What I Don’t Know Fills Volumes

When I make an error in one of my books, one or more of my sharp-eyed readers generally writes to point it out. In this case, in Sins of the Fathers, I misstated Suzanne Nishikawa’s history when I said that her great grandparents were US citizens. A reader from the Bay Area, Milton Momita, pointed out that people of Japanese heritage were not allowed to become US citizens until 1952 after Congress overruled Harry Truman’s veto of the McCarran/Walter act. I wrote back to assure him that I’ll be working with my editors to correct that error in subsequent editions.

I grew up in southeastern Arizona. Very little about the Japanese War Relocation Centers entered my consciousness back when I lived in Bisbee. Once I arrived at the University of Arizona, the first Japanese American I ever met was a girl named Dawn Masanaga who lived in my co-op dorm, Pima Hall. Dawn was two years ahead of me in school, and we weren’t close. I knew that she came from Tempe where her family raised flowers on a farm along Baseline Road.

As I mentioned above, Pima Hall was a co-op dorm where we did all our own cooking and cleaning. Every girl had a duty assignment each day—cooking, cleaning, serving meals, or doing dishes after meals. Duty assignments were handed out by the house manager while the food manager was in charge of arranging menus and ordering food. By the way, we paid a dollar a day for three meals a day. During her senior year, Dawn was in charge of the food budget. One day when money for groceries was tight, she stood up at dinner and advised us all to “fill up on bread.”

At the time nothing at all was said about her family history. My Japanese War Relocation Center blind-spot remained firmly in place until I moved to Seattle in the early eighties. There was a lot more discussion of it here than back home in Arizona, and until I heard from Milton, I had never given much thought to Dawn’s family history. He was able to check his sources and told me that Dawn’s parents were removed from their home in California and sent to the camp at Poston, Arizona. That’s north of Quartsite, in the middle of the Mohave Desert where it’s desperately hot during the day and bitterly cold at night, and that’s where Dawn and her two brothers were born. No wonder she never talked about her family history, although I wish she had. For years Pima Hall girls giggled behind Dawn’s back at her exhortation for us to “fill up on bread,” but I realize now that hers was the voice of not only experience speaking, but also the voice of terrible hardship. We never knew about that and never cared to know, and for that we all owe her an apology.

This morning Milton wrote again to ask me if I’d consider writing something about the Poston and Gila River camps into one of my Ali books. I started to tell him about the origins of my Sister Anselm character, but then I realized that some of my blog readers might be interested as well, so here goes.

In the late nineties, Bill and I went on a four week Rick Steves tour of France. One of the stops was in Normandy where we visited the D-Day beaches. It was an emotional day. I grew up in Arizona. When I heard the words “Normandy Beaches” I envisioned something akin to San Diego. I had no understanding those towering cliffs stocked with German machine gun nests and sharp shooters trying to take out every Allied soldier who set foot on solid ground on the beaches far below. We saw a news-clip based movie in the basement of the museum where, the moment the lights went down, a man in the row behind us began to sob. I have no idea which side he was on for D-Day, but I know for a fact that he was there.

After the museum, we went to the cemetery. It was a somber, awe-inspiring visit, and it was a subdued bunch of tourists who re-boarded on the bus. As it pulled out, one of our fellow travelers, a woman from San Francisco, said, “Are we going to the German cemetery now?” When I heard her say that, my unspoken thought was, “Which bus do you think you’re on, lady?” That’s what I thought. Thank goodness I didn’t say it.

That night, at dinner, we shared a table with that same woman. Over dinner she told us her story. Her father was a German immigrant married to a US citizen. He was working as a printer for a German language newspaper in Milwaukee at the outbreak of World War II. He was taken into custody and was held in a local jail for an extended period of time where he developed TB. Once the Crystal City War Relocation Center was established in Texas, he was transferred there. By then he was terribly ill. Since medical care was in short supply at the camp, his wife asked if she could go there to help care for him. The Department of Justice replied that she was more than welcome to do so as long as she gave up US citizenship for both herself and her two daughters.

And that’s what happened. The family went to Texas. Sometime after their arrival in Crystal City, there was a POW exchange, and the family was loaded onto a Swedish ship to be “returned to Germany” although the wife and her daughters had never set foot outside the US until they boarded that ship. The father died during the transatlantic crossing and was buried at sea. His wife and daughters spent years as displaced persons in war-torn Europe before they were finally able to make their way back home to the States.

That’s where Sister Anselm came from. I used some of the real details I learned from my fellow Rick Steves passenger to create Sister Anselm’s background. My understanding is that nowadays on that same Normandy Beach stop visitors stop by BOTH cemeteries, and that’s as it should be.

And if Dawn Masanaga of “fill up on bread” fame happens to read this, I hope she’ll be in touch. After more than fifty years I still owe her an apology.

As for Milton? Thanks to you, too, not only for setting me straight on the book detail but also for writing to me again this morning. Without your suggestion in today’s e-mail, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about today, and my Friday morning blog readers would have been up a creek.

18 thoughts on “What I Don’t Know Fills Volumes

  1. You obviously do your research on each book. Our way of teaching History has so many gaps. I don’t remember being taught about the internment camps during the World wars. Personal family stories are the only reason that I know something about how my German great grandparents were treated during the First World War.
    German American internment during World War I

    German citizens were required to register with the federal government and carry their registration cards at all times . My mother was quietly angry that they were treated this way. When they moved from New York to Vermont they were required to check in with the local police. Thanks for continuing to educate us.

  2. Thank you for fleshing out history for me. I wonder how many people around me have stories like this but have never been comfortable to share them. I urge them to speak up. We all need to hear both sides of the story of the world wars that we were involved in……I confess that I was quite ignorant about the relocation camps until I came on a book about one in the state whose name I can’t remember but they were famous for growing sugar beets. Thank you again, keep up your continuing education of your faithful readers.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this information. People talk a lot about the internment camps as they should. But since I do genealogy and watch UK genealogy programs, I read and watched programs bout UK internment camps for Italians and Germans, none where military people. My Italian grandfather was a gelato maker. My husband’s grandfather was a musician, piano tuner and violin repair person. My grandfather died before WWII. My husband’s grandfather moved to a rural area of Pennsylvania and raised his children there rather than in Philadelphia but moved back years later. I learned a lot. I have a cousin in the UK and he told me about Who Do You Think You Are – UK but it is hard to find and often taken down as an illegal post.

  4. In a strange quirk of the relocation order, if a college student could prove their citizenship, their loyalty and their finances, they were allowed to continue their education – but not on the west coast.
    Washington University in St Louis Missouri accepted the transfer of some 30 students of Japanese ancestry. One of these was Gyo Obata. Obata became an outstanding architect and one of the founders of HOK, one of the largest architecture engineering firm in the country.

  5. I grew up in Pennsylvania and knew about some of the camps, but when I moved to California and took a history course, the internment camps were well covered. My eyes were opened. I worked with two ladies that were interned. One would talk to me about it, the other not so much. If you are thinking of doing research, I would suggest visiting the Manzanar Historic Site north of Lone Pine, CA. Their visitor center provides the best timeline/history of the internment camps I have ever seen.
    Love all of your books!!

  6. Growing up in Seattle and spending half my youth on Bainbridge Island, I learned a lot about the Japanese relocation. Many of the people I met as a child in the 60’s and 70’s were interred and willing to answer the questions of an inquisitive child. What surprised me the most was that I don’t recall anyone who was bitter or angry about the relocation itself or the mistrust of our government, but they were disappointed in the lack of trust. Most agreed that they understood, they just wish they were trusted.

  7. Growing up I was always told we were Scottish/Irish/Dutch. Not so, it wasn’t until my late thirties I found out we were Scottish/Irish/German. Families were that afraid.

    • This was an excellent book about the Japanese American experience. I’m a 3rd generation Japanese American whose parents were not put into a “camp”, only because they left all of their worldly goods behind under Executive Order 9066 and went to Colorado. Our grandfather was working in Bakersfield at the time, and was placed at Manzanar, while the rest of the family was in Los Angeles. My father was the oldest, and packed up his mother and siblings with only what they could carry for each person. That’s pretty much how those taken away to camps were taken …with only what they could carry! Years ago at a wedding shower for a friend whose mother lived in a retirement community, I met a lady who said that she & her physician husband had their Japanese neighbors put all of their real property into their names so they could have what they would have lost when they finally got out. My close friend was born in Poston, AZ in a camp. Her older siblings were taken out of school, and they lived under horrible conditions. A friend and I are going to Manzanar for a visit so I can see where our Grandfather was held.

  8. I had a lousy American history teacher in high school. I remember reading something about the camps but that’s all. I remember trying to switch teachers but couldn’t. I’d had the other teacher for world history and he really made it interesting. I read somewhere the new history books start with 1990, I sure hope that’s not true.

    • Hi! Catlover.
      From another cat lover. We were talking on a site last year about what is not being taught in the schools. And the new history that is being taught. More than a few were quite upset about that. Such as the civil war. A parent was furious because only a couple paragraphs about that was present. While there were several pages worth two weeks of discussion was covering the contributions by the homosexual community to society over the years. Most schools only teach enough to pass those totally irrelevant SAT & ACT tests and little more. One of the reasons I appreciate authors like Jance. If any students read them. They might be willing to look up some real history. Where I went to school we were taught about the internment camps in Social Studies and World History. And more than once the teachers would mention that they were a great shame on our country.

      • I am currently reading Code Talker. Of course, I knew about Code Talkers. But the one thing that struck me was that children being taken away from their parents did not only happen at the Mexican border recently. I happened when the government took the Navajo children away from their parents and put them in boarding schools and forbade them to speak their native language. I wanted to buy the book for one of my older grandsons so I am using the audio version for myself first.

        • The government has been housing immigrant children in California for 10 years that I’m aware of. I toured a facility that used to house mostly foster kids in Orange County, but was and is currently housing immigrant children.

          Our government certainly wasn’t perfect with the American Indian population. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann is an excellent book about the Osage in Oklahoma and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

  9. I read “Sons of the Fathers” a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it. I liked how you worked in a few sentences about past events in Beau’s life. For a reader not familiar with Beau it would be helpful.

    I never knew about the camps in the West for Japanese families. Living in Iowa during WWII I didn’t worry much about attacks from California or Washington.
    It is something not taught in school and it should be.

    I have learned a lot of things from reading your books. Ali dealt with cyber rooks who tried to get money from lonely women. That was something I hadn’t heard of before.
    Now about corrections. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning another author. Ruth Rendell dealt with this in “Piranha to Scurfy” which is the name of one volume in a set of encyclopedias. This book comes in handy late in the story.

    The main character is a poor soul named Ambrose Ribbon who spends his time going thru newly published books and writing letters to authors telling them to correct the errors in the next edition. It will make you think before writing an author. 🙂

  10. My friend Lynn B., who just met you at a book signing yesterday, forwarded this blog to me. I am the friend she mentioned who was also born in Poston, which was technically not just a ” relocation center” (euphemism the government used) but a concentration camp. In Italy also, there is a cemetery where many Japanese American soldiers who died fighting during WWII are buried.

  11. I love to read books that include historical facts because it usually gets me looking for more. Your books are great that way. I believe all history needs to be taught, good or bad, so we understand and learn from it. I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois where the Rock Island Arsenal had a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War.

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