Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Gene Akutsu Interview
Narrator: Gene Akutsu
Interviewers: Larry Hashima (primary), Stephen Fugita (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: July 25, 1997
Densho ID: denshovh-agene-01-0031

<Begin Segment 31>

LH: So going again toward your time in, at McNeil Island -- because I think we sort of skipped over that pretty, pretty quickly -- what was actually the physical conditions at McNeil Island? You explained some of the set-ups, the cots, but what was your everyday life like at McNeil Island in terms of...?

GA: Oh, well, to start with, the guards -- to take on those kind of a job -- I guess you gotta be a separate breed of person. Some of them were little guys that they wanted authority and you couldn't raise a hand to 'em 'cause you'd be reported and right away you'll wind up in the solitary confinement. So there were good guards but there were also guards with chips on their shoulder like, "I dare you." But when you're... my father used to say, "There's a lot of time when you say you lose to win." That means... "makeru ga kachi." That means you lose to win. And with that attitude you look at these guys and you say, "Oh, you sorry son of a gun," and ignore whatever they tell you but just go ahead and do it. And many of, much of that was spent that way as far as the guards go.

The food was okay. Everything was, the entire system is self-sustained. They have the farm, the animals, the vegetables and everything and so the food we got were good. But one thing was you'd better eat whatever you've got on your plate or else you're going to get pink slip and if you get pink slip you start, your privileges get taken away. So everybody would eat whatever was on their plate whether they like it or not. We wind up into the daily routine of getting up at six o'clock, breakfast at seven, out to work by eight or working by eight, twelve o'clock come back for, for lunch. Each time we leave, we go through the metal detector to make sure that we don't have anything and some of the fellas had metal shoe plates for arch support and the alarm would go off and they'd get pulled to the side and they get frisked all over. My brother happened to have one of those arch supports and a number of times he got pulled aside and the thing was that we'd make friends with the fellow inmates who worked in the same place and when he would step in and start to step up, the other guy would step in. Well, maybe he's got the alarm -- I mean, the metal plates, too, so you got too much metal and the alarm would go off and they would frisk him and they'd get a big kick out of that, kind of make, play games with the guards. At one o'clock, we'd be getting back out to work and then four o'clock we're back again and get ready for supper and after supper you have time to be able to go out to play a little bit for a hour, hour and a half, and that's the time that we wound up playing baseball, playing baseball.

And also we were wind up, we never had a football to speak of, so we were using a big basketball to play football with and this fella we got to know, he was convicted of murder, I guess, while overseas. I guess he got into a brawl with somebody but he's a tough guy and I guess he beat the guy or punched him and killed the guy. But we got to be friends and he turned out to be a heck of a good ball player. I mean, he could have played professional ball right then. But we would team up and play on the football team. I was pretty quick on my feet and I used to outrun a lot of people, and the guy would just heave the ball out there and we catch the ball and touchdown every time. And that's how the game went and so a lot of the people here again wanted to play with us, on the winning team, of course. Yeah. Those were some of the fun times that we had. True, we had some sad times, too. One of the fellas, I guess over at the guard gate, rear guard gate, I think he was, he had a broom in his hand and he wanted to get rid of it. The shed to store the broom was over on the other side and he threw it out and there happened to be a guard nearby and he, he accused the fella of throwing the broom at him and he wound up in solitary for one week with bread and water. He came out and he was pretty slim.

LH: Wow.

GA: Yeah. Another sad thing was one of the first contingent of the Heart Mountain group left the farm. We were privileged to meet with those first group, too, only for a few weeks, but one day we came back to the farm to find out that one of the fellas was executed...[Ed. note: Narrator meant to say, "electrocuted."] That there was a short in the -- he was an electrician, and there was a short in the power line someplace and when he -- the transformer or whatever, and the main switch -- and what he did was, he was, since he was leaving he was explaining to the would-be, the next person to take his place, what all the necessary things to know about working in and around the power lines, and he happened to touch something and it was shorted, and he was electrocuted and died instantly. And the sad part was, he was supposed to be leaving I think two days, in two days he was to left home, I mean, left there and gone home. But unfortunately we had to send out, send out, send him home with a fella, one of the fellas taking what they call koden. Even to this day they have it. We sent that out and sent our sympathy to the family. But that was one of the real sad part of what had happened over there.

<End Segment 31> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.