Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: Willie K. Ito Interview
Narrator: Willie K. Ito
Interviewer: Kristen Luetkemeier
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: December 5, 2013
Densho ID: denshovh-iwillie-01-0015

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KL: What were your... I wanted to ask about your impression of the landscape. I mean, what did you see, what did you notice, what did you think when you would go out on these excursions, these adventures?

WI: Cactus, tumbling tumbleweeds, they really do tumble with the wind. And I've never been in a desert. I grew up watching all these great Westerns shot right there where you guys are in Lone Pine. And so one of the things that I enjoyed doing was playing cowboys and Indians, because you were actually in that environment. And we would do this and go out running around in the desert and the cactus, and, "Don't touch that, you might get hurt," and horny toads running around. So coming from a big cosmopolitan city like San Francisco, and boom, virtually overnight, you were in the middle of the desert, that was quite an impression for all of us, all of us kids. And then, of course, when we got there, it was just barren. And these barracks just sat on just nothing but alkaline dust and dirt, and sagebrush growing around the thing.

But I was going to say, three months later, four months later, rock gardens, Japanese plants and bonsais and trickling little lakes and stuff. Well, seeing that then, and then later in life appreciating the enterprising green thumbs that the Japanese has, I was just marveled by it. Yeah, I remember right in the center of camp, they built a big lake, and all the craftsmen like my father that used to make sailboats and all that, sailing in there. But just a few months earlier, that was just barren, alkaline dust. So it is amazing what you can do. And I guess you heard like in Heart Mountain the problems of being able to garden in such arid thing, they taught the locals and the local... I guess the local Native Americans how to irrigate and how to garden and all that. And same with Topaz, to have all of this happen, and victory gardens growing. And we ended up actually having state fairs or camp fairs with livestock and corn and all these vegetables displayed, grown right there on that habitat area.

KL: It's impressive.

WI: Yeah, it was. When I think about that, I go, wow, that was something.


KL: This is tape number three of a December 5, 2013, interview with Willie Ito. And off the tape I had asked you about any other gardens that you remember and you were talking about one in particular. Would you just share that for the recording?

WI: Oh, yeah. That was... I mean, there was a lot of beautiful little gardens in front of a lot of the barracks. But one in particular that my grandmother was sort of tending, I don't know if she built the garden or whether my grandfather had really anything to do with it. But I remember she was always watering it and tending it, pulling the weeds or whatever. And I thought, gee, that's so pretty, because just a few months ago that was just alkaline dust, and here it is. And then, of course, what was fun with some of these gardens that had the little pool was it would freeze over. And I've never seen or experienced seeing something freeze over, and icicles hanging from the corners of the building. And so those things were very fascinating to me the first winter we spent in Topaz.

But, of course, we had to go to the latrine, and some of those winters were so harsh, and you would go, you would leave your barracks, trudge over to the bathhouse and the latrine, take a shower or take a bath or whatever, and then you have to trudge back to your barracks. And if it happened to be like a rainy day or something, that was all mud. You didn't have walkways or whatever. So that's where getas, and you're probably familiar with that, again with the scrap wood. Some of these artisan guys were fantastic. They would fashion beautiful getas with the straps that were like beautifully knitted and formed and whatever with stuffing so it didn't hurt your feet. And all of these artifacts that were created out of necessity, but at the same time very artistic. The wood was polished and it was lacquered, and beautiful. And then, of course, you had the utility getas that kept your feet out of the mud coming from the bathhouse and all that. And that first winter was like, oh, what is this? But again, out of necessity you fashioned yourself some real great anti-winter type things. So that's another thing when I think about, I marvel at the ingenuity of some of these people that made life much easier.

And then, of course, at the mess hall, we were literally eating bread and like gruel, you know. And the Japanese, we love our rice and our pickled vegetables and all that. So eventually I think they made some kind of a tradeoff where we told the WRA that rather than potatoes, could we substitute it for rice and tradeoff the potatoes for other uses, whatever. So we started getting rice finally.

KL: How soon was that, do you think?

WI: Well, I don't really... I sort of remember having rice all along, but maybe my time thing. Because as a kid I enjoyed sandwiches and bread as well as the rice. So finally when we started getting rice, we noticed that a lot of the pickles that the Japanese like to accompany their rice, were local grown vegetables, squash, zucchinis and squashes, even watermelon, the rind would be soaked in brine and made into tsukemono as we called it, to eat with our rice. And, of course, the white radishes, the daikons, were great.

KL: Is that all Topaz-grown produce?

WI: Yeah. They were pretty much grown in our so-called victory gardens.

KL: Were some mess halls better than others?

WI: That's a good question. I never was involved in any sort of competitive things, but I'm sure those that were chefs in the mess halls competed, there was some sort of competition. I used to have a lot of... well, we used to, as kids, we would go to other mess halls. You're supposedly restricted to your own area, so the adults, they all honored the restriction, but as kids, we would go to our friends' mess hall and all that. I didn't really see any difference, but my taste was not that educated at that time.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.