Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: Dennis Bambauer Interview I
Narrator: Dennis Bambauer
Interviewer: John Allen
Date: November 6, 2002
Densho ID: denshovh-bdennis-01

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

<Begin Segment 1>

[Ed. note: Due to problems with taping, the first part of this interview was not captured on the video.]

DB: When was Pearl Harbor?

JA: '41.

DB: '34 or...

JA: All right. Yeah, I mean, do you remember how old were you in 1941?

DB: Six or seven.

JA: Do you remember anything to your life prior to the war?

DB: Oh, yes. I have very good memories.

JA: Talk to me about that.

DB: Well, I was an orphan, and my mother took me from her family to an orphanage, and I remember my days in the Children's Home Society in Los Angeles as a small child growing up in an orphanage. I was the only Japanese American in the orphanage, so I really didn't know that I was different than the other children. It wasn't until we got evacuated that I suddenly discovered that lo and behold, for some reason, I was different, and I can relay the bus ride from the Children's Home Village to the koshin, which was a Japanese orphanage, and sitting outside waiting in the morning to board the buses to ultimately drive to Manzanar.

JA: What was that bus drive like? What do you remember about the details?

DB: Well, it was hot. It was long. And none of us were tall enough to see out the windows so we were just enclosed in an old, what seemed like an old bus, it probably wasn't, like a school bus and I was the tallest one, so occasionally I could raise up and look out. But during the bus trip, because it was such a long bus trip, the actual time I don't recall, but it was a long bus trip, and it was hot and the counselors tried to keep us all happy by singing and playing, you know, games with little kids, because we ranged from high school age to small children on the bus.

JA: So what feelings did you have about this experience?

DB: Well that, do you want to know what feelings I had at the time or do you want to know what feelings I had afterwards, many years later?

JA: Let's do them both, but let's start with what you felt at the time, if you recall that?

DB: I can recall being scared and frightened because I was with a large group of people that I had no acquaintance with. I can remember sitting on the bus but feeling quite lonely, in fact alone. Because at this point I had been brought, I had been deposited on a grassy area where we sat and waited for the bus to take us. And then we got on board the bus, and I knew nobody. And I remember just hearing the kids all ask, "When are we going to be there?" and it was always just a little while and so it was a long time, and it was hot, and they couldn't keep us entertained. But we finally made it. And I remember driving up to the gates and seeing the guard tower and the barbed wire fence, and this -- this blew my mind so to speak to think that we were going to be behind those wires, and I just figured that's what was going to happen to us.

[Ed. note: Taping begins here.]

JA: Did you have any sense of why you were being taken to this place?

DB: None whatsoever. I didn't learn that until later when we, as small kids, were faced with the American patriotism, which we were brought up, you know, in camp we were taught the Pledge of Allegiance. It was about that time, shortly after arriving there, that I realized that I was there because I was part Japanese.

JA: What percentage of Japanese blood did you have? Do you know that?

DB: Yes, my mother was, was full-blooded Japanese; my father was French-Irish. So 50 percent. [Laughs]

JA: What percentage, how much Japanese blood did one have to have to be ordered to go to camp?

DB: I recall something that the director of the relocation, his name I believe was Meredith, said if you had a drop of blood, you got interned. So any kind of Japanese heritage, you were interned if you were living on the West Coast. Even if you're only six years old.

JA: That's something.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

JA: You were there -- how many people were there who were orphans like yourself?

DB: Oh, I'm going to guess about sixty. They range from very small children to high school age, and as I recall, when they reach the age of eighteen, which is considered to be a young adult, they would disappear from the camp, go live somewhere else because they had reached that age in which the government had no more, or the orphanage had no more responsibility for them.

JA: What kind of a place did you stay in when you first got there?

DB: Oh, our barracks were ready for us. We had nice facilities. I think they were a little better built than the regular barracks because they were built for the orphanage and as I recall, there were large dormitories. And I can only speak for the boys, but we had, where I was was like for... I'm going to say kindergarten through fifth grade, and then the other wing was like maybe sixth through high school or... but we were split. And the little kids were on one side and the big kids were on the other side. And in between it was the counselors' quarters. And we were very fortunate in that we had a wonderful counselor by the name of John Nagayama who guided us and gave us assistance as we needed in our growing up.

JA: What about the, what kind of food did they give you? Did you eat with the regular folks?

DB: [Laughs] No, we had a mess hall that was kind of funny. We were told that, well, we weren't told, we could have as much rice and brown gravy as we wanted, and that became our major staple. We were also told that because there was a meat shortage, that sometimes we were eating meat that was horse meat. Now, I don't know whether that was somebody's imagination, but I recall being told that some of our gravy was made from horse meat.

JA: Never know, mystery meat? Was the, the rice and gravy because they thought that was what Japanese people ate, or what?

DB: I think it was probably more convenient. How would I know, I'm seven years old, six years old, but you could always get more rice and gravy.

JA: What did your daily life routine come to be once you got settled in?

DB: One of the things that's kind of blocked out in my mind -- and I don't know why -- is I don't remember very well the, my school days. I remember a little bit about them in that we had a class. We went to school, and we had tables and straight-back... no, no straight-backs, just stools, benches that we sat on behind the table and did our schoolwork. So for some reason -- and I don't know why -- I don't have a lot of memories about that. Our typical day was, as I remember, it was getting up, we each had the responsibility to make our bed. We each had the responsibility to brush our teeth, wash our faces. We would go to the mess hall where we would have our meals, and then we would return to just be kids. That's the best way I can explain it. Because remember, we're on the little side. Now, on the big side, I recall those people had more responsibilities than we had, and I'm sure that we tried to get out of some of those duties whenever we could.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

JA: Do you have any recollection of the way the place changed in terms of flower gardens springing up over time and little parks and things?

DB: No, no, I don't. Remember that I was allowed to leave the camp and come back to the camp, at which time my adopted parents, the Bambauers, brought us back to the camp to visit the orphanage and so forth, and at that time, we came at the annual Manzanar Fair, and we saw the produce that they produced. There were 10,000 internees there, and they were producing the majority of the food for those 10,000 people, and we came at what I would call the Fair, where they had the agricultural displays, the tractor set-up, and water pumps pumping water and so forth. Occasionally, when, before that time, we would go and visit some of the kids, my friends' older brothers and sisters, and we would see their flower gardens in there. But I don't think that it hit me like a big explosion, "Oh, look what's happened." I think it was happening, and it was just kind of accepted by me.

JA: Do you remember any holidays there like Christmas or...

DB: I remember Christmas, and it was a typical Christian Christmas. It was not a Buddhist Christmas. But sometime, and I don't remember whether it was Christmas or whether it was New Year's, but one of my fond memories was the wonderful sushi that was brought to camp and the mochi balls. And... but you see, what I remember is not how good they were, but they became missiles. We kids would gather up and pretend like we were taking it to eat and then we would get out onto the grass area, and they became missiles. We threw 'em at each other and we ran and tried to dodge them and so forth. And that's kind of the recollection I have about the Christmas, or that particular season, and I'm hoping that Mrs. Matsumoto, who was in charge, won't hold this against us forty, fifty years later. [Laughs]

JA: That's funny.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

JA: If that's one of your fondest memories, what's one of your worst ones?

DB: That's not too hard to... it doesn't take me a long time to think about that. The worst memories was that we were prisoners. Every night the searchlights would flash, circle around the camp and would come through the barracks so you would see the light out the windows, searching. The barbed wire fence, which held us in. The fact that we were prisoners, that's the worst memory. And the soldiers had to do their job, but there was a riot, and we heard that some people were shot, and I have read since then that that's true. But the soldiers were a little lenient, it seems, for us kids. They didn't try to be mean. We would walk by the towers, and they would chat with us. So that's a better memory about the situation, but that was because of the individuals more than the system.

When I got ready to leave camp, and I was called and told to, that I was leaving to go live with the Bambauers, and ultimately I was adopted by them, I was told that I had to stop by the officers, the military compound, before I could leave. And the purpose of them -- or my stop was so that I could be fingerprinted, and I'm six, seven years old, and I remember the soldier saying, "This is in case you do anything bad; we'll be able to catch you." That was a, that was a traumatic experience for me, and I'm sure that the soldier didn't mean anything of that, but it really knocked me for a loop. It was really... I was really sad. It didn't make me angry because at that age, you don't get angry. You get scared. So it just made me even more scared. I didn't know what I was -- I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know anything about the Bambauers except that they had come to the camp and they wanted to adopt a child and so they selected me. But other than seeing them, I didn't know anything about the family so it was a traumatic experience leaving my friends and a comfortable place, and then to have that, I just have never ever been able to overcome that.

JA: What were the circumstances then, because you were adopted and now in the custody of a Caucasian family, you were allowed to leave? What was the regulation that allowed you to go?

DB: I have no idea. Going back to that episode with the fingerprinting, at the same time they gave us a green card and that same person who fingerprinted me and telling me that he was going to catch me if I got bad, if I ever was bad, also told me that, that I had to wear that card because I was being allowed to leave the camp, and I had to have that card, he said, around my neck. I think the rules were that you had to have it in your possession, but for a six-year-old it'd be around your neck. [Laughs] And that I could never go without it, which when you add that to the fingerprinting, just compounds the fear even more.

So I don't know what the regulation was that allowed me to get out. When I got out, I got to have the privilege of the racial taunts because I was in third grade, and I was known as the "yellow Jap" by other students. And I understand how immigrants feel who have to go through this similar type thing.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

JA: What do you remember about the weather and the winds at Manzanar?

DB: Oh, they were just hideous. It was hot in the summer, bone chilling in the winter, and there was always the wind. There was always the wind. And if it wasn't blowing cold air or hot air, it was blowing dust, fine sand. Get in your eyes, get in your ears, it was miserable. It was always blowing.

JA: We'll wait for that plane to finish going over. That seems to be a memory that most everybody has of Manzanar.

DB: Oh, the dust was so fine that you'd go to visit people and remember, the Japanese people, like all people, are very proud people. I'm proud of my house, you're proud of your house, everybody's proud of their house. We couldn't be proud of our houses because the dirt would come in, and everywhere you would look would be a row of dirt where the dust had blown into the house. And try as people would to keep it out, it just always came into the house. [Laughs] Yeah, the wind. Yes, the wind always blew. There was no getting away from it.

JA: That's a very definitive statement.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

JA: What do you think, or do you think you lost anything by being put away in this camp?

DB: Well... I don't think I lost anything. I think I gained some appreciation for a culture that had I not been placed in the camp, I might not have ever enjoyed. Since leaving camp, I've been able to reacquaint myself with my friends in the orphanage, and so for me, that was a positive thing coming out of my experience. I think it's unique to me because I was the only one. I don't think that my friends, my -- members of my family that went to Heart Mountain, they didn't need that experience. So it's unique to me, and I guess I'm probably the only one that can say that it was a beneficial thing. Because it did create lifelong friendships, but it was wrong. It was terribly wrong. I think today that Americans need to be so alert because in the terrorist movement, the individual rights of people have got to be preserved. And I think back today, are we going to make the same mistake with these people that we did with a whole group of my family and friends? I really worry about that. That was aside.

JA: That's an important aside. How do we teach that lesson to people?

DB: One of the things that I've tried to do is I've tried to take the message, I've tried to take my 60-minute film to schools and acquaint students with what that piece of history was all about. And the only way that we can prevent it from happening is for all citizens to be vigilant and urge the officials to honor the constitutional rights of everybody regardless of expediency. Because it was -- I mean, that's what we were looking at in the interning of all the Japanese, was expediency, a lesson that we shouldn't repeat.

JA: Why did it take so long for this country's government to say, "We made a mistake"?

DB: Well, I'm probably somewhat cynical, but when you believe you're right, it doesn't know, matter how many facts you're presented, you're still right. And had it not been for the U. S. Supreme Court, we would still be having people say it was all right. But that's one nice thing about America, is that we have, do have a judicial system that works and causes rights to be given back, and punishment to be meted out when it's appropriate.

JA: [Coughs] Excuse me. I'm sorry, go ahead.

DB: And what the Supreme Court said was, You erred, you denied the constitutional rights." One time I studied this, and I believe there were nineteen constitutional rights which had been violated.

JA: To get to the process, to the point where the president issued an apology, there was also a lot of activism on the part of the community.

DB: Yes, yes. I wasn't involved in that because I was removed from the, my Japanese friends by a long distance. I grew up in a small town, which I was the only Japanese, so it, I just didn't have the association. I support, I supported the activities of the Japanese Citizens League by being a member and supporting it financially, but it was really the... was it four men? I'm getting into a little piece of history that I'm a little shaky on.

JA: Yeah, that's not a detail we probably will get too deeply into, but when, when a letter of apology was issued by the President, did that mean anything to you personally?

DB: Not really. I thought it was well overdue, and I just felt it came too late. That's my feelings.

JA: Did you get a check?

DB: I got a check.

JA: Did that matter?

DB: No. I gave a portion of it to some of my favorite charities, because it meant more for me to be able to do that than to receive the check.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2002 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.