By Brittany Hanson/
Garden Grove Journal
From behind barbed wire, 7-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuti and her family were watched, monitored and housed in camps by their government as a threat to the people of their country.
That same girl, now Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston, spoke to a crowd at the Garden Grove Regional Library on Saturday about her time in the camp and about her book, “Farewell to Manzanar.”
The book was the first of its kind and chronicled the experiences of her Japanese American family from the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941, to driving out of the internment camp for West Coast Japanese in 1945.
Wakatsuki-Houston was just a child when she packed her bags with her mother, grandmother and nine siblings to move to the barracks in the Manzanar internment camp in 1942.
“Somehow, I felt [as a child] as though the attack on Pearl Harbor was all my fault,” recalled Wakatsuki-Houston, “I felt horrible, a deep humiliation.”
The surpriseJapanese attack on the unprepared naval harbor prompted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 and relocate around 120,000 Japanese American citizens to the camps.
Wakatsuki-Houston said that the fear the attacks struck in all Americans was fanned by the irresponsible press of the era, especially William Randolph Hearst’s publications.The media depicted all Japanese as a potential threat.
“What they didn’t show was the elderly and the little children being marched into camps, forced to live in horse stalls at race tracks,” said Wakatsuki-Houston.
The book was not written until 1971, after her nephew, who had been born in Manzanar, asked her about how she felt of her time in the camp.
“We had always spoken about the time in the camp in a removed, artificial way. As if it was a summer camp . . . complained about the dust storms, the bad food, the housing, the shared showers . . . but had never spoken about how it made us feel. No had ever asked me,” said Wakatsuki, “I had never even dared to ask the question of myself . . . I just began to cry.”
The book started just as a record of experience, to try and help her family work through what had happened to them.
Wakatsuki was part of a Japanese American family not much different than her friends or neighbors. Her father was a sardine fisherman with her older brothers out of Santa Monica and Long Beach.
She didn’t speak Japanese and didn’t really know many other people of Asian descent other than her family until she came to Manzanar.
Her family’s time there was punctuated with the breakdown of her family and odd memories about things she thought might have just been a dream.
One such memory was that community members outside the camps donated books, however, there was nowhere to put them.
A large truck drove into the camp and dumped a mountain of books against a firebreak pit. Aside from just reading them, the children would play in, on and with the books for lack of entertainment.
The first year was the hardest, because the camp was run by the military, which soon realized that the task at hand was more of a challenge than first imagined.
“They had to watch, clothe, feed, care for and attend to ‘political prisoners’ that are families, with children,” said Wakatsuki-Houston.
Civilians took over the watch of the camps after the first year and provided health care, schooling and organization to the camp.
Although deemed enemies of the state, Japanese American men where still drafted to serve in the armed forces. The 442nd all Japanese Battalion became one of the most highly decorated in the United States Military for World War II.
In camp, prisoners tried to create as normal of a life as they could with dances, forming a band and even Boy Scout troops.
In an effort to prove she was “All-American” Wakatsuki-Houston took up baton twirling.
The end though, said Wakatsuki-Houston, was even worse than the beginning. After the war ended in 1945, the prisoners went home.
But there were no homes to go to.
“We were at economic zero, we had nothing. We had become so poor. Our home, our belongings and our money was gone. We were afraid to go home . . . our neighbors didn’t even know what had happened to us. We had heard of lynchings and Japanese homes being burned. We were so afraid,” said Wakatsuki-Houston.
Eventually, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan made a formal apology to the victims of the camps and their descendents as well as awarded monetary compensation to the families.
Wakatsuki-Houston’s parents died before her book was published in 1971.
“This isn’t just a book for me, for my family. This is a book for everyone.”