“History needs first-person voices, whenever possible,” said Joan Yasui Emerson of Hood River at the Feb. 18, 2007, “Day of Remenbrance” event in Hood River, where Mitzi Asai Loftus and other Nikkei shared their memories of the terrible days, months and years following Pearl Harbor.
Emerson referred to the voices absent and present, of World War II and the experiences of Japanese Americans who were the victims of governmental discrimination, sent off to crude and remote concentration camps in the deserts of Oregon, California, Utah and Idaho.
Much of Mitzi Asai Loftus’s youth was spent in one such place.
Her family was among the 700 Hood River valley Nikkei residents interned during World War II. Mitzi Asai was taken to Heart Mountain Camp in Utah from 1942-45. Her arms are not long enough to hold the panoramic photo she has of the bleak and massive Heart Mountain.
She displayed the photo at the Feb. 18, 2007, “Day of Remembrance” event, held upon the anniversary of federal Executive Order 9066 of Feb. 19, 1942, issued in the frenzied months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
(This article is adapted from two articles that ran in the Hood River News in February 2007.)
“I had to give up the Hood River Valley to live in this place,” Loftus said. Meanwhile, she had two brothers in the service in the Pacific theater.
“I was born in Hood River and lived here all my life until 1942 when we were sent to the camp,” said Loftus, who wrote a book about her experiences in the camp and in Hood River, “Made in Japan and Settled in Oregon.” (See sidebar at right for details on this and other related books.)
Following the war, her family was the first with children to return to Hood River. Her brother, Min, was the first to go to Hood River High School and she was the first to go to (now defunct) Barrett Grade School.
“They were the most miserable times of my life,” said Loftus, whose family lived on Portland Road, a mile to school and area stores.
“I walked to and fro alone. No one would walk with me for nearly one year. I was invisible to my peers.”
The year 1945 comes through clearly, despite the passage of time.
“I feared every day,” said Loftus, a retired educator, of her first years back in her hometown following World War II.
Other Hood River Nikkei remembered the events.
“There were places you avoided,” in Hood River, largely because of body language.
“After Pearl Harbor, things were kind of bad. We didn’t go to school that Monday. You made yourself as small as possible,” said Sab Akiyama, a Hood River resident who enlisted in the army and served in the Military Intelligence Service, a translation and interrogation unit.
Loftus’ childhood was one interrupted by forced internment in a desolate concentration camp, an experience shared by 120,000 Americans from 1942-45.
Life was hard enough in the camps, but Loftus remembered the pain of her return to Hood River. Walking home from school and even attending church was a lonely experience.
She recalled how along Portland Road, “one woman yelled at me and called me all kinds of things, and sicced her dog on me.”
She remembered Jeanette Sargent was always friendly but she lived the other direction. One day, Mae Vernon walked home with her.
“It was the most wonderful day of my life.”
Loftus praised the locals who formed the Legion of Justice for All, who supported the Japanese Americans and would not shop at stores that would not sell to Japanese.
“Those people had to suffer with the rest of us,” she said.
She attended church and the pastor would shake her hand but not look at her; people would move away in the pews; and no one would talk to her, “not even the Sunday school teacher.”
“But I was so lonely, I needed to be there,” she said.
Akiyama recalled how, before the war, a school janitor who wore a patch over one eye — “like a pirate — we were frightened of him at first, but on the long walks to school we got wet and he let us put our coats to dry in the janitor’s room so they would be dry when we walked home.”
Akiyama recalled being home on Christmas Eve 1941, when the windows were blacked out. “We heard something outside.” It was carolers singing “Silent Night,” being sung by carolers from his younger brother’s grade school class,
“I was scared and embarrassed, and I didn’t go out and thank them,” Akiyama said.