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

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

President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order in February 1942 giving the military blanket power to deal with the "enemy problem." Shortly thereafter, Gen. John DeWitt announced that there was "no ready means" for determining the loyal Japanese Americans from the disloyal. The Nagata and Uno families, along with some 110,000 others of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, were given seven days to sell or store all their belongings. Houses and cars were sold for 10 cents on the dollar. Farmland that would be worth millions of dollars today was abandoned. They were only allowed to take what they could carry.

"We all wore labels like we were some kind of merchandise," Uno said. "We were treated like criminals but we had committed no crime."

Both boys were soon settled — not so comfortably — inside horse stalls at nearby racetracks. "It was pretty crude and very odorous," Nagata said. Uno recalled, crinkling his nose, that he and his family had to clean out the horse stall themselves before filling bags with straw to lie on.

Six months later, Nagata was on his way to Utah, where he would take up involuntary residence at the Central Utah Relocation Center near Delta. Uno went to a camp in Wyoming. Other Japanese Americans were spread among eight other camps in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and Idaho.

"It was a dry, desolate wasteland," Uno said. "There was nothing but dust and sagebrush."

In pamphlets distributed at the time, the U.S. government claimed the incarceration of Japanese Americans was "for their own safety," but, even as children, Nagata and Uno noticed the guns were pointed inward. At Topaz, as the Central Utah Relocation Center was dubbed, a man who was hard of hearing was shot and killed after he failed to heed a guard's call to stop.

"Everything was so strange," Nagata said. "As a child, I was rather terrified."

His memories of camp life are simple, innocent. He remembers playing "kick the can" in the sagebrush, long walks to use a community bathroom without any privacy stalls, huddling around a pot-bellied stove to keep warm in a tar-paper barrack with no insulation. His father, like many of the men in camp, was sent away for months at a time to work on a beet farm. His mother was so depressed she stopped doing the laundry, cleaning up the family barrack or caring for her children. He and his sister were left, essentially, to fend for themselves.

In photos, though, the resilient little boy — 10 years old when he was released — is grinning despite it all. "We tried to make the best of a bad situation," Nagata said. The people elected leaders. The children went to school. They put on dances and concerts. But none of that changed the reality of the situation.

"We were in a desert prison," he said. "The government took our possessions, our freedom and 31/2 years of our lives."

Things got worse after the government released them back into a world that still hated them, too. Their property was gone. The government gave them just $25 to start over.

At 15, Uno set out to make a life for himself. His father had died in captivity. He seldom saw his mother, who, though college-educated, was forced to take multiple jobs keeping house and serving food. Nagata's mother never pulled out of the depression that came with the evacuation order. His father, who couldn't find an employer or a landlord who would help out a Japanese-American family for more than a year, placed Nagata and his sisters in an orphanage.

"The camp tore my family apart," Uno said. "None of us ever were the same."

Sixty-nine years later, Uno is numb to the pain of it all. White-haired now, his wrinkled brown skin spotted with age, he says pragmatically, "You can't change the past." His only hope, he said, is to make sure such a thing — a thing he calls the "biggest blemish on the U.S. Constitution this country has ever seen" — never happens again.

Current events, though, leave him and other Japanese Americans feeling dismayed.

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