Two Utahns who spent childhood in internment camps say history must not repeat

Published: Monday, Dec. 6 2010 12:02 a.m. MST

Raymond Uno's father died while captive in an internment camp. Uno says being in the camp tore his family apart.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This is the first in a two-part series about how Pearl Harbor affected both Utahns and Japanese with Utah ties.

SALT LAKE CITY — In a big glass house overlooking the Utah State Capitol, Ted Nagata, 75, sits in front of his Macintosh and clicks through the scenes of his childhood. Here he is, smiling, with his sister and mother, he says. Here he is with a good friend. Here he is with his schoolmates, behind barbed wire under armed watch.

In the Avenues of Salt Lake City, sandwiched between two $1 million homes, Raymond Uno, 80 — sans photos — recounts a similar story. He was in middle school in California when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forever changing the course of his life. Within a matter of months he was shipped off to the desert and locked up for the sole crime of being of Japanese-American descent.

Both men, one a retired judge, the other a retired graphic design artist, recall the three plus years they spent in captivity dryly, shedding no tears, speaking as if they were reading out of a history book. "I was a child," Nagata said. "I didn't understand the gravity of what had been done to me," Uno said.

But what they didn't understand as children came back to haunt them as adults. They lost their freedom, their dignity, their inheritance — all things the U.S. Constitution vowed to protect. Their parents, overwhelmed by the burden of it all, tried their best but, for one reason or another, the two youngsters found themselves faced with the task of growing up on their own. Innocence lost, they resolved to do what they could to make sure history did not repeat. Though their lists of accomplishments are long, the now-graying men acknowledge with dismay that, illustrated by the way the country is dealing with immigration and the War on Terror, Americans of different ethnic backgrounds still don't trust each other.

"I feel that I've been a failure because I haven't laid the groundwork for my kids to live in a world that's a world of peace," Uno said. "The question of racism and hate, I guess, is something that every generation must learn themselves."

Ted Nagata was at school when the bomb fell, Dec. 7, 1941, probably struggling, as most 7-year-olds do, to hold still as his teacher explained some concept of arithmetic or another. With wide eyes, he registered the news: Japan — the country of his ancestry — had attacked the United States — the country of his citizenship. And, with no further warning, the little boy's life turned upside down.

"I knew it was a big deal," Nagata recalled, "but I never imagined what was coming."

Strangers on the street looked at him like he was vermin. His Caucasian friends called him names and stopped inviting him to play. After rounding up and incarcerating some 1,500 Japanese-American leaders and shutting down hundreds of Japanese-American-owned businesses, the government required all Japanese Americans to register and carry identification cards. They were not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from their homes and were given an 8 p.m. curfew.

One day, one of Nagata's former playmates took him aside and told him gravely, "Ted, I'm so sorry you have to leave." Nagata was confused. He couldn't imagine why his family would give up the life they'd built for themselves in California. They had a house, a car, a successful business selling sewing machines. But just a few weeks later, via posters tacked to telephone poles, the bad news was confirmed: "Pursuant to the provisions of the Civilian Exclusion Order… all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated."'

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