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A Book That Broke My Heart: Thin Wood Walls

Japanese Women at Tule Lake Relocation Center

Women in front of barber shop at Tule Lake Relocation Center.

Women in front of barber shop at Tule Lake Relocation Center.

Japanese Internment An Ugly Chapter in America's History

I’ve always been interested in learning more about the relocation of the West Coast Japanese residents into internment camps during World War II. I was still a toddler then, but when I grew up, I had many Japanese friends. One of my closest had been in relocation camp as a child. I’m not sure where she was, since I never asked. She talked mostly about the experience, not the geography.

My mother never talked much about it except in terms of one family in Bellflower who had owned a popular supermarket I do remember. The family who owned it lost it because of being relocated. Most of these families had only days to sell their homes and businesses for fractions of what they were worth. People took advantage of their situation, knowing they had to take what they could get. Some friendly neighbors offered to keep prized possessions for these families until they returned.

As you can see, I didn’t know much first-hand. But when I became a seller of children’s books, I began to read more first-hand accounts. Yoshiko Uchida was one of the first authors I learned from in both her autobiographical and fictional works about her experience at Topaz in Utah. I also read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne and James Houston, a true story. This week I read Thin Wood Walls by David Patneaude, a work of young adult fiction. It moved me to tears.

David got most of his information from Japanese friends in the Seattle area, where his book is set. As he heard their stories about life the relocation center that was to remain their home until the war was over or they could leave for other reasons, such as joining the army, he decided to do more research and write this book.

I have been unable to find many photos depicting what I'd like to about the internment experience at Tule Lake. The residents were not allowed to have cameras. I could only find one photo in the public domain. I have found the most photos of the interment camps from the Ansel Adams collection of Manzanar. Since the camps were of similar construction, I have included some of those. More can be seen on the websites I have referenced.

Were You Any of Your Friends Relocated?

Books on the Internment Camp Experience

Pearl Harbor Fallout on Japanese Americans

The author tells the story from the viewpoint of eleven-year-old Joe Hanada, an American citizen, who has never been to Japan, and his older brother, Mike. Their father has taken a leadership role in the Japanese American community. Joe’s best friend is Ray, a white American boy. The story begins shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and shows the effect of that on the White River community and the Hanada family in particular.

The bombing of Pearl harbor left its fallout on loyal Japanese Americans all over the West Coast. They were used as scapegoats by that breed of American which seems prone to racial hatred. We have to assume this, since most German and Italian Americans were not treated the same way. There had always been prejudice against Chinese and Japanese in the Pacific Northwest since the building of the railroads. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan was an excuse for those prone to hate to express that hatred more openly.

Within days of Pearl Harbor, the FBI came to take Joe’s father away. They came after he was in bed and they would not even let him dress. They took him away in his pajamas and his family watched helplessly. This was days before Christmas, and the Hanadas were Christians, eagerly awaiting the Christmas family celebration. The family was not told where Mr. Hanada was being taken or when he might return. Neighbors and former employers who really knew the Hanadas were sympathetic to their plight and did what they could to help.

No one could bring Mr. Hanada home for Christmas, but Mr. Spooner, who had let the family pick out a Christmas tree on his acreage a couple of weeks before Christmas, made sure it was cut down and brought to the family just before Christmas Eve. Joe’s father did not bring it home earlier because he was afraid it would die before Christmas Eve if they brought it home too soon. Joe had marked it with a handkerchief. Mr. Spooner knew that, and he also knew that without their father, the boys would not be able to get the tree home. Mr. Spooner had also brought a large box of produce from his farm for the family , since the bread winner had been taken away. Joe’s father had leased the land he farmed from Mr. Spooner.

Meanwhile, the Seattle newspapers began to stir up people’s prejudices even more. Japanese children were being bullied by white students at school, though Joe’s teacher was portrayed as a caring person who did what she could to help when she was aware of it. Much of the bullying took place off campus on the way to and from school.

Pinedale Is Now Within the Fresno City Limits

Finally, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which ordered West Coast Japanese, citizens or not, to be moved to relocations camps. The rest of the book shows how this order disrupted the lives and relationships of thousands of innocent Americans who had never even been to Japan and who were loyal American citizens or wanted to be. Issei, Japanese who had been born in Japan, had been defined by the United States government as aliens who were not eligible to become citizen of the United States.

Although Joe’s father had been allowed to write to his family, it was not without censorship. Letters came full of backed out lines. A couple of days after Christmas, the family heard Mr. Hanada was being moved out of state. They went to their local train station, hoping to get a glimpse of him, since it was rumored the train carrying him would come by the local station. But when the train came through, every window was darkened. The children waved, just in case their dad could see out.

An order against Japanese owning a camera, radio, weapons, or telegraph equipment was passed. The family had managed to hide the radio, and they didn’t have any guns or communication equipment. When the FBI came later to search the house for contraband, they did not find the radio hidden in the root cellar, but they did decide that the Christmas presents that meant so much to the boys, a BB gun for Mike and a toy telegraph set for Joe to practice his Morse code, were contraband, and they took them.

It was not long after that the families had to move to Pinedale in California. Pinedale Assembly Center, often called “Camp Pinedale,” was six miles north of downtown Fresno. It housed a maximum of 4,792 evacuees at a time. It was built near existing housing for lumber mill workers. The area which it occupied is now within the Frenso city limits. If you have ever been to the Fresno area, you can image what the weather was like in winter – cold. Can you imagine living in temporary barracks made of cheap materials in that weather? The book doesn’t have much to say about Pinedale, and only describes them leaving it with occasional references to life there. By the time they left, it was hot, as the Fresno area has always been during my summer visits there. You can read more about the Pinedale Relocation Center here.

Right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Hanada had given both boys journals and had told them to write down anything important or any feelings about what he predicted would be eventful days ahead. Joe had been writing often, but Mike wasn’t much of a writer. Both boys took their notebooks to the relocation centers.

I have read many accounts of the relocation camps. Reading the facts can make me indignant that something like this can happen and has happened in the United States. I can see the pictures and read the facts. Hard as that is, it was this fictional account that moved me to tears as I watched this family being torn away from their home, their friends, their roots, and to go with only what they could carry away. The reason? They were of Japanese descent.

Where The Tule Lake Camp Used to Be

Photos of Manzanar by Ansel Adams

Sunday School at Manzanar

Sunday School at Manzanar

Roy Takeno reading paper in front of office, by Ansel Adams

Roy Takeno reading paper in front of office, by Ansel Adams

Leaving Manzanar to return home. Photograph by Ansel Adams.

Leaving Manzanar to return home. Photograph by Ansel Adams.

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George Takei's First-Hand Account of Tule Lake

How Did the Internment Affect Those Children Who Lived It?

Could Such a Thing Happen Again?

Life at Tule Lake and The Infamous Questionnaire

The second half of the book deals with life at the Tule Lake Relocation center in California. It opened on May 26, 1942, about a year before I was born. Besides the daily life in the relocation camp, which included schools, communal meals, and some recreational and religious activities, the book also deals with the infamous questionnaire that attempted to distinguish which detainees were loyal Americans and which still might be supporting the Japanese government.

The questionnaire caused much conflict within families, especially over questions 27 and 28. Question 27 asked if one would be willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered. Question 28 asked if one would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States, be willing to defend the United States against all enemy attacks, foreign and domestic, and renounce any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government or power. Those who answered both questions with a “no” were deemed disloyal and Tule Lake became a segregation center where the no-no’s were sent. Security was increased and there was much conflict and unrest, with many “no-no’s” protesting their treatment.

I mention these details in passing because they are important in the book, which includes the reasoning behind Mr. Hanada’s mother, who lived with the family, answering Yes-No. Since she was forbidden by law to ever become a citizen of the United States, she, along with many other Issei, was afraid a “yes” answer would leave her without a country. Her “No” made it harder for the family to be able to leave the camp. More information and the details on Tule Lake can be found on the Tule Lake Committee Site.

As more “no-no’s” were sent to Tule Lake, there was more and more conflict between the “no-no’s” and those who were not deemed by the questionnaire to be disloyal, Joe and Mike, among them. They were attacked by three “no-no’s” while playing catch one day, but managed to barely fight them off. Then out behind the trees, stepped Sandy, who had been watching, ready to step in if necessary.

Sandy was a soldier who had been with Joe and Mike since they met on the train carrying them to Tule Lake. He was not prejudiced against them, and tried to make their life more bearable with chocolate bars and encouraging words and friendship. To me he represented the way reasonable white people who saw the injustice felt, and though he was in the Army and assigned to the relocation camp at Tule Lake, he was kind. He could not help what was decided in Washington, but he could decide to bring what comfort he could to those who were caught up in this injustice.

One thing that I find amazing is that in spite of the injustice done to them, the internees managed to make communities of these camps. They helped reach other, went to school and church services, and managed to handle themselves with dignity. They made the most of what little they had, and some of the young men, like Mike, Joe’s brother, joined the U.S. Army when they were given the opportunity. In fact, had Mike been willing to spend one more day of his Army leave in camp, where he was visiting his family after basic training, he might not have missed his father’s return to the family. But he missed his freedom too much.

The theme of this book is the great injustice that was done to one group of Americans because of their ancestry and their looks. We learned it can happen here. We like to think this cannot happen again in the United States. Yet even now there are rumors that FEMA is building camps deep in the Forests of California. There is speculation about whom these camps may later have as residents? Will others suspected of disloyalty for no better reasons than Japanese Americans were someday fill these rumored camps? Time will tell. Remember. All it took was an executive order.

© 2013 Barbara Radisavljevic


Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on March 30, 2015:

Patricia, please forgive my taking so long to respond. I've been recovering from a couple of major surgeries. I only realized what the camps meant when I became close friends with someone who had been in the camps as a child. It is books that filled in the details they never told me.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 11, 2015:

Reading of this broke my heart. The first time I ever read about it or really realized it happened I was about 14. I read Farewell to Manazanar. It was a total revelation to me and as a result my parents and I had long in depth discussions about it.

So much ugliness emerges in times of war. And as I study the wars and history, I wonder how much changed after a war ended.

Angels are on the way to you this evening and to all who are in war torn countries as I write these words. ps

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on August 13, 2013:

Mark, war is a complicated issue. It's never a good thing, but sometimes it's a necessary evil. When a country is attacked, should it not be able to defend itself? Civilians are also hurt when there is no defense. Had we been conquered by Japan (or Germany) would the Japanese Americans fared better than the rest of us? I doubt it. They might have been considered traitors simply for having come here. Had we not gone to war in Europe, our allies might not have been left standing and they would have attacked our homeland next. I don't have the answers to all the worlds problems, but I'm convinced as long as there is evil in a human heart, we will have wars. They have existed since we started recording history. It always seems to begin with greed or hate. For that reason, evil men try to stir up hate among their countrymen by instilling fear into them.

Mark Johann from New Zealand on August 13, 2013:

The ancestry and the looks are factors for such prejudice. Let us look into the real scenario that war is not always the answer for peace.

The military force fights and the civilian suffer. I think this is not actually peace. After the war, could there be peace in the hearts of those who were victims of cruelty and violence?

After the war, it is the end of the battle but it is never the end of a person's suffering from trauma, loss of family members and loss of shelter.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on August 12, 2013:

aethelthryth, for sure I would rather have been a Japanese American -- even at Tule Lake -- than an American prisoner in Japan or a Jew in Germany. I have not read or heard any accounts of the Japanese Americans being tortured in the relocation camps. As I understand it, a great injustice was done to them, but not as great as my own husband's family suffered at the hands of the Communists in Yugoslavia (I have a hub about that, too.) This was a dark blot on our nation's history which hurt many Japanese citizens without any real reason. it is inexcusable for that reason. But other countries and regimes have shown us that it could have been much worse. I'm thankful it wasn't.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on August 12, 2013:

I think it was sometime after I was in school, but not long after, that this started being taught in school. Anyway, generations younger than me seem fairly aware of these events. However, nobody younger than my parents' generation seems to know of what the Japanese were doing to civilians all over the Pacific and China.

I would say that Germans and Italians were not treated this way because most of America must have by this time had some last name in their family history like Mittendorf in mine. It was easier to assume more recent arrivals in America, who were living mainly on the West Coast, not all across America as today, would be more tied to their home country, and suspicion of people as spies in wartime had to have been as pervasive as suspicion of sexual predators today (as in, "spies/sexual predators act like nice people, therefore, nice people should be suspected of being spies/sexual predators").

One Italian refugee and Nobel Prize winner was not put in a camp, but was prevented from moving around the country because of not being an American citizen, until President Roosevelt changed the law, because he and a few others knew that Enrico Fermi had really good reasons to need to move around the country - to build the atomic bomb to use against Adolf Hitler.

Anyway, I am certainly not saying that Americans of Japanese descent were treated fairly, but that many unfair things happen in wartime, and this was far from the worst. It may indeed have been the worst that happened in America.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on August 12, 2013:

Thank you, ladydeonne, for that thoughtful comment. I don't remember reading about this in my history books, either. I think the first I learned about it was from a Japanese friend who had been in camp as a child. We hear a whole lot more about injustices and prejudice involving blacks than that against Orientals.

I'm afraid you're right that racism isn't going to go away during our time. I believe that even if we were all one race, it would become a matter of eye or hair color discrimination or religion or something else. Insecure people seem to need to feel superior to someone else. They look for differences rather than similarities. It all starts in the human heart, not the skin pigments. We all need to do what we can to stop the hate in the human heart against anyone of any race or creed.

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on August 12, 2013:

Those of you who grew up on the West Coast probably know more about this story than those of us who lived on the east coast or the Mid West as you were friends and neighbors of the Japanese. My mother who was an avid reader, told my siblings and I about how Americans sent the Japanese to camps just as the Germans sent the Jews to Concentration Camps and African Americans were relegated to their Ghettos. I have read Thin Walls and other accounts of the travesty. I have been deeply moved by the stories. What really rankles me is that there was no mention of the event in my books when I was in Elementary, high school or college. After finishing undergraduate school, I taught Social Studies for (4) years. There was no mention of it in my history books. In fact, my daughter's history books did not mention the episode either. It is so ironic because she and I were just discussing it about a week ago. It came up while we were watching a movie. You did a great job on the book review as well as with the personal tidbits. Racism is such an evil and destructive disease. We are much better as a nation when it comes to race but racism continues to rear it's ugly head, causing strife and hatred among our people. I had envisioned America as being different in the 21st century. However, it seem that when you and I leave this place, racism and hatred will remain. Let's make a pact to do what we can in our little corners of the world to make a difference. Geat hub! Voted up and sharing.

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Templeton, CA on August 12, 2013:

Kathryn, I was born when this was happening, and I'm now 70. Not too many who have adult understanding of what happened are left to tell about it. Many who endured it want to forget it. Many who witnessed it wished it had not happened. I'll have to look through the history texts I sell to see if it made the history books or whether only the cultural history of other racial or ethnic books are considered important enough to teach. I do know that some teachers in high school and college are assigning some of the books in my Amazon module above for student to report on. I know these books will reach into a student's heart farther than a sentence or two of fact in a textbook summarizing what happened. I may have a look at those books today. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on August 12, 2013:

Why have I never heard of this?! I'm horrified that this could have happened in my own country.

That story sounds very touching, especially since it was based on real events. I'm sure it would break my heart, too.

Thanks for sharing this with us. Voted up and sharing. Have a great day!

~ Kathryn

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