by Alton Chung

Story Summary:

The true story of Alton’s journey to the Minidoka Relocation Camp site at Hunt, Idaho and of his encounter there with an 89 year old former internee. She was 23 when she left this Japanese American incarceration camp and this was her first visit back to the site after 66 years. She tells Alton about a boy she knew, who went to fight in Europe over 60 years ago, and who never came back. 

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Reflections on Minidoka

Discussion Questions:

  1. You are being moved your home, perhaps for years for an unknown location with unknown weather.  You can take one suite case weighing no more than 50 lb. when packed and can take no electronics.  There will be no shops, Internet, or cell phone service where you are going.  What would put in your suite case?
  2. The U.S. Government has forced you and your family from your home and into a camp surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.  They have questioned your loyalty to the U.S., but now have asked you to join the U.S. Army to fight, and perhaps die, for the country.  Your parents speak a different language and you are the only one in your family who can speak their language and English.  What do you do?
  3. The U.S. has been attacked, many people have died, and most of the perpetrators are from one nation.  Everyone is afraid that there will be more attacks.  Some people want to gather all people from that country who live in the U.S. in one place to watch them.  Others disagree.  What do you feel needs to be done for you to feel safe?
  4. Have you ever asked the elders of your family what it was like for them growing up?  Have your parents or grandparents had experiences you would like to write about? What kind of stories would you write?

Resources:

  • Densho Website (www.densho.org) Started in 1996, Densho is a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting oral histories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II and, more broadly, to educate, preserve, collaborate and inspire action for equity.
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973). This is a memoir by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston of Japanese American experience during and after the World War II internment.
  • Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochitsuki (Lee & Low Book, 1993) Shorty and his family, along with thousands of Japanese Americans, are sent to an internment camp in the desert after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Shorty and his father decide to build a baseball diamond and form a league to boost the spirits of the internees. Shorty learns that he is playing not only to win, but also to gain dignity and self-respect.
  • Hawaii Nisei Story Webpage (www.nisei.hawaii.edu) Nisei is Japanese for the second generation of Japanese Americans, those born in the US.  This is an interactive website with videos, photos, and oral histories of Japanese Americans from Hawaii during WWII.  Stories include those from the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team the Military Intelligence Service, the 1399 Engineers, and the Varsity Victory Volunteers, and others.

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. This story is called “Reflections on Minidoka.” It’s from a larger collection of stories that I created called Kodomo No Tame Ni—For the Sake of the Children.

And now, “Reflections on Minidoka.” I have been telling stories about the Japanese-American experience of World War II for several years. I thought it was about the time that I actually went to an internment camp. I’d heard that people from Portland and Seattle went on this annual pilgrimage to the Minidoka relocation center in Hunt, Idaho.

I’d heard that people from Seattle actually rented a bus and went 11 hours from Seattle to Twin Falls, Idaho, which is the closest big city.I flew. I jumped on a plane in Portland, Oregon, flew to Boise, rented a car and drove down to Twin Falls. There, after getting settled in the hotel, they put uson these two big buses. While on the buses I met this woman—89-years-old—and she said that she was 23 when she left the camp, never been back since. I said, “Wow, that’s a long time!” “Oh, yeah, yeah, long time, long time.”

Well, we left Twin Falls on the freeway and got off on an exit, started going on these secondary roads, these irrigation fields, and then out in the middle of nowhere, nothing but sagebrush. We stopped at this low wall and the remains of this chimney, that’s all that remains of the reception area for the Minidoka internment camp.

It was June, but when we got off the bus, it was hot, and that heat just sapped all your strength and all your motivation. We walked the land. They showed us the fire house and all the remains of the fire house and some of the wooden tarpaper barracks that had been donated back to the site. At the end of the war they’d all been given away to the farmers to be used as chicken coops, as storage, and, sometimes, as housing, and some of them had
been returned to the site.

They showed us the concrete slabs that are all that remains of the warehouse, garage, and the root cellar. All the land around the camp had been cultivated by the internees, and all that produce was brought back to the camp and stored in the root cellar that the internees had created.

When we got back on the bus, I ran into my old new friend, I said “What you got there?” “Oh, when I was walking around, I picked up this rusty nail.” “What are you going to do with a nail?” “When I went back to Japan to visit my relative’s tomb, it was crumbling, and I picked up a piece of granite from that tomb, and it is in a very special place in my home. I am going to put this rusty nail next to it.”

She said she was from Okayama prefecture, which is near Hiroshima. The next day we went back to the site for the ceremony of reading the roll call. This is the list of the names of men who had volunteered to go and fight in the war and who didn’t come back from Minidoka. At the end of reading that roll call, that honor list, I ran into my old friend again, and I said, “How’s it going?”

She said, “Ah, it was hot. Even though it’s been over 60 years, I could not help but cry when I heard that boy’s name. See, my family owned a grocery store in Seattle. I knew that boy really liked me, but he was so shy, so shy. He would come in, and he wouldn’t say anything, just sit and watch.

Then the war came, and we got sent to Minidoka. They created the 442nd, the all-Japanese-American combat unit, and he volunteered to join.

He went off to basic training. Then one day this soldier came into the cabin, a handsome young man. I was sitting in the mess hall, this boy walked right up to me, took off his hat and put it on top my head! I was so embarrassed! I looked up—it was the boy.

Oh, we talked, we got caught up, it was wonderful! And then he had to go. He went with the 442 to Europe to fight and he did not come back, and today, when I heard his name, I couldn’t help but cry.” Later at that ceremony they handed out these origami dragon flies, Tonbo. They said it was a symbol of courage, strength and happiness. They asked us to say a prayer for a loved one and to write their name on this origami dragon fly and to pin it on this model of a guard tower, it was made of Styrofoam, white Styrofoam.

Like everyone else, I took my origami dragonfly and I wrote the name of my loved one on it, said a prayer, and I pinned it to this Styrofoam guard tower. It was beautiful, this white guard tower with all these multicolored origami dragon flies on it. We stood back and watched. And as we watched, a real dragonfly landed amongst all the other origami dragonflies. It was blue and green, this iridescent green. We all held our breath, so as not to disturb the magic of this moment, and then the dragon fly took off and disappeared into the afternoon sunset.

Later, on the bus, I met up with my old new friend again, and I said, “Hey, how’s this whole trip for you?” and she said, “Ahh, it was hot. I am 89 years old but I’ll be back next year.” I looked at this old woman and I said, “Yeah, yeah, and I’ll be back again, too, to remember those who did not come back.”

This happened a couple of years ago, that next year I was invited back by the people who organized the Minidoka pilgrimage to tell this story to the internees, their families and friends at the Minidoka site and in the audience was my old new friend, she’d just turned 90 years old, and both of us had kept our promise.