation, reform and reconstruction of Japan by the US allied forces led by General Douglas MacArthur.
While Richard served in the US Army, the family was released from Manzanar and settled in Seabrook, New Jersey where they were welcomed and offered jobs and housing. The racial climate was still extremely hostile toward Japanese in Los Angeles and since John Barrymore had passed away while they were in camp, they opted for the East Coast. When Richard completed his tour of duty with the Army, he joined the family in New Jersey.
Living in Seabrook was a temporary location for Richard, his parents and most of his brothers and sisters. After a few years in New Jersey, Richard and the family prepared to move back to Los Angeles. The prejudice had died down and there was an opportunity to re-establish a landscape business for his father. Before moving back, Richard met and was dating Chiyeko Kuju, who he met at Seabrook Farms where they both worked. He asked Chiyeko to marry him and move to Los Angeles to begin a life and family together. She said yes and I was born in Los Angeles a few years after.
My mother passed away in 1968 due to complications from breast cancer. My father found love again and married Felisa Doroteo a few years later. Richard Nishimura had a successful career as a traffic manager, directing shipments for a respected fashion import company in downtown Los Angeles for many years. After retirement, he continued to work part-time as a bookkeeper for my Uncle’s Asian produce distribution company for several more years. He and my step-mom Felisa Nishimura both healthy and retired live happily and have a home in East Los Angeles. They continue to be a vital part my life and the Japanese and Filipino American communities.
This article was originally published on Nishs Niche.
All photos and images courtesy of the author.