Japanese American Reflects on Family's Experience in Internment Camp in 1940s

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San Diegan Nancy Shimamoto is a fourth-generation Japanese American – or Yonsei.

"I have two sisters, one of them was born in Poston, Arizona, in the internment camps," Shimamoto said. "My family has been here for four generations."

In December 1941, Japanese troops bombed Pearl Harbor, and by January 1942 Japanese Americans were classified as “Enemy Aliens.” Just one month later, President Roosevelt authorized the evacuation of over 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes.

Shimamoto's family was like many of their fellow citizens of Japanese descent seen by the U.S. as potential traitors. In 1943, Shimamoto’s parents were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona.

"Our family went directly to Poston," Shimamoto said. "They had a week to gather their things and prepare for evacuation. They were allowed to take one suitcase per person on the bus and they were told to report to the main highway at 6 a.m."

"They were given a mattress cover and told to stuff it with straw for their beds that was after being on the bus for all that time during the day," Shimamoto explained.

Shimamoto was born in the Imperial Valley to a family of farmers. Her parents, along with her uncles, had moved to Imperial in the late '30s and started farming.

When the Shimamoto family's neighbors, the Westmorelands, found out the family would be imprisoned they stepped in to help. The Westmoreland family – local ranchers – preserved what the Shimamoto family had worked to gain.

"The Westmoreland's were family friends," Shimamoto said. "When they found out my family found out they were going to be evacuated, the Westmoreland's came and helped them preserve the farm."

The Westmoreland family watched over the farm for three-and-a-half years, the entire time the family was detained.

"My mom she said Roy Westmoreland bring with him such lifesavers as washing machines, a baby buggy and a baby bassinet," Shimamoto said. Her mother kept detailed notes about her time in the camp and shared them with her children.

"My mom had been washing, rinsing and wringing the heavy sheets and diapers by hand and in the heat. It was very, very hard, so when they learned that mom had had a baby and was washing the diapers, they literally brought the washing machine out to the post and outlet to them and gave it back to my mom, so they could use it for the laundry," Shimamoto said.

Not everyone was as lucky as the Shimamotos. Many returned home to nothing.

"You know, when they came back, none of their stuff was left, they were just stripped," Shimamoto reflected. "They didn't have any place really to go back to. I just can't imagine the horror that they must have felt. Pack one bag."

Many who were locked in the detention centers were ashamed about what had happened to them and didn't want to talk about it. In the 1960s and 1970s, the children of those interned started asking questions and seeking recognition of their parents' time in the internment camps.

"There was this shame that they were being stripped of everything and being put into a prison camp," Shimamoto said. "My father was very reluctant to talk about it. My mother was a little bit more vocal and she actually was interviewed for a book called 'Americans Concentration Camps.'"

Asian American activists have been fighting for recognition of their contributions to America for decades, and In February 2020, the California State Assembly formally apologized to Japanese Americans for their unjust removal and incarceration during World War II.

An acknowledgement of the painful mistakes of the past – and though the scars remain, Nancy said she’s a proud American.

"I'm 71 years old. I've never thought about living anywhere other than the United States and my family has been here for four generations, so we belong here, and we call it home," she said.

Shimamoto and her family eventually moved from Imperial to San Diego in the early 1950s.

Her parents went on to have successful careers. Her mother was the first certified “nurseryman” in the state of California.

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