Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Ben Tonooka Interview
Narrator: Ben Tonooka
Interviewer: Martha Nakagawa
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 6, 2012
Densho ID: denshovh-tben-01-0028

<Begin Segment 28>

MN: Now, what sort of job did you find at Gila River?

BT: In the parts, the auto parts warehouse. And I was there for about two months, and the manager of the garage, the Nisei guy, says, he comes up to me, says, "Hey, you're in the wrong place. You're supposed to be at our place." So there was a kind of argument between him and my boss, the white manager, but I ended up in the garage, which was a better job. I was parts manager, so I didn't get my hands dirty.

MN: Now, while you were working there, you met Mr., is it Van Houtz?

BT: Van Houtz.

MN: Can you share a little bit about him?

BT: He was a big old Dutchman, real, real nice guy. Everybody got along with him. And in fact, one day when I was, had nothing to do, I was walkin' around in the garage, we start talking, making small talk, this and that, and then he said, he asked me, "How do you stand with the army?" I says, "Well, I'm 4-F. I have a heart condition." He says, "Oh?" He says he has a heart condition too, so bad that he has to sleep sitting up. Then a couple months later he comes up to me and says, "I'm going into town to see my heart doctor." He says, "I want you to come with me. I want him to check you out." So we went out, and his doctor checked me out, EKG and all that stuff. And it was okay, and I think that he even paid for the doctor 'cause I don't remember gettin' a bill from the doctor. Yeah, that's the kind of guy he was.

MN: Now, when you were working there also, did you and your coworkers have a chance to go out to Gila, explore places like Phoenix?

BT: Yeah. Like one day, one of the mechanics, he wanted to go to Phoenix, do some shopping, so he come up to me and says, "You think Van Houtz will let us go out?" "Well, we can ask." So when I asked him if we can get a day pass, and he said, "Well," he says, "I need somebody to pick some stuff up in Phoenix anyways, so you guys do it." He wanted us to pick up soda drink for the Caucasian coffee room or whatever it was. So the next day we just, we took the garage's panel truck and we went in that to Phoenix, and first thing we did was go pick up the soda water, four or five cases. Then we parked the truck and -- see, I just went along, I didn't have nothin' to shop, I didn't have any money. Anyway, so he says okay, he's gonna go shopping, says we meet back here at a certain time. So I, okay, so I just walk around, and there was a camera shop, so I went in the camera shop, lookin' around. And I bought some chemicals to process some... so when I got back I made me a light box to make prints, and I had my mother get me three soup bowls and that's what I used for the chemicals. So that was pretty neat.

MN: When you arrived at Gila, were the Zenimuras still there?

BT: The what?

MN: The Zenimura family.

BT: Yeah, they were still there.

MN: What was it like out there with the, they were so big with baseball, did they have a field?

BT: Yeah. In fact, the Zenimuras went straight from Fresno Assembly Center to Gila. They didn't go to Jerome. First thing Mr. Zenimura did was make a baseball field, so I mean, that was his life.

MN: You said that you found Gila River less depressing than Jerome. Why is that?

BT: Less depressing? Yeah, because we had white barracks. Jerome had the black tarpaper barrack, and it really looked like a prison. But in Gila we had white barracks, and it had a red roof, so it was nice-looking compared -- in fact, when Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to visit one of the camps they took her to Gila. That was before I was there.

MN: What were the dances like at Gila River?

BT: It's the same, like in Jerome. The only thing is that in Gila they didn't have a recreation hall in every block like we did in Jerome, so when they had a dance, what they had to do is use the mess hall, so they had to move all the tables and stuff aside. So that was a big chore for whoever put the dance on.

<End Segment 28> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.