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Sunday, November 04, 2001

Forced to leave, few internees returned

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Question divided Solano residents

New orders came out in January 1945, allowing Japanese Americans once again to settle along the West Coast. Like most of their fellow internees, the former Vacaville residents had to decide where to go - a difficult choice.

Their homes and businesses had been sold in 1942. The construction of the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base had added new residents to Vacaville’s population, nearly doubling it, resulting in a severe rental housing shortage.

The fruit industry was in a steep decline, land prices had risen and farming required new and expensive equipment. Even the former Japantown was in the process of being demolished.

Worse, a strong anti-Japanese sentiment still ran through the West Coast’s population. A year earlier, in 1944, when the closure of the internment camps was first discussed publicly, many organizations passed a resolution opposing the return of their former neighbors. In Vacaville, the American Legion Post, the Chamber of Commerce and the County Board of Supervisors were among those opposing a return of the former residents.

The Vacaville Reporter’s lead article on May 26, 1944 included a full resolution, declaring that Japanese internees should not return.

In December, a small group of residents formed an Anti-Japanese League, proclaiming in a letter to the Reporter on January 5, 1945: “A survey of public opinion in this community has shown that a strong adverse feeling exists toward persons of Japanese ancestry and their return at this time.”

A petition in the Vacaville-Elmira area to not sell, lease to or hire Japanese was signed by 1,500 people.

Others though, welcomed the return of Japanese internees. Among them were members of the Community Church who responded to the Anti-Japanese League’s petition on January 19: “Discrimination on the basis of race is a direct aid and comfort to the enemy and a discredit to the honesty of the war aims proclaimed by our President and the United Nations and a slur upon every American in uniform. We will welcome any loyal American to his former home and heartily condemn all efforts and movements which aim to deny to American citizens on account of their racial origin their legal and moral rights.”

Letters from soldiers poured in, reminding readers that American-born Japanese soldiers had fought in the armed forces. Pvt. Don Shelton wrote on April 13: “Don’t they realize that these Japanese kids have done more than their share in this war. Some of those businessmen and ranchers ought to start thinking about what this war is being fought about.”

On August 24, 1945, the American Civil Liberties Union ran a page-long advertisement in the Vacaville Reporter:

“The American Civil Liberties Union, in each incident occurring in California, will pay a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest, final conviction, sentencing and imprisonment in a state penal institution on felony charges, of persons committing acts of terrorism against returning Japanese Americans.

“In making this offer, the union recognizes the gallant record of the 20,000 Japanese who are serving in the U.S. Army and who have suffered more than 3,000 casualties, as well as the order of the Commanding General of the Western Defense Command permitting veterans and loyal Japanese to return to the Pacific Coast. Good Americanism demands that their rights be respected.”

The first Japanese returned to Vacaville in early spring of 1945. All remember incidents in which restaurants suddenly were out of food, barbers wanted to know whether they were Chinese or Japanese before serving them, or where they had to wait in stores until all Caucasian customers had been served.

Tatsuyo “Terry” Hatanka Nakatani and her family returned in early October 1945. A government representative helped the family to settle in, finding them a place to live and organizing a month’s worth of groceries for them, as the Hatanakas, like all other returning families, had hardly the bare necessities after their long stay in the camp.

On the following Monday, Tatsuyo became the first American-Japanese to re-enter the Vacaville school system. “When I went up the walkway, I remember, I was more or less petrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d gone from an 11-year-old kid to a 15-year-old teenager. I went to Mr. Williams’ (the principal) office and he said, ‘Here are your classes.’ Then he took me to my classes.

“In between classes, I was walking down the staircase, and a girl came up and said, ‘Are you Tatsuyo?’ I said yes. She said, ‘I’m Mary Lopez. Do you remember?’ I said, yes, I remembered. Then we chit chatted a little bit. Pretty soon, somebody else came up and said, ‘I’m Marie Castro. Do you remember me?’ ‘I’m Donald Gonsalez, do you remember me?’ There were a whole slew of kids I had known when I was in sixth grade who were still here when I came back. So it was a little bit easier, once we crossed that strange island. We just didn’t know what to expect.

“Like Mary said later, ‘I really didn’t know if you would remember me or if you would spit in my face, or what. I was almost afraid to speak.’ I said I was petrified. I didn’t know what to expect. Being the first one back, there was no one to say, ‘It’s OK, I’m here.”’

Like the Nakatanis, only a few families that had lived in Vacaville before the war, eventually returned and settled here. Most decided to settle somewhere else.