Memories of wartime

Chiyo Omachi (left) was transported to the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma County, Ariz., with her family when she was 16 years old. She spent a year and a half there. Now 91 years old, she is pictured with her daughter, Teresa. (Courtesy photo)

Chiyo Omachi (left) was transported to the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma County, Ariz., with her family when she was 16 years old. She spent a year and a half there. Now 91 years old, she is pictured with her daughter, Teresa. (Courtesy photo)

Local resident recalls her experiences in Japanese internment camp

Chiyo Omachi doesn’t have many keepsakes or photos from her childhood.

The 91-year-old tears up and her voice grows thick with emotion when she thinks of all “beautiful things” from her childhood that were lost.

Omachi was born on Terminal Island in California. Her father and grandfather were ship builders from Japan who settled in America around 1905.

“They started a shipyard in Terminal Island where a lot of Japanese fishermen lived near San Pedro and Wilmington and Long Beach,” said the 91 year old Omachi. “It’s in Los Angeles Harbor.”

She recalls that her father was successful, always owning a good car.

“We always had the only telephone on the block and people would come and use our phone,” Omachi said.

She was living on Terminal Island — with her grandparents, aunts and uncles in nearby San Pedro — when World War II started. Omachi was just 16 years old, with two younger siblings.

In early February 1942, the family had 48 hours to leave their home, and consequently most of their belongs, as the United States government ordered Japanese to evacuate Terminal Island.

“We lost a house and beautiful things. My mother kept those Imari dishes that I see in antique shops, but she didn’t take one thing with her,” said Omachi.

First the Omachis were transported to the City of Los Angeles. Then in May 1942, the government ordered the evacuation of all Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Construction continues on the War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in 1942. Three units in the center would eventually house around 20,000. (Courtesy photo)

Construction continues on the War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in 1942. Three units in the center would eventually house around 20,000. (Courtesy photo)

“We landed in one of the concentration camps built around the country,” Omachi said.

Her family was taken by train to the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma County, Arizona, just across the California border.

“When we got off the train, they gave us this huge bag and we filled it with straw and that was supposed to be our bedding,” she said.

Omachi grows sad when she thinks about what her family had left after the war.

“What (my mother) had from our lives before the war was one of my report cards and castanets, that I used when I was taking tap dancing lessons and ballet,” she said. “So she kept a pair of castanets and my stamp collection and a report card.

“It was hard to go from a middle class existence to living in this wretched camp where there was nothing.”

LIFE AT CAMP

Omachi spent about a year and a half at “the camp.”

She recalls that it was always very hot and dusty. However, being a carpenter and contractor, her father dug a hole in their barracks and made a room as a respite from the heat.

“He put wood all around and made a little room and made a bench down there. Whenever there was a hot day, which was like every day in Arizona, we would go down there and read,” Omachi said.

When the Omachis first arrived at the camp, there were no real teachers. College students, college graduates and whomever was willing to teach filled the roles.

“I suppose the administration decided we can’t have all these young people running around, they really should be going to school,” Omachi said.

She was active in the Baptist Church and helped teach younger kids in Sunday School, but her other schooling included core classes like English, Social Studies and history.

“I don’t remember any math classes,” she said. “I know my father was especially keen on my having math. He said, ‘You’re not getting a real education here in camp. We really must get you out somehow.’”

While the children were in school, the adults worked in one of three areas, Omachi recalls. She said each block included about 20 barracks, a mess hall and latrines — bathhouses and showers — and a laundry room.

Cooks and chefs among evacuees of Japanese ancestry were immediately given opportunity to follow their callings after they arrived at the relocation center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. (Courtesy photo)

Cooks and chefs among evacuees of Japanese ancestry were immediately given opportunity to follow their callings after they arrived at the relocation center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. (Courtesy photo)

Omachi said the camps were huge and she doesn’t remember seeing the guards or soldiers much because she never went to the edge of the camp.

“If your barracks were near the edge, I guess then you would see these soldiers,” she said.

Many who lived in the camps tried to beautify their barracks and make a home, adding gardens planted from seeds sent by American friends and rock gardens to make life more pleasant.

“After a while, people were ordering things from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (catalogs),” Omachi said. “Our family, because we were city folks, didn’t use those catalogs. But once we were in camp, we had friends who told us, ‘You can get almost anything from the catalogs.”

Omachi said that people made a home for themselves and grew content being in the camp.

“They knew there were hostilities if you were back in your own hometown,” she said. “The newspapers had propagandized against Japanese Americans. There were ugly cartoons showing Japanese and American Japanese as being traitors and spies. But there was not one incident of such behavior.”

LIFE AFTER CAMP

Omachi lived in Poston War Relocation Center with her family for more than a year. She went on to high school in Pennsylvania and later to Houghton College in New York state.

However, her parents were at the camp until the end of the war.

“I did not see them until after the war,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones; my father was so insistent on my leaving the camps to go to a good school. He said, ‘You know the schools are not going to be accredited in the camps; they are so poor.’ So I left.”

The community store on first day of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at the relocation center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. On the first day of operation, $190 worth of merchandise was sold in a run on the store, and the stock was replenished in rush orders from Phoenix, Ariz. (Courtesy photo)

The community store on first day of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at the relocation center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. On the first day of operation, $190 worth of merchandise was sold in a run on the store, and the stock was replenished in rush orders from Phoenix, Ariz. (Courtesy photo)

The internment camps were closed after the war, and Omachi said some people went back to California while a large group of Japanese went to Chicago or other large cities like Cleveland or Minneapolis.

“After the war, my folks came to Chicago, and I met my husband at the church,” she said. “By then I was singing in a choir in a Methodist Church. I met my husband-to-be there; he was a tenor. … That’s how I landed in Illinois.”

Her parents and siblings eventually returned to California, where her brother and sister — both retired now and in their 80s — still live.

Omachi went on to work at a publishing house, Scott Foresman, for 20 years. She was married and had two children.

Scott Foresman was one of the largest textbook houses in the country, and Omachi was a senior editor there in charge of English textbooks for 11th graders.

“I think after all that’s said and done, it’s ironic that we were not American enough, but I ended up writing English textbooks for American kids,” she said.

But Omachi said she holds no grudges against the government or anyone else for what she went through.

“I’ve had a successful life, and we all have,” she said. “There’s a Japanese philosophy about forgetting. There were no Japanese American and no Japanese in America who did a bad deed. So many of us were Christians to begin with and our parents were Christians, and Buddhists. The Buddhists are peace-loving people.”

MANISTEE CONNECTION

Mostly chance brought Omachi and her daughter Teresa to become part-time Manistee residents in the past year.and+then+they+came+for+us_v4

Omachi and her husband settled in Wilmette, Ill., when their children were born because they wanted them to grow up near good schools. She has now lived in three different homes in Wilmette over the last 60 years.

In recenty years, Chiyo and Teresa have travelled all around Lake Michigan, and to Traverse City and loved the area.

“We thought how different Lake Michigan is on this side of the world. It’s so different from the Illinois side, which was the only side of the lake we knew,” Chiyo said.

An acquaintance in Wilmette owns a place in Onekama and suggested the pair look around the area in Manistee County.

“So we did,” Chiyo said. “We looked at various places; loved the lighthouse area near the beach. Next year we hope to be up there all summer (now that the place is all furnished). We’re great Petoskey rock hunters.”

Manistee resident Judy Crockett first met Chiyo last fall when she was moving into her condo.

“I was immediately taken by her energy and her bright smile,” Crockett said. “She told me then that she was one of the last living survivors of the internment camps in California. Here she was, this little spark of a woman, 90 years old, with an amazing story to tell.

“I had long forgotten my history lessons on WWII — and had never given a thought to what happened to U.S. citizens in fairly recent history — and in talking more with Chiyo, I realized how important it is to continue to tell stories of our history, to pass down the lessons we have learned, and to give voice to those who have been impacted by these events.

WHY WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT IT

Omachi says that people often ask her about what happened during her time at the internment camp.

“There are very few of us left who were actually in these camps,” she said. “So many people who experienced the camps are dead. I used to go out with two other friends, and they have both passed away.”

She has given many talks about her life and her experiences, including one at Loyola University Medical a few years ago where two Muslim men were also speaking.

“I think there is a renewed interest in what happened to Japanese Americans because of what might happen to Muslims,” she said. “I think at least Japanese Americans are voicing their opinion about not letting the Muslim community go through what we did because there’s been some, ‘Shall we lock up the Muslims?’. No, that’s a horrible idea.”

Crockett agrees that talking about the past may prevent society from making the same mistakes in the future.

“Talking about these horrific events in our history, sharing these stories, putting faces on the reality, will help us as a society to avoid making many of the same mistakes we made in the past,” she said. “Our government put these people into camps because of fear — opening our hearts, our ears, our community to those who do not look like us or worship like us, helps to break down fear and barriers and to bring us together as one people.”

The Manistee Peace Group will present the film “And Then They Came For Us” at 5 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Historic Vogue Theatre in Manistee with discussion to follow. Omachi will be part of the discussion panel.

The film examines the hatred that allowed the internment of U.S. Citizens who were perceived as different.

“I hope this films helps to educate all of us about how fear can lead us to do things that never should happen in our country,” said Crockett.

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Posted by Michelle Graves

Michelle is the managing editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach her at (231) 398-3106 or mgraves@pioneergroup.com.

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