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No bitterness as 'American' recalls WWII internment

By Doug Snover

April 15, 2006

Mas Inoshita came to Arizona in August 1942 in a locked train car with an armed guard at the door, a prisoner of the United States government and his own face.

Inoshita, now 86 years old, has been kicked around by fate in a way many people cannot compare, but he shows no trace of bitterness as he sits in his Glendale home and recounts the dark years as a Japanese-American in World War II.

“Maybe it’s my nature not to worry too much about things,” Inoshita says. “I go from day to day. I really don’t worry about why it happened. And I know how it happened.”

Masaji “Mas” Inoshita was 21 years old, two days from his 22nd birthday and running the family truck farm in Santa Maria, California, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II and bringing to an end the relative isolation of the Japanese immigrant community in southern California.

The United States’ reaction to the sneak attack – the herding of thousands of Japanese immigrants and American-born men, women, and children of Japanese descent into ‘assembly centers’ and internment camps – tore the Inoshita family away from California, but could not tear it apart or tear apart young Mas Inoshita’s sense of loyalty to the country where he was born.

“Five days after December 7th, the FBI was knocking on our door asking for my father,” he recalls.

“They take him without trial, hearing or anything. They don’t even ask him to put on extra clothes or pack a suitcase. They just said you’re coming with us and put the handcuffs on him and take him away.”

“They didn’t tell us where he was going to be taken. They didn’t tell us why he was taken.”

“By telephone conversation, we find the FBI had picked up 70 other persons in the same valley we were living in,” Inoshita said. “They just disappeared off the face of the Earth.”

The rest of the Inoshita family – Mas, his mother, and eight brothers and sisters – did not learn of Maruji Inoshita’s fate for three months.

Mas Inoshita theorizes that his father was on the FBI’s ‘list’ because he gave money to Japanese support groups, often giving $5 or $10 without knowing much about the organization to which he was donating.

“My mother used to say, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m an American-born citizen and I have certain rights as an American citizen. They will not disturb me even though my father has been taken. I can continue to farm and operate as an American.”

“A lot of the Japanese farmers literally quit the day the war started, but I continued to farm. Because I felt that I had rights as an American, that as an American, I’d be protected.”

As the United States geared up for war, however, those rights were eroded. Even though he and is brothers and sisters all were American citizens by birth, they looked Japanese and could speak Japanese – and they were labeled as undesirables.

“Gradually, that protection I thought I had began to disappear,” Inoshita said.

First, the U.S. Army confiscated his family’s firearms and binoculars. Then he was required to turn over his family’s radio because it, like many radios of the day, had short-wave capability. Eventually, the family was forced to turn in even the long-bladed knives they used in farm work.

Soon came the travel restrictions – no more than five miles from home, even though the family had always trucked its produce more than 150 miles daily to Los Angeles.

And the curfew – indoors from 8 p.m. to sunrise.

The Inoshita family’s bank assets also were frozen, crippling the business that depended on leased land to grow its crops because Japanese immigrants were not allowed to own land.

By April 1942, things grew even blacker for Inoshita when his entire family was herded to an “assembly center” in Tulare, California, and forced to live for two months in converted horse stalls in a county fairground now encircled with barbed wire.

“Row 7. Stall 12. That was my spot. They called it an ‘assembly center’ but we say concentration camp,” he said.

After approximately 60 days, the family was forced onto rail cars with hundreds of other detainees and sent off to parts unknown. When the captives learned they were bound for Arizona, they feared for their lives, sure they would be dumped into the desert to die or be hunted down by cowboys.

“All we knew about Arizona was cowboys and Indians, and the cowboys were killing all the Indians.”

The huddled Japanese were relieved when the train reached Casa Grande and they were still alive, Inoshita said. It was August 22, 1942.

From Casa Grande, they were trucked to what is now the Gila River Indian Community south of Chandler in west central Pinal County, where two “internment camps” – the Canal Camp and the Butte Camp -- had been set up.

“Canal Camp had been filled up and we were the first ones to go into Butte Camp,” Inoshita said.

More than 110,000 United States residents of Japanese ancestry -- most of them U.S. citizens like Inoshita -- were removed from their homes by presidential executive order and relocated to similar detention centers built in isolated areas of the country.

The Canal and Butte camps were operational from May 1942 to February 1946 with a peak population of 13,348, and a total of 16,655 detainees.

On Thursday, April 13, Inoshita was scheduled to tell his internment camp story to students and the public at Chandler’s Sunset Library, 4390 W. Ray Road.

“The Army had built barracks there. They tried to arrange us in families. Single men were kept separately, in the same barracks but a separate area. All my brothers were in one barracks. My mother with her four girls were in the next barracks,” he said.

“I cooked rice. I picked cotton. While waiting for the camouflage factory open up, the recruiters came to the camp looking for people who could read write and speak Japanese.”

Only a few of the detainees volunteered to join the military that was holding them prisoner, but Mas Inoshita was one of them.

“They got 29 volunteers. One of the 29 volunteers -- the 29 dummies -- was me,” he laughed. They couldn’t be drafted because that Japanese-Americans had officially been designated as “undesirable” for military service.

“They didn’t want us in the service. But now the Army is saying we need these people who read, write and speak Japanese,” Inoshita said.

“Why would I volunteer? I get a thousand questions like that. The point is, I guess, in a large sense: They shouldn’t treat me like this. I’m an American-born citizen. I’m ready to do my job and they don’t want me. I’ve got to prove that I’m as good as any s.o.b white kid to serve.

“It was kind of a negative sort of thing, yet at the same time, it was kind of a conviction I had that I had that I had to prove to the White race that I’m just as good a citizen that they are. Does that make any sense at all?” Inoshita said.

After attending a language training school, Inoshita eventually was sent to Burma, where he was attached to a British unit as a Japanese translator and interrogator.

He spent his days trying to make sense of captured Japanese documents and interrogating captured Japanese soldiers.

Those soldiers would ask him how he came to side with Japan’s enemies, Inoshita said. He told the story of his father’s emigration from Japan and his birth in Fresno, California.

After providing the Japanese prisoners with atabrine to treat their malaria and offering them American cigarettes, many of the war-weary soldiers cooperated with his interrogations and some even helped translate the documents, Inoshita said.

“I would give them an atabrine. Maybe half an hour later their fevers would start to go down. They thought I was a Buddha. They treated me like a god,” he recalled.

Inoshita, by now a sergeant in the U.S. Army, also was treated royally by the British military, which allowed him to share its monthly allocations of beer, whisky and cigarettes, and provided him with a local manservant to cook and clean for him.

He bartered his whisky supply for boxes of atabrine and cases of Lucky Strikes and Camel cigarettes and used them to win the confidence of the Japanese prisoners.

Ironically, perhaps, Inoshita’s father – Maruji – had been released to rejoin his family in the internment shortly after Inoshita enlisted.

The entire family was released from internment in February 1945, shortly before the end of the war when a local Chandler farmer vouched that they would be productive members of the community and not become wards of the government.

When Mas Inoshita left the Army after just over three years, he rejoined his family in Arizona. His sister had taken charge of a new family farming operation in Arizona, so Mas started his own truck farm in the west Valley.

Some of his brothers and sisters moved away but his mother and father lived out there lives and died in Arizona – as naturalized U.S. citizens “under a law that passed in 1942,” he notes.

Mas Inoshita, an active 86 years old, is a widower these days. He spends much of his time in community service, often providing tours of the long-closed internment camps.

His own three children married men and women of different races, and Inoshita sees the mainstreaming of the Japanese immigrants into American society as one of the few positive results of those bleak days after Dec. 7, 1941.

“My outlook on life has expanded tremendously,” he said. “One of the good features about the tragedy is that our whole race has been put into the mainstream of America. Up until World War II, we were concentrated on the West Coast in a ghetto mentality.

“After the war if you went to school for medicine or chemistry or the law, you could go out and practice in the whole community, not just the Japanese ghetto.”

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