Densho Digital Archive
Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann Collection
Title: Donald Yamamoto Interview
Narrator: Donald Yamamoto
Interviewer: Raechel Donahue
Location: San Jose, California
Date: December 15, 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-ydonald-01

[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

<Begin Segment 1>

DY: I was born here in San Jose, California, way back in 1930.

RD: So were your parents American citizens?

DY: No, they were not. My mother was born in Hawaii and my father was born in Japan. And although she was born in Hawaii, I don't think she was considered a citizen of the United States.

RD: Well, Hawaii didn't become a state until what...

DY: Besides, when they tried to get her birth certificate, unfortunately, the records in Hawaii had burned down once, so she had to somehow, they somehow scrambled and got it anyway.

RD: Sounds like the Obama story, doesn't it? [Laughs] So your parents were Nisei, they were Issei?

DY: Issei, Issei. My parents were Isseis.

RD: And where did you go to school?

DY: I went to school here in San Jose just a few blocks up the road here at Grant school, grammar school.

RD: See, what we do is then we find pictures of each of these places, so when you say it, then we can --

DY: You what?

RD: We will find pictures of all of the schools. So everybody gets the same question so we'll be able to match them with the pictures.

DY: The school is gone.

RD: Well, we can find pictures. I'm sure there are pictures somewhere in San Jose.

DY: All right. There's a school there, but it's a new building.

RD: And what was your life like living here in San Jose, your American life?

DY: It was all right. Mainly we stayed in the Japanese town area so we didn't have too much, I didn't have too much friends outside there. There were a few from grammar school that I visited occasionally.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

RD: And do you remember the day that you were told that you were going to camp?

DY: I don't really remember that. I don't remember when we were told we were going to camp. All I remember is that we had to line up to get our inoculations of various diseases, I think.

RD: And where did you go first?

DY: We went to Santa Anita Assembly Center in Southern California.

RD: We went out to Santa Anita. We have a lot of pictures which we'll send you.

DY: I heard about it from Kaz.

RD: So you're a good friend of Kaz?

DY: Yeah, we were in the same Boy Scout troop, we lived in the same block, and we did a lot of things together as Boy Scouts.

RD: He was quite the little scamp, I hear.

DY: Uh...

RD: Come on. He told me about getting up on Seabiscuit.

DY: No, I guess I wasn't around with him when he was doing all this stuff he was talking about. [Laughs]

RD: Kaz talked about the searchlights at Santa Anita.

DY: Yeah, I remember those. They were situated on top of the, the searchlights were situated on top of the grandstand and used to play games at night when you're walking to the bathroom or some... if the light hits you as you're between the barracks, used to run, run into the shadow of the barracks just to see what the guy would do. And he would searchlight to the next opening to see if you showed up there, and I just stayed in the shadow until they went away.

RD: He told us about that game. So did you, how did you go to Santa Anita, do you remember?

DY: How did I what?

RD: How did you get there? Did you drive, did your parents drive?

DY: No, we got on a train here in San Jose. I don't remember from Japantown to the station on First Street, but I don't remember how we got there. Maybe there was a bus, I don't know. We did not drive or anything then.

RD: Some people drove to Santa Anita, but I think they were ones from Los Angeles. What was your first impression of the assembly camp?

DY: I really don't remember what my first impression of the assembly camp was.

RD: Were you afraid?

DY: There was a lot of Japanese people there. [Laughs]

RD: Did that make you happy?

DY: No, not necessarily. I don't really recall any special emotions that I had. I was too young, I guess.

RD: Children are remarkably resilient.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

RD: But then, all of a sudden, you're in Santa Anita, which is California, so it's somewhat familiar, there's palm trees, it's not that far from San Jose. But then they tell you you're going to go to Wyoming.

DY: Well, I don't know that I knew we were going to go Wyoming. All I know is that we had to pack up again to go. And I... from researching the internet, I found out that they had announced who were going to Wyoming in the local, they used to have a newspaper in Santa Anita called the Pacemaker and they gave news to the people there. But I didn't have access to that, I didn't know about that.

RD: So you got on a train.

DY: We got on a train, yes, and we started going, and it got to be night. And then they said, "Okay, you've got to pull the shades down." And I didn't know why, but somebody said we were going through Las Vegas, and I don't know if that was a big secret that they were supposed to keep from us. But we went through there, and then next morning when we woke up, it was hot, and they opened all the windows, the shades were all up, we were just rolling through desolated land, all the way through Nevada I guess it was.

RD: It's pretty much still like that. We just drove it. [Laughs]

DY: Is that right?

RD: Yeah, we did. It's still a pretty brutal drive. So you just were waiting and waiting, it must have taken days.

DY: Yeah, we waited, and then eventually we came to a town. And the people were walking by the train, and we were slowed down, and so we hollered out, "Where are we?" and they said, "You're in Pocatello." Pocatello is Idaho, I guess. And that's about all I remember of that trip. Except when the train pulled into, I guess, where the camp was, I could see sign on the post saying, "Vocation," and I believe that was the name of the actual location because I looked it up on the internet later when I got a computer to see if it was the same place. They showed maps of the area.

RD: And you saw the mountain?

DY: No. Well, the maps showed, topographical maps showed you elevations of various things, and I assumed which one was the mountain.

RD: But you don't remember seeing the mountain when you got off the train?

DY: No.

RD: It's not much of a mountain if you just see it by itself, you know. So what was your first impression of -- I know that you had barracks in Santa Anita which were similar to where we are now, right?

DY: Yes. We were dropped off by this barrack that there were seven of us in the family and we had one room in the barrack. That was a little, it was a larger room than what we had in Santa Anita. We had, in Santa Anita we had two smaller rooms because of the size of the family, seven people.

RD: Were you in the... some people were in the horse...

DY: Stables?

RD: Yeah.

DY: No. When we were in Santa Anita, we arrived there late where all the stables were taken up, so they had built barracks on the parking lot.

RD: Yeah, that's what Kaz was saying he stayed. So you kept in touch with many of your friends. Tell me who your friends were in Heart Mountain.

DY: Pardon?

RD: Tell me who your friends were in Heart Mountain.

DY: My friends? I don't really recall too many. All I know is they had some sort of school, it was summertime, but they had some sort of school which we went to and I met some people there, some of the boys there, which I eventually met up again when we went to our so-called relocation center. We didn't have homework or anything, all I know is we went to the grandstand and there was classrooms there. My mind is fading.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

RD: Well, when you got to Heart Mountain, the community was already built? Do you remember when you got there?

DY: There was, it was essentially built, yes.

RD: Did you still have the churches yet and all of that, or was it just the barracks?

DY: The barracks weren't completely finished. The insides of the barrack, the finished barracks had what they call Celotex over the studs that kind of insulated you from the weather, and in some cases the Celotex on the ceiling were not placed yet, and they were eventually placed in there, gave you a little more privacy. You could hear things going on in the next room fairly easily.

RD: Well, perhaps that the Issei Japanese were --

DY: Pardon?

RD: Perhaps they thought the Issei Japanese would be used to the light walls. But as an American child you wouldn't be.

DY: No.

RD: Tell me about, do you remember the first snow at Heart Mountain?

DY: The first...

RD: Snow.

DY: It was the next day. We got there --

RD: Tell me the first snow was the next day.

DY: Yeah, the snow was the next day. We got there and we had our sunny California clothes to wear. It wasn't too cold at that time, it was kind of a novelty. But the snow did not come down like you see in a movie, nice little flakes falling down. It was mostly somewhat windblown.

RD: All that sideways snow?

DY: Yeah, partly sideways, yes. But it didn't snow very hard that first time.

RD: And then over the winter, it starts snowing usually in October around there.

DY: Yeah, they do.

RD: When did the novelty of the snow wear off?

DY: Not too soon because there was a lot of scrap lumber around and we made sleds. Of course, there was no hills right in the camp area, so one time there was a place not far from our block where we went, and it wasn't, the hill was not covered completely with snow. But with what snow there was and the gravels and the dirt, we were able to go down the hill. And after a couple of runs, my sled caught some rocks underneath where I had the steel runners, and while we were there, these military police vehicles came by and they, we had to get on the things, leave our sleds there, and they took us away somewhere, I don't know where. But eventually we were told that we were out of bounds. And I thought, "Out of bounds? Where's the out of bounds?" Anyway, the next day when we were released... we were released that same day, but the next day I walked along by the road by our barrack which was on the northern edge. There was a dirt road, and I looked on the other side of the dirt road and there were little stakes with piece of red cloth on it, and I guess we weren't supposed to pass that. And we left our sleds there, and we wanted them back, so we kind of walked through another block, and then all of a sudden we looked around and we went running out there, ran down the hill, grabbed our sleds, and we came back with our sleds again.

RD: You boys are fearless. Weren't you afraid that they were gonna shoot you or something?

DY: No, I didn't. I don't recall having any sort of talks like that.

RD: Without being afraid? Yeah, because I've asked everybody.

DY: Yeah. Because I remember when we were being picked up, there were some people, older folks, and a couple of the younger girls were up on top of the hill, and one of the little girls was crying, and I don't remember if they picked all those people up or not, because I'm pretty sure we were beyond the boundary that day, and [inaudible] was there. But then eventually the barbed wire went up pretty quick after that.

RD: Oh, that was before the barbed wire.

DY: Yeah.

RD: Was there a guard there the entire time that you lived there? Was there always a guard? Because some people told us that they stopped using the guards after a while.

DY: Well, at the beginning there were guards there, and eventually I guess they had to go to join the other fighting forces, so they left.

RD: Besides, if you escaped, where would you go? [Laughs] If you guys escaped from Heart Mountain, you wouldn't be able to get very far.

DY: [Laughs] Where would we go? There was nothing nearby besides probably the citizens of the local area would call the police or something, I don't know.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

RD: So then tell me, you joined the Boy Scouts? Were you a Boy Scout?

DY: Yes, we joined the Boy Scouts while we were there. It's not right away, it was the following summer, summertime I think. Somebody was saying they're forming a Boy Scout troop so we went, I went with some of the friends in our block to that place and we organized a troop.

RD: And were you one of the... did you get to go to Yellowstone?

DY: Yes, we got to go to Yellowstone. There were a total of about seven Boy Scout troops in camp, and we were scheduled to go once in early July but it was delayed because one of the boys in our troop had drowned in the canal. And so we stayed to have the funeral, and we went later one.

RD: I remember, I think Shig told me about the boy drowning. Was it the swimming hole part of the...

DY: No, it's a canal.

RD: Canal that fed the pool.

DY: Yeah, there was a canal that went by the outside of the camp that led, was used for irrigation and --

RD: Shoshone irrigation ditch?

DY: Yeah. And there was a... Garland Canal was the name of the hotel.

RD: Do you remember the name of the boy?

DY: Toru Shibata.

RD: That was very hard for a young boy to lose a young friend.

DY: Yeah, he was only around, I don't know, twelve or thirteen, I think.

RD: That's very young to have a sense of mortality. What did your parents tell you about why you were going to camp?

DY: They didn't really say. I don't recall any sort of conversation like that with my parents. All I know, we had to go, so we went.

RD: No one does. So why do you think? That's a cultural thing, too, is that the parents were being protective? Do you think that was a conscious decision?

DY: I don't know. Maybe they said something, but I don't recall anything. That was quite a while ago.

RD: And what happened to your parents' property?

DY: We did not have any property. We were renting, and so we stored some things away in a relative's garage, and the rest of the things we left piled inside the Buddhist church gymnasium. But then families got so many square foot to put in it. But then by the time we came back, all that stuff was gone. Whether it was stolen or it had to be cleaned out in order to make places for people to sleep.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

RD: So how do you know... do you remember the day that you left camp?

DY: I don't remember exactly. It was late, late September or it was in early October, and I was kind of upset because I was afraid school was starting and I wasn't there to go to school.

RD: And how did your parents get it back together after camp? How did they make their lives work again?

DY: Well, when we got out of camp, we got on the train, we went to Oakland. We got on a bus, we went to Hunter's Point in San Francisco and the bus driver got off and I didn't know whether we were going to stay there or not. But then he came back in and he drove us to the west side of San Francisco, there was an old, abandoned army camp, Fort Funston, which had empty barracks there, so we stayed there. We couldn't go to San Jose because there was no, we didn't have any place to go to. I found out that the Buddhist church had taken all the benches out and it was full of army cots. They had an old gymnasium and that was full of army cots for people to sleep. And so we stayed in San Francisco, I don't know, about three months, 'til November.

RD: Did you go to school?

DY: No, we didn't go to school. Another guy and I, we used to just walk down Highway 1 to the beach or something like that.

RD: Yeah, well, Fort Funston, yeah, that's on the beach side.

DY: West side. It's right near the ocean side. It's, it was a pretty nice place, I thought.

RD: Isn't that like where Playland and all that was?

DY: Yeah, south of that. Way south, where the...

RD: Cold.

DY: It's cold.

RD: And one heck of a rip tide. So most of the parents that I've talked to, most of the kids that I've talked to, their parents said it can't be helped.

DY: That what?

RD: They said that their parents would say, "It can't be helped."

DY: Yeah.

RD: So do you feel bitter for your parents?

DY: No, I don't feel bitter. It was just something we had to go through, so I don't...

RD: Let me ask you a couple of questions about, do you remember Shig's bird, Maggie?

DY: Shig who?

RD: Shig Yabu.

DY: Shig Yabu, yeah.

RD: Do you remember his bird?

DY: Well, I heard about that after camp. I didn't know about it in camp.

RD: And were you a member of anything else, football, baseball?

DY: No, just Boy Scouts was all I...

RD: I heard there was also a, like a sumo wrestling pit or jujitsu?

DY: No. There was, I think there was some place they were teaching judo, but that's the only thing... I never partake of that, no.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

RD: So why do you think it's important for the Yonsei to know about what happened?

DY: Why? Well, it's kind of the old cliche, not to happen again.

RD: That's true. Well, do you remember when you were going to school, probably when your kids were going to school, I just talked to Dave, it wasn't in our schoolbooks.

DY: No, it wasn't. No, I was just sort of upset, I guess, when I went back to school. Because here it was already November or December, and several months had passed, and I wasn't about to go back and make up the work, so I just showed up at school as I was supposed to until February when the new semester started then I started doing a little more studying.

RD: Oh, so you just kind of hung out, so you had to work harder, didn't you?

DY: Pardon?

RD: You had to work harder to catch up, then.

DY: If I was gonna catch up, but I guess it didn't matter. When you just started the next semester, they just cover what you learned in those classes, so they don't go back to what you learned previously.

RD: So you came back here, where do you live now?

DY: Pardon?

RD: Where do you live now?

DY: I live here in San Jose.

RD: Why did you come back?

DY: Why did I come back? My parents came back.

RD: Oh, but you stayed all this time.

DY: Yeah. And I finished up high school here, and then I started college and I dropped out and eventually went in the service and came back and started college again.

RD: When did you go to the service, what year?

DY: I joined the air force in November 1950, November 1950.

RD: And you didn't feel that that was sort of ironic?

DY: No, not really. I started the second year in school and college and I found out I wasn't doing any studying. As a matter of fact, I was probably flunking all my courses so I thought I would get out and see if I can do something else.

RD: See the world.

DY: No, I didn't see the world. [Laughs]

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2010 Raechel Donahue and Garrett Lindemann and Densho. All Rights Reserved.