Internment survivor George Nakata: 'In America, freedom is fragile'
When longtime Portland resident George Nakata reflects on his childhood, the memories are more than just the usual ones.
His family was forced to give up all their possessions, made to live in a stockyard surrounded by barbed wire, and then shipped off to an American concentration camp in Idaho.
Nakata's family, like thousands of other Japanese-Americans, experienced such treatment in the years following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor — a time of great caution and even paranoia when human rights seemingly became secondary to national security.
He will tell his story, and the story of his people, in a presentation to the Seasoned Adults Enrichment Program, titled "Experiences in an American Concentration Camp," that will take place at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, at Clackamas Community College's Harmony Campus, 7726 S.E. Harmony Road, in Milwaukie.
Nakata was born and raised in Portland's Japantown. An American citizen, he and his family, as well as their neighbors, were declared to be enemy aliens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In May 1942, 9-year-old Nakata and 3,600 other Japanese-American Portland residents were ordered to divest themselves of their possessions and leave their homes, taking only what they could carry.
"We were put on a bus and taken to the North Portland Livestock Yard, now the Expo Center. We lived in plywood stalls, the former home for livestock, for six months while more permanent camps were built," he says.
In September of that year "we were brought to the train station and many hours later the train stopped and we boarded buses that took us to Minidoka, an internment camp about 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls, Idaho, into a sea of sagebrush."
The camp was one of 10 on the West Coast; 9,570 people lived at Minidoka from 1942 to 1945. There were a total of 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned in camps in Utah, Arizona, Idaho and California, Nakata said.
"We had to walk to get water and had to line up to get everything — even to get our two rolls of toilet paper once a week," he notes.
"The barracks were not insulated, and in the winter of 1942 the temperature was 22 degrees below zero. All we had for heat was a little potbelly stove that burned coal, that was of the poorest grade. It produced poor heat, but lots of ashes."
But "the Japanese are resourceful people, and even facing the unknown, the bleak days inside concentration camps, we started schools, hospitals, dental offices. We even dug a swimming pool and had a crude baseball diamond, but limited sports equipment," Nakata says.
"Former teachers, dentists, doctors gave of their time and talent. The Red Cross and Quakers kindly sent books, school supplies, dental equipment, limited medication, hospital tools and equipment so we could somehow care for ourselves."
He adds, "At school inside the camp we pledged allegiance to the United States, saying 'with liberty and justice for all,' while being incarcerated behind barbed wire with armed guards."
Then, in 1943, "the American government decided to accept Japanese-Americans into the Army, and many young volunteers joined directly from the concentration camps, forming an all-segregated Japanese unit."
Those volunteers formed the 442nd Regiment of Combat and served in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany with heavy casualties, "all while their own parents were incarcerated by the very government that they were giving of their supreme sacrifice," Nakata says.
This regiment became the "most highly decorated unit in the annals of U.S. military history," he says, adding that 9,400 men were awarded Purple Hearts, several earned Medals of Honor and hundreds were given other medals and ribbons.
Returning to Portland
In August 1945, the war ended, and all the residents of the camps were given $25 and a ticket back to their home states.
"But we had no place to come back to. I told my sister, Mary, that we were home, but she said we had no home," Nakata says.
Japantown, with its distinctive shops, hotels, restaurants, fish markets, bathhouses, mercantile companies and general stores, that had been a vibrant community in Northwest Portland, was gone forever.
Nakata and his family were forced to become migrant workers, picking beans and berries for survival. They lived in a housing development in the St. Johns area, and Nakata's father, a former owner of three businesses, took two buses into town to make mashed potatoes all day.
"We shopped at Goodwill. It's a funny thing about life; I donate to Goodwill now," Nakata says.
It wasn't easy coming back to Portland. Nakata's seventh- and eighth-grade teacher hated the Japanese and made her opinions known.
"In 1952, the government allowed the first generation of Japanese to become citizens. My mother and father passed the test, and there were no more proud people who became Americans," Nakata says.
His father, who had been a rice farmer in Japan before immigrating to the United States, operated a small hotel and two fruit and vegetable markets on Northeast Columbia Boulevard. Returning to Portland, he saved enough money to buy into and manage a hotel, and he also bought derelict houses in Northeast Portland, and fixed them up with his own hands before selling them.
Pilgrimage to Minidoka
After Nakata graduated from Lincoln High School, he attended Lewis & Clark College, earning a degree in business and international trade. He joined the Army, and was stationed in Germany from 1953 to 1955. While there, he had a top secret security clearance to handle the highest degree of classified material.
After he returned to Portland in 1955, Nakata worked for several organizations involved in international trade and then worked for the Port of Portland, establishing offices in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"I left the Port of Portland in 1995 and opened my own consulting business, George Nakata International Ltd. I've spent the last 20 years doing business with companies that want to do business here and in Asia," he says.
Minidoka is now a National Historic Site, and many former residents and their families make pilgrimages there during June and July.
Although all the buildings were torn down or relocated after the war, "a few years ago they decided to rebuild a replica guard tower, and refurbish one former barracks, mess hall, fire station and a portion of the barbed-wire fence," Nakata says.
Nakata has been back several times and told his wife that the site looks totally different now.
"It was remote and desolate then. I showed her the area where we lived, where we showered, the old swimming hole, the former root cellar and inside the tar-papered remaining one barrack," Nakata says.
'Freedom is fragile'
Nakata is adamant that he is not a professional speaker, although he has told his story and the story of all the Japanese-Americans just after Pearl Harbor to schools and universities, at diversity symposiums, to business associations and civic groups, many times over.
He explains to audiences that young, single Japanese men came to the United States after they were "taxed out" of being farmers at the end of the Edo period.
"My father told me that as a rice farmer his taxes doubled then tripled, and different people took over the land that had been in my family for five generations," Nakata says.
"They had to look for a different way to make a living, so they looked across the big ocean to America. Those brave bachelors immigrated on freighters and carriers and landed in Seattle, San Francisco, Hawaii and Portland," he says.
They were not greeted with open arms, and Nakata notes: "It's just human nature. When no one likes you, you tend to band together. That is how Japantowns developed all over the West Coast."
When Nakata speaks to groups, he is constantly surprised at how little people know about what Japanese-Americans were subjected to in the 1940s.
He adds, "I believe that in America, freedom is fragile. We have been careless with our Constitution. Using the example of my people is why I tell my story."