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

<Begin Segment 1>

KL: This is Kristen Luetkemeier speaking. Today is December 5, 2013, I'm here in the Monterey Park home of Willie Ito for an oral history interview for the Manzanar Oral History project. Whitney Peterson is operating the camera. And the first question, Willie, is an important one. Do we have your permission to record this interview and make it available?

WI: Oh, of course, yes.

KL: Okay, thank you. I was really excited that you agreed to an interview because you've had an involvement with Manzanar and a really interesting career. And we'll be talking about that and your time also in Topaz and Tanforan and your childhood in San Francisco. But before that, I kind of wanted to start off talking some about your parents, and maybe we could just start with your father. And if you'd give us his name and I'll ask you a few more questions about his background.

WI: Okay, yeah. My dad is Will Katsuichi Ito, Sr. He was born in Hawaii, July 31, 1903 or '5. [Laughs]

KL: There's some discrepancy there.

WI: Exactly, yeah. And so he was basically living in Hilo, Hawaii, until, I guess, just before his teens. And then he went back to Hiroshima, the family, and finished his schooling, and then he migrated to the mainland.

KL: What took his family to Hilo initially? What were their lives like there?

WI: Well, I think back then, with the big migration of the Japanese seeking a new life, maybe the economic situation for a lot of the Japanese working on farms and whatever weren't there. And with that big migration at the turn of the century of the Japanese and the Koreans and the Chinese, at one point Hawaii became like one of the largest settlement for Japanese immigrants. And so I'm sure that was one of the reasons. And why they chose to go back to Hiroshima, I'm not really sure of. But my dad came to the mainland, settled in Oakland, California.

KL: Did he ever talk about sort of his parents' employment or what his friendships or his cultural experience in Hilo?

WI: You know what's very unfortunate for me is I left home at age nineteen. And up until that point, I was a student, and I was growing up in San Francisco's Japantown. I was in the Boy Scouts and our local club called the Barons which was a basketball and athletic club, and eventually the interest in girls and whatever. So it's unfortunate that my dad and I never actually sat down and just talked. Talked about family or whatever, it was just kind of taken for granted that I'll learn things by osmosis, I guess, and figuring I was going to be living at home for a long time, I'll have plenty of opportunity to go to a local pub and talk. So unfortunately, because of that, I don't really know too much about my dad. I know a little bit more of my mother's side.

KL: But your dad did finish, or have some schooling in Hiroshima, you said?

WI: Yes, he completed his schooling in Hiroshima and then decided to come to the mainland to seek his fame and fortune.

KL: Did his folks remain in Japan?

WI: Yes, they did.

KL: When did he come to the mainland?

WI: Well, he came... again, I'm not really too sure. Probably in the late '20s. And he was a musician by trade, so he led the local YBA, Young Buddhist Association orchestra, the Oakland branch of the Buddhist church. And then he also, with a group from the band, formed a jazz club, and they played American jazz.

KL: What did your dad play? Was he a composer?

WI: He led the orchestra at the YBA orchestra, but he was basically a reed, you know, clarinet and saxophone, and you know, tenor and tenor sax and whatever. I don't really know my instruments. [Laughs]

KL: When he came back to the, or when he came to the mainland, was he anywhere before he was in the San Francisco area or did he come straight?

WI: Well, he eventually moved to San Francisco from Oakland.

KL: Okay. When he came over, do you have any idea what port he came in at to the West Coast of the U.S.? We have a ranger friend at Angel Island, and I'm always curious if there's a connection to that site or any other immigration station.

WI: Yeah, I'm really not too sure, unfortunately. One interesting story was he was courting my mother, and the invitation from Japan, they heard of an all-Japanese American group playing American jazz. And so I guess in Japan they thought, oh, that would be an interesting group to see, so they invited that group to go to Japan and tour. And so with the gang, it was in agreement that they were gonna take the gig. So, of course, my dad went to my mother-to-be and says, "I have this opportunity to tour Japan." And she says, "You have to make a choice as to either me or the jazz group." [Laughs] So my dad decided, well, he'll stay and marry my mother. So the group went over, and then, of course, things started to get hot in Asia. The Japanese was invading Manchuria and all, this and that was beginning to happen. And so all passports were frozen. And so the group that went over there couldn't come back. And so they were stuck in Japan all during the war. And, of course, my dad was here, but the irony of it is he still ended up going to a concentration camp. But I guess basically, if that hadn't happened, I wouldn't be here, I guess.

KL: Yeah, a different life.

WI: And so... well, unfortunately, I guess my dad felt, being a musician, traveling around is not really a good life for a married man and whatever. So he opened up a little, what he called Willie's Sweet Shop on Post Street, right in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown, sold hamburger and made the greatest ice cream sundae and banana split. And every night when he would come home for work, he would put a roll of Tootsie Roll in his pocket or Lifesavers. And the next morning I would go and rustle in his pocket, get my little Tootsie Roll and Lifesavers. That's my memory.

KL: That's a great job for a dad to have, I mean, there are some benefits.

WI: Oh, yes, yeah, it was.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

KL: You said you know some more about your mom and her background?

WI: Well, my mother was born in San Francisco.

KL: What was her name?

WI: Toshiko Shigio. And Grace, I think, was her middle name. It was, again, never substantiated with me, everyone called her Toshiko. Once in a while, someone would say, "Grace," oh, I guess that's my mother. [Laughs] So she was born in San Francisco, went to school in San Francisco, she's strictly a local girl, San Francisco girl. Her parents also migrated to the States. I'm not, again, too sure what ken, or what area from Japan, but my three uncles and an aunt, and then my mother, were all born in the U.S., so they were Niseis. And virtually we all went to the same camp, Topaz.

KL: What did your mom tell you about her childhood or her young adult years in San Francisco?

WI: You know, there again is, it's almost embarrassing that I don't know that much about my family. My uncle did write out sort of a family record that he investigated. Because right before the war ended, he was in the U.S. military, and he spoke Japanese and wrote Japanese. So when the war ended, he was part of the occupation force that went over. So he was able to trace a lot of his family. And also, because of my grandparents being in the Hiroshima area where the bomb fell, we lost total communication with them. Every birthday I used to get a little Japanese toy and all that, and of course, during the war, it all came to a screeching halt. And after hearing about the atomic bomb, we sort of feared the worst. So my uncle went and investigated and found out that they did survive the war. But whether they were hurt, wounded, whatever, I never really got the story. So, yeah, it is unfortunate that my knowledge of my family background is so sketchy.

KL: Those were your dad's parents, right?

WI: Yes, yes.

KL: Did you ever meet them in person?

WI: Never did, never did. And uncles came, uncles and cousins also came from Hawaii, and they settled up in Canada. So on a few occasions they would come down to San Francisco for a visit, but I never really got to know them that well.

KL: Where were they in Canada?

WI: I think on the West Coast side, Vancouver. But again, it's kind of sketchy. Now, Robert Ito, who is a movie actor, he used to be in Quincy way back then, and one of the few Japanese American actors that had prominent roles, supposedly a cousin of mine, a first cousin. And so one day at Hanna-Barbera we were doing a series called the Amazing Chan Clan based on the Charlie Chan show. And at that time the network says, "If we're going to do voiceover for cartoons, we don't want white actors imitating Asians or blacks like an Amos and Andy. So they insisted on having real Asian actors doing the voices. So there was a whole slew of voice actors in the lobby, and I went down and said hello to them and Robert Ito was there. So we started exchanging some knowledge of our family, and certain things coincided. I said, "Well, I guess we're first cousins." But again, that was never substantiated. And recently -- well, maybe a couple years ago, I went on Facebook hoping to reconnect, but nothing happened. So that's about all I know about the Ito side that went to Canada.

KL: That's interesting that they, did they go back to, those aunts and uncles of yours, your dad's siblings, did they go to Japan ever or do you think they went straight to Canada?

WI: I think they came from Hawaii to Canada.

KL: Who was your uncle who you said was in the occupation? What was his name?

WI: Matao Shigio, Mat Shigio, S-H-I-G-I-O. And so he was the right age at that time to be in the military. And the day of December 7th, I remember quite vividly.

KL: Let's back up a little bit though, because I do want to hear a little bit more of your memories of your childhood.

WI: Oh, okay.

KL: What year were your born?

WI: 1934.

KL: Okay. And you have a sibling, right?

WI: My sister Nancy.

KL: What is her name?

WI: Nancy Katsuko, now Takeshita, Takeshita. She was five years younger.

KL: It's like me and my brother, but I was the older one.

WI: Oh, okay.

KL: So she was born in '39?

WI: Yes, uh-huh.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

KL: And what are your recollections of how your family spent your time when you were growing up, activities you did or organizations you were a part of?

WI: Well, we had what you might call a typical American type upbringing. Had a car and had our home.

KL: Do you know the address of that home?

WI: Yes. 1927 Bush Street.

KL: And what part of San Francisco is that?

WI: Japantown. That would be the, what they call the Western Edition. And so that was basically, in 1939 is when my dad purchased the home, and my sister was, I think my mother was pregnant with my sister at that time. Because I remember them coming home and we were already situated in our new home.

KL: Could you describe the home, kind of walking through it?

WI: Well, it was a typical San Francisco, not Victorian, but you go up the front stairs, you enter, you had a big living room and a connecting dining room. And then in the back was a kitchen, there was a hallway, and then on this side of the hallway was stairs that led up to three bedrooms and a sewing room. The sewing room was in the front of the house looking out of the window. So my mom used to sit up there and sew and watch the traffic go by. It was a very, very nice cozy home in typical San Francisco fashion. I remember the furnishings were on the dark side like the mahogany, you know, a lot of wood and all that, you know. And I remember vividly one painting that hung on the wall. And it was of an old ship, well, I guess kind of looking like something Columbus would have sailed. And I used to look at that. It would just sort of make this image that I may not have been thinking about anything in particular, may not even have been thinking about that picture, but I used to just look at it. And so that's sort of a limit.

KL: Any neighbors that stand out, or what did you like to do in your free time?

WI: Yes. Right next door was Nippon Fish, and they raised goldfish and carp for commercial sales. So I would look over from my upstairs down into their backyard, and they were like, just pond, or rather tanks, tanks full of fishes of various sizes. And the neighbor was a friend of mine, same age, so we grew up and I would go over and look at the goldfish, and it was fascinating. And of course, back then, I had my little puppy dog, little cocker spaniel named Snuffy. And so that was my first and actually only pet I've had. For Easters, I used to get little ducklings that three days would be dead, or little chicks or whatever. But Snuffy was my real pet.

KL: He was a survivor?

WI: Well, yeah, what happened also there, which was kind of sad. I had a playset in the backyard, little swings and what do you call, the teeter-totter or whatever. So I was on the swing, just swinging as high as I could go, and then I would hop off, and Snuffy came running around, and as the swing came down, Snuffy just got, boom, hit him right across the head. And of course he did his yap-yap-yap, and I went and soothed him and everything, and figured oh, I guess he's okay. But then a few hours later he started to foam at the mouth and then started to run around the yard. So my dad came home and picked him up and hopped in the car, never saw him again. I guess they put him to sleep.

KL: How old were you then?

WI: Well, I was thirteen, so I had already returned from the wartime camp. But prior to that, no, I had the usual, like I said, goldfish and things of that nature.

KL: So Nippon Fish was a prewar business?

WI: Yeah, and then again, postwar it was taken over by the Hirano family. And it was quite a thriving business because I guess goldfish and carps, people were building a lot of Japanese gardens in their yards and whatever. And it was really a good business there.

KL: Was that who your friend was, was he a member of the Hirano family?

WI: Yeah.

KL: So that was another memory from after the war, is that right?

WI: Yeah, that was after the war.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

WI: But I sort of went off track. You were asking me about my growing up in San Francisco. And we would do Sunday things. My sister wasn't born yet, and I must have been like two or three, four, where we would dress in our... in San Francisco, people dressed up back then. So we would get in our Sunday best, hop in the car and drive out to Golden Gate Park and maybe go to the Japanese tea garden, or the Fleishhacker Zoo. Or one of my favorite spots was Playland at the beach where they had the roller coasters and the concessions and all that. So that was real great memories.

And then, of course, one of the other things that we used to do is, as a family, is walk down to Japantown, which was actually two blocks, and we would go to our favorite chop suey restaurant and have our Sunday dinner, and then we would all walk to our neighborhood theater. And then there we would see our usual, the whole feature with a cartoon and newsreel. But I remember this one movie excursion. I was sitting there in the theater, big screen, and in living color, suddenly, seven little men marched across the screen singing, "Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it's off to work we go." And I said, "That's it, that's what I want to be." Not one of the seven little men, but an animator, cartoonist. That's when I really knew for sure in my mind -- I was five -- that this is it. And from that point on, I just drew voraciously, collected Disney books, and whatever Disney, it was in my blood.

KL: What did your parents think? Did they know?

WI: Well, they of course, like all parents, they had pride in the fact that I showed some talent in something. And being an artist, cartoonist, I used go get good marks in school, teacher's comments on the report cards always says that Willie was always drawing and was very good. Only time that didn't really go was after American school, it was pretty much in our community that we would attend Japanese language school. So from, between three when American school let out, four o'clock, we would be at the Buddhist Church and the Japanese classes there. And that's where it was like night and day. Because in American school you just had a good time. Once you got into Japanese school, your hands were folded. And when the teacher came in, you bowed, and all the strict whatever. Then you open your book to your assignment. I couldn't do funny little drawings or sketches. If I was caught doing that, the ruler would rap across my knuckles. But in American school I drew cartoons and did whatever I wanted, went to the easel and painted, whatever, just that freedom.

KL: What was the temple that the Japanese school was in?

WI: Yeah, it was the San Francisco Buddhist church, which was known as Bukkyokai, B-U-K-K-Y-O-K-A-I.

KL: Did you guys attend services there?

WI: Yes. Actually, my parents is of Buddhist... but when I was in high school, with all my friends and all that, the Church of Christ, which was a Presbyterian church in our community, I was a member of that, and later became Baptized as a Presbyterian. But still the Buddhist thing is kind of the family thing. Whenever my parents passed, my uncles and all that, all of our services was held at a Buddhist church, that same one in San Francisco.

KL: There was a minister there, I think it's the same one, it's the big one that's now the headquarters of the Buddhist Churches, USA, and it's right there in Japantown. And the minister there before the war was a guy named Shinjo Nagatomi who went to Manzanar. Did you know the Nagatomis at all?

WI: No.

KL: I was just curious.

WI: Yeah, right.

KL: What was the name of that movie theater where you saw, where you guys used to go where you saw Snow White?

WI: It was the New Fillmore theater on Fillmore Street.

KL: And what was your favorite restaurant, do you remember its name, the chop suey restaurant?

WI: Fei Ling's, I think it was.

KL: And what about your school, what was its name?

WI: My grammar school was Raphael Weill, and after the war I went to Pacific Heights, which was like a middle school. Raphael Weill was a grammar school. This school still exists today and it's now called Rosa Parks School. And then about a block from that was the local YMCA, which was for basically our community, Japantown community. And so after the war, that's one of the places that we all sort of met and migrated to. Because the return of our friends were spotty, some of them relocated back to New Jersey, some of them went elsewhere. And so our old San Francisco friends, we would sort of get together at the Y, which is where Shig and I got together. And then later when the community formed the Boy Scout Troop 12, which is an old charter. That Boy Scout Troop 12 was chartered in San Francisco's Japantown sometime in the '20s. And they had a drum and bugle corps, which we revived after the war.

KL: Were you a Boy Scout before the war?

WI: No, I was too young.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

KL: You started to talk earlier about December 7, 1941, but before you share that, are there other things from before that day that we left out that you wanted to include about your childhood or your family life or San Francisco.

WI: Of course, at that time, my grandparents are very close, and we would get together with them quite often. And because of the fact that they were from Japan, I spoke fluent Japanese. And going to school, I learned to read and write, and unfortunately today, if you asked me to read and write, I'll be a little embarrassed. So the family unity was very close and tight. Of course, being in a Japanese enclave, things like New Year's is big with the Japanese, and so they would do the feast and open house and you visited other homes and friends and whatever. So it was a kind of warm communal feeling. And, of course, after the war, we tried to regain that sort of family and community unity.

Kind of jumping ahead, today, we don't have the migration of the first generation Japanese coming, unlike the Chinese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese. So our Japantown is disappearing. And many of the young Japanese today, they didn't want to stay within the family business. If it was a sushi restaurant, a neighborhood grocery store or something Japanese, fish or cleaners or whatever, because they got educated after the war, got their degree, and went into, like, engineering and pharmacy and doctors, and moved to communities outside of the Japanese American community. So if you go to, like, Little Tokyo today, it's called Little Tokyo, and there's still spotting of Japanese businesses, but basically the property is now being owned by Koreans and Chinese, same with San Francisco, which is such a soft spot for my own little community in San Francisco.

So whenever I go up there, although I've been away since I was nineteen, I still feel like San Francisco's Japantown is my home. But I see the same tendencies where it's kind of heading away from the Japanese ownership. A few years ago, a big Japanese corporation bought a big part of Japantown, the hotel, the Miyako Hotel and whatever. But then they, a few years ago, with the real estate bottoming out, they sold out. And so, of course, the community was a little concerned with the Japanese ownership gone, it's going to be, of course, taken over by other developing companies. And, of course, in San Francisco, the big Beverly Hills company bought that complex. So the city, I mean, the community leaders met with him and says, "I hope that now that you own Japantown, that you will still allow it to maintain the integrity of a Japanese town." They said, "Well, maybe five years or whatever," but eventually Starbucks or McDonalds and all these will start coming in. Of course, the restaurants are now changing from a Japanese sushi restaurant or noodle restaurant to Korean barbecue, you could see the change happening. I sort of digress, where were we? [Laughs]


KL: Okay, we're back after just a quick break to shift around lighting and stuff, and you were just sharing your memories of Japantown and Little Tokyo and the neighborhood preservation efforts. And that was a response to just my question of any other prewar things you wanted to share. Oh, and I did want to know your grandparents' names, those are your mom's parents? Sorry.

WI: You would have to ask. I do have it on paper.

KL: Okay. But you were gonna share something else.

WI: Oh, yeah. I think one of the real highlights of that era was the 1939 Golden Gate World Exposition in San Francisco. To us back then it was like going to Disneyland for the weekend. And it was between San Francisco and Oakland, you take the Bay Bridge, and about midway you got off and there was Treasure Island. During the war that became sort of a naval camp or whatever, I guess. But in 1939 it was the big World Exposition, and that was such an exciting thing for someone of my age to experience. And there was a lot of scientific breakthroughs at that time, even things like 3-D movies, and it was really fascinating. But if I was older, I would have really appreciated seeing Esther Williams swim. But Johnny Weissmuller was there as one of the aquatic stars. Then they had the pavilions, different pavilions, and of course, like world showcase or Epcot Center in Florida, France, Italy, China and whatever. But, of course, our favorite place to go to is the Japan pavilion, and all of our local Japanese girls would wear kimonos and do the Obon dance, and it was quite a thing. And attending that and seeing the Japanese pavilion, you would have never thought that in two years the two countries would be at such dire straits. But it was amazing to go to that. And then, of course, locally, we would have a lot of our local festivals like cherry blossom festivals and all that. And all the churches, the Japanese churches like the Buddhist church would have their annual bazaar, which was always a fun activity, too. So all this before Disneyland. [Laughs]

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

KL: What do you recall of the festivals or the bazaar? Can you describe, like, who would be there, how crowded it would be, what kind of foods?

WI: Well, first of all, yeah. You see your friends there, and the parents would give us a quarter. And a quarter went a long ways to play the concessions and win the goldfish in the thing, and just a lot of good times. And of course at that age, you're so impressionable that, god, everything just seems so grandeur. So that was a good experience. And, of course, when my grandmother would make the feast for oshogatsu, New Year's. Oh, that was really something, that was so beautifully decorated, and everything tasted so good. Then you go from different homes and they would have basically the same type of cuisine, but you know, the taste is different and everything. And because it's so shortly after Christmas, your friends had all their Christmas toys out there to play with. So all of this is like memories that just... boy, it's really coming back to me now during this interview.

KL: I'm glad. You would start off at your grandparents' house then, for New Year's?

WI: Well, we would have our own feast. You get up in the morning and you would have the traditional ozoni soup, which was a good luck soup with a mochi, the rice thing in there. And you would have that, and then you started, and all day long, you're kind of gorging yourself. [Laughs] And, of course, back then, there was no Rose Bowl game to watch. I guess people listened to it.

KL: You mean you had to talk to each other? [Laughs]

WI: Yeah, we had to talk, exactly. Another great memory was my father was a gadget freak, so I grew up having my home movies taken of me growing up. And so when... on a Saturday night, especially, he would go in the closet and bring out the projector, set it up, open up the big screen, and then run the home movies that he took. But he would always enhance it by buying a Mickey Mouse cartoon. And I grew up basically watching old black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons before I even remember seeing cartoons on the big screen in a movie theater. So I guess I always knew the art of animation.

KL: I wonder where he got those.

WI: Oh, you could commercially buy 'em, you know, go to the local Woolworth, five and dime store, and go to the photo section and they had newsreels, and they had comedy shorts and stuff, and of course, the array of Mickey Mouse cartoons. So we had a good collection of those things. So I was pretty much exposed to animated cartoons from a very early age.

KL: That's crazy that he had home videos of you guys.

WI: Yeah, well home movies.

KL: Yeah, yeah, sorry, film reels, yeah. Wow.

WI: Fortunately, too, they all survived. So when we came back from camp, we still had all of those in our closet.

KL: If you ever feel like you want to share them, it'd be great to see. That's really neat that you have those.

WI: Yeah. Unfortunately, I misplaced them recently. Well, not recently, but a few years ago. Now, I hate to say this, but I suspect that it was ripped off. Because when my wife had her surgery, we had a housekeeper or a care person come in and take care of her, then she would nap. I was at work at that time, so who knows? I mean, there are things we knew has been ripped off. But then recently I thought, "You know, Costco is offering where they would take film and transfer it, so I'd better do that." So I went where I thought I kept my film and projector, and it wasn't there. So I still have hopes that maybe I may have misplaced it, so I don't want to accuse anybody.

KL: Or loaned them to somebody?

WI: No, I never would have loaned it.

KL: Well, I hope they turn up, that's a great memory.

WI: Yeah, that would really make me sick if I knew for sure it was gone. Because other things are missing that we know was ripped off.

KL: You said your dad was a gadget freak and really into kind of technology and stuff. What sort of defined him as far as personality or interests?

WI: Well, now, he always loved making hobby planes, hobby ships, and hobby cars. He was always very good with his hands. So when we were in camp, one of the things that he started to do was local arts and crafts type of thing. Now, Topaz was a camp that was built on the old dried up Great Salt Lake. So you could just, you know, well, just dig down a few inches and you find shells that are bleached. And, well, sea things, fossils of old fish and all that. So one of the hobbies that many of the local Topaz people did was gather up these shells, match them in sizes, paint them with fingernail polish, red of whatever, and then make little floral brooches. And my father got to be so good at that that he was asked to instruct at a hobby class, which he did. And then they would take crepe paper, the long crepe paper, and then with a drill, put one in and tack it down, the other end, and then turn it, and it will turn into, like a string. And then he would take that and weave it and make a little basket, and then put the little floral brooch and all that. And he loved that type of intricate little things. In camp, he took up the trade of barbering.

KL: Let's actually, do you mind if we save that for a later part?

WI: Okay, sure.

KL: Was there anything that you, you know, that sort of defined your mom as far as her interests or personalities?

WI: My mom was very quiet. And she... how would I describe her? Of course, she was a wonderful mother and all that. And my friends used to describe my mother as the typical "Leave it to Beaver" mother, or "My Three Sons," with the little apron and the hair was always real nice, and always manicured. And I used to bring lunches to school that was just, all the other kids wanted to trade because my lunch was such. And so one of my real good friends in San Francisco described my mother as like the comic strip of that period, very popular, "Blondie." And in retrospect when I think about it, yeah, my mom was, she was impeccable, she loved to dress nice. One of the things she loved to do was walk from our home to downtown San Francisco and go shopping at the emporium. And all that walk, the hills and all, in high heels, and just dressed real nice. [Laughs] So that's one the memories I've had. But she was later, after we came back from camp, she became a real homebody, and used to love to just be at home. At one point she did want to go to beauty school and maybe become a beautician. At one point before the war, my dad says, "Why don't you open a little gift shop? Hallmark cards and little gifts?" And she was very interested in doing that, but then the war came and interrupted everything.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

KL: What are your recollections of December 7, 1941?

WI: The uncle I was talking about, he had just graduated high school, and he was courting my aunt-to-be. So that Sunday, he offered to babysit me by taking me with them down to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is, I think, roughly about seventy miles south of San Francisco, and it's a beach city. And at Santa Cruz they also had their Playland, you know, the roller coaster and the concessions and all. So we started out early in the morning, drove down to Santa Cruz, spent a few hours riding the concessions and the rides and this and that. And then we retired to the beach, spread out the blanket, my aunt made a real nice picnic basket and we just sort of lounged around. And, of course, my uncle's courting my aunt. So I was off to the side with my sand bucket and all. It started to get a little cool, and so, "Let's back up and get back to San Francisco."

So we got in the car, and as we approached the San Francisco city limits, they had MPs stopping all the cars checking ID. And only if you were a resident that you were allowed to proceed. So we still didn't have any idea of what was going on, you know. So we went in the city and then we saw the newsboys, "Extra, extra," and whatever, and when we finally got home, my mother was beside herself because that was before cell phones and whatever, so she had no idea where we were. And, of course, the announcement of Pearl Harbor hit the community extremely hard. And the grandparents and our uncles, we were all assembled at our home, and, "Gee, what's going on?" and told us about Pearl Harbor and whatever. They kept saying the word "war," and the newspaper headlines said, "War." And I said, "Gee, what's war?" "What's war?" to the mailman. [Laughs] And, of course, I soon found out.

KL: So it was, do you think it was, I mean, you were a little kid and it sounds like it was shocking and curious for you, but what about... and you said your mom was frantic. Do you remember the tone of that conversation at your house or people gathered? What did you sense?

WI: Well, it was extreme because being away, she was so worried. And then, of course, my grandparents had immigrated from Japan, and my father, all the bombing and everything is right there in Hawaii where he was born and all that. So I guess the overall feeling generated, because Japantown was all sort of up in arms and upset and whatever. But the not knowing exactly what this really meant, I mean, we knew it was a horrendous thing. And then, of course, Japan being the homeland, we really didn't know what to expect.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

KL: This is tape two. Today is December 5, 2013, and we're --

WI: Two more days. We could have waited two more. [Laughs]

KL: I know, I was about 1940-something. But yeah, we're continuing an interview with Willie Ito, and we had left off talking about your family's reaction to the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. And I'd like to hear some kind of about the broader community of response. How were things at school the next day, how did people around Japantown react?

WI: I think the swiftness in how things started to happen was really amazing. Because the next day, Monday, we went to school, I was in grammar school, Raphael Weill, and my classmate came to class, and all of a sudden, he started to sob, and we were wondering, gee, what happened? Well, it turned out that the FBI came that night and arrested his father just like that. And so all of a sudden we started hearing stories of different prominent people in our community suddenly arrested overnight and hauled away. And then the severity of what is happening suddenly became a reality. Because up until then, there was a lot of speculation, gee, I wonder what's going to happen. And then when we --

KL: How did people respond to your classmate whose father had been arrested and who started crying? What did the teacher do, what did you guys do?

WI: Well, the teacher, of course, took him aside, took him out of the class, because we were all like, gee, what's he crying for? And so the teacher, of course, I remember, was very sympathetic right up until the day we left. But it was a mixed class, so it was basically a real curiosity as to why he was so upset and crying. We had no idea it had anything to do with Pearl Harbor. And then, of course, the rest of the kids in the class, they weren't so, you might say, aware of the happenings like we were, because just the day before, the whole family and community was going through such a stressful thing. But as these things started to happen, we became more aware that, my gosh, this is truly, truly serious. I came home from school and walked in, and there was two FBI agents, real big guys, with their fedora hats, and it was like December, January, so it's cold in San Francisco, so they had all these big Humphrey Bogart type overcoats, and they were going through all of our drawers. My mother and father was just kind of sitting there, kind of pointing out where certain things are. They were scrutinizing for contrabands, if we had samurai swords, family heirlooms, cameras, knives, weapons, anything that could be weapons, anything that could be considered subversive like books written in Japanese language, all these things were being confiscated.

And when I saw Snow White for the first time, my first little gift that I got, or souvenir from the movie was this little Dopey bank which sat on my dresser. Well, I panicked thinking that the FBI is going to confiscate my little Dopey bank, so I ran upstairs to my bedroom, and it was still sitting on the dresser, and so I was somewhat relieved about that. But I could see, if my little Dopey bank gave me such a start, when my parents was going through with photos and heirlooms and stuff that my grandparents, well, my dad especially, coming from, back from Japan, brought so many heirlooms and they're all being taken away. Or I remember they were saying, "We got to get rid of all of this stuff, all the books in Japanese and all that, and burn it or trash it or throw it away, because it will be considered subversive."

KL: Did they do that before the FBI came, or was that after?

WI: That rumor started to transcend.

KL: Immediately?

WI: Better get rid of all of these things, and then the FBI started making their personal calls and started rounding up things of that nature. By then, the word of us being incarcerated to camps became more prevalent. And so the rumor was, we knew what was happening in Nazi Germany and in Europe and all that. So they said, well, that's it, we're gonna all be sent to camps no matter who wins, U.S. or Japan, we're just going to be lined up and executed and buried right in big common grave, and that is going to be our demise.

KL: Even before the war you think people had that awareness of what was going on?

WI: Well, it was during this whole thing about being evacuated to camps, that these kind of rumors started to transpire. Of course, panic set in to a lot of older. And, of course, a lot of the more elderly says, "Shikata ga nai," it's like, "What will be will be," if this is the way it's going to be, they'll be prepared for it mentally or whatever. My dad had just bought a new home in 1939, and so he felt very optimistic that we will eventually be returning home. And so we had a, my dad had a real good Chinese family friend, so he offered our home for the Chuck family to move in and watch over our house and they can stay there rent free and whatever. So we were one of the very fortunate that came back and had a home to come back to you. Whereas many of those that were displaced came back, no home, they set up cots at the Buddhist church gymnasium, or at that YMCA, and families all stayed in cots and all that. So, ironically, spending three years in camp, sleeping on cots and everything, war ends, you come back to your home, and you're still living under those conditions.

San Francisco's Japantown was at that time totally vacated, but Hunter's Point, Alameda shipyard, a lot of the defense work was happening in the San Francisco Bay area. So a lot of the jobs were opening up for those working the shipyards. So a lot of their migration from the southern states came to the Bay Area to work in these areas. Well the big African American migration came and settled in Japantown, because virtually it was empty. And so they came in and they settled in the areas, and so when we were allowed to return home, came back to San Francisco's Japantown, and it was Bop City. It was fried chicken restaurants and African American nightclubs, a lot of bars and whatever. So it took a little while for the Japanese to reclaim the area.

KL: Where was... the family that rented your house, is that Chuck, C-H-U-C-K?

WI: Yeah.

KL: Were they living in Japantown?

WI: Yeah, in our home.

KL: Before that, I mean.

WI: Oh, no. Before that, I guess... I'm not really too sure if they came from Chinatown, but Chuck was, to me, my recollection is he was like my father, sort of Hawaiian, and spoke a little pidgin. So I kept thinking, gee, I wonder if Chuck was an old friend of my dad's from the Hawaiian island days. So where he came from and where he returned, I was never too clear on that.

KL: He'd be an interesting observer of that change, with all the new people coming in.

WI: Yes. Because also, too, there was... see, after the earthquake, the South Park area of San Francisco, which was the original Japan settlement, was more or less displaced. So many of the Japanese didn't know where to move to. And so Asians felt comfortable with other Asians, so a lot of Japanese businesses formed in San Francisco's Chinatown. And so after the war, we had one of the early Japanese restaurants right in the outskirts of Chinatown, and a lot of curio and souvenir shops, Japanese in Chinatown. But also there was a number of Chinese that migrated to the old, to the actually new at that time, Japantown area, setting up businesses. So we had a lot of Chinese restaurants and little shops and Chinese laundry.

KL: Were those relationships between people in San Francisco affected, do you think, by the political violence between Japan and China or were relations pretty removed that?

WI: Well, we always got along very well with the local Chinese. And, of course, San Francisco Japanese migration... the Chinese were just a little ahead of that period, but then eventually the Asians just have that tendency to kind of stay together. So I think a lot of the early Japanese immigrants, even though they didn't speak the same language and whatever, just sort of felt more comfortable being with other Asians. And it's rather intimidating for the little Japanese immigrants coming over and seeing all these great big Caucasians, you know. So I think they tended to stay within their own community. So like I was telling you earlier, I felt intimidated leaving my Japantown community to come all the way down to Los Angeles to go to work for a big studio like Walt Disney's.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

KL: When did you, you said there were a lot of rumors flying around about having to leave and what the camps would be like. When were you aware that you would actually have to leave? When did you start preparing for that and what was that like?

WI: Well, things happened fast. Once the word got out and President Roosevelt signed that order, 9066, it was now time to start packing up, get rid of whatever you can, sell whatever you can, and it was sort of in a state of mild panic to get these things done. But many of those just gave up and just sacrificed everything, virtually gave it away, you know. You buy a new car for five, six hundred dollars, sell it for twenty-five dollars and things of that nature. And, of course, all the farmlands up and down Ventura County, strawberry fields in Orange County, virtually given away. And so, of course, the impact really hits when the government says, okay, you guys are free to go home now. And it's like, "Where do I go?" Because in three years, in just that time, gave everything away, and then it's only three years later you're allowed to go home when you have nothing. Where do you begin? Because it really began at the turn of the century when the early immigrants came in. And then they had their Nisei or second generation children that was able to buy property and all that, then it's all gone.

And that's where I have to hand it to my father, having more of an optimistic outlook and saying, "No, no, we will be coming back, and so we'll keep our home and all that." Many of those did. They had good friends, good neighbors that says, "Don't worry, we'll watch your place and take care of everything." Some of the farmlands fortunately survived by good neighbors. But then on the other hand, you had the opportunists that came in and glommed onto the property, and ten cents on the dollar. So that was really a sad thing, too.

Looking at those old historical photos of signs that says, "No Japs allowed," and, of course, the Chinese and the Filipinos had to walk around with buttons and badges that says, "I'm Chinese," or, "I'm not Japanese," or whatever, in fear of being accosted on the streets. And we were pretty cautiously kept in the house because we had the air raids and we followed all the air raid traditions by blackening the windows and jumping under the tables and all that. But we were told, "You know, don't venture away too far from Japantown community," because outside of that, there would be some ruffians that...

KL: Did you have any encounters with people with an ax to grind or who threatened you or anything in those couple months?

WI: Not me, and not at my age. Maybe my father may have, having a business and all that. But he never really talked about it. Again, he kept a lot from my mother, too, because my poor mother was, she wasn't so involved in the politics of everyday and whatever. And so what my father would encounter at his business... my father was very friendly at that time with Shelley, who happened to be, I think he was the mayor of San Francisco and the police chief and all that. So he was sort of on the in of hearing a lot of things. Maybe, maybe one of them says, "Hey, I won't get rid of my home." I think I would stay in it and be more optimistic.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

KL: You guys eventually did have to leave, though. Where did you go and how did you get there?

WI: Well, I remember that day that we all packed up, and, of course, you could only take what you could carry with your two hands. And just down the block was a school. I don't remember the name of the school offhand, but that was one of the disembarking centers that they had the buses lined up, and then they had military guys in full uniform actually carrying rifles, big guys. And here we are all like this. And one other thing is in San Francisco, we always dressed up. So the men had on their little hat and a black suit, dark suit, my grandfather was wearing his Sunday best, my grandmother was wearing a coat with a sort of fur trim, a collar. And so we all lined up and we got on the bus, which took us to Tanforan, which is the horse racing track. Similar to like a lot of our Southern California internees went to Pomona fairgrounds or the Santa Anita racetrack, and so Topaz was our first camp. And, of course, you know, we were put there during the duration of the building of the camps.

KL: Had you been to Tanforan before, to the racetrack?

WI: No. And then afterwards... not to go for horse racing, but I think Tanforan used to have circus or some sort of activity of that time. And, of course, it's gone now, and Tanforan is now a shopping center. But they do have a memorial there that says "The former site of Tanforan."

KL: What did you see when you got there?

WI: At Tanforan? First thing I remember was the smell. Because they took us to the stables, because the barracks on the infield was still being built. So the early evacuees had to stay in actually the horse stables, which reeked of horse manure, huge horse flies flying around, and then, of course it was dirt and then the stench, because it wasn't really cleaned out. If they hosed it before we arrived, it's not going to take care of the stench. And then, of course, they had folding cots, army-issued cots. "Where's the mattresses?" Says, "Well, those white sacks over there, you fill it up with the straws that are piled up in front of the stables," and filled up your own mattresses, so you virtually slept on straws. And God help if you had any kind of allergies. But that was the very first encounter. And again, I'm eight years old, and I'm sort of looking at this as some sort of adventure, going to a camp or something. But then the realization soon hits when you see your grandparents and your parents going through such anguish.

KL: How did they respond, can you describe their...

WI: They couldn't believe that this is where we're gonna be living. One little lightbulb hanging there, no shades or nothing, you had to make your own cardboard shades. And you had to scrounge for wood that's left over from the barracks being built inland to make a little table, to make a little chair or whatever. And fortunately, Tanforan, the climate isn't as bad as what we eventually experienced in Topaz.

KL: Who was in your unit in Tanforan?

WI: Well, our immediate family, and then a lot of our neighbors who I don't remember now were also from the community. So everyone more or less knew each other.

KL: Was it like a room where you guys were, or a stall?

WI: It was a stable, yeah, a stall, basically a stall.

KL: And were your neighbors in there with you?

WI: The next. So if Seabiscuit was in one, and then next to it was whatever horse. It was basically that. So it was very community.

KL: In your stall, who was there?

WI: Just my mother, father, sister and myself. And then I think my grandparents and my uncles were in the next one. Or maybe not, because we weren't necessarily evacuated as a group. I think they went by some sort of alphabetical system or whatever. So we didn't really travel together or whatever. Because some of the things I do recollect is when we arrived on open truck to Topaz, the alkaline dust that was blowing around, the black suit that my grandfather wore, the shoulders, it was all white, his hat was all white with dust. We were just covered with dust.

KL: Let me ask a couple more questions about Tanforan if that's okay.

WI: Sure.

KL: What was a daily, were you guys in that stall the entirety of your time at Tanforan?

WI: We had a tight curfew. So in the evening I don't remember the exact time, but there were fellow internees that were relegated to be block police or those that went and with a clipboard, took roll call.

KL: Every night?

WI: Every night, yeah. Make sure we were all there. And then right outside, they had the wire mesh fences where you had the military with rifles marching up and down patrolling to make sure. And so the roll call was pretty strict. We had to be there in our stalls and give a head count.

KL: What about during the day? What did you do during a typical day?

WI: Well, as kids, we ran around the place, visited other friends in other stalls. Some of the men took mess hall patrol and did cooking and things of that nature. We weren't too sure how long we were gonna be there. I think the older people knew that this was just a temporary stop. So they didn't make any efforts to do any sort of camp improvement, just to try to keep it decently clean. So I guess a lot of people were on the cleaning patrol as well as kitchen patrol and whatever. But then I think it was shorter, maybe six months that the camps inland was ready for occupancy.

KL: Do you know what month you arrived at Tanforan?

WI: February, I believe.

KL: So there was no school or any kind of a daily routine?

WI: With the kids they tried to maintain some semblance of order by having classes and all. So I remember being herded to one of the completed barracks that had tables and chairs set up, and they tried to continue doing schooling, so there was schooling and all. And, of course, religious services at Buddhist church. See, a lot of the Buddhist ministers or reverends were sent up to Tule Lake because they were considered subversive. And so Buddhist churches and all that didn't really have ordained reverends conducting the things. I guess the true Buddhists had their own service and did whatever they can.

KL: Did you guys have visitors at Tanforan ever?

WI: I think so, because I remember some of my classmates bringing gifts and all that. Now, I don't know if that was like a formal visiting session or... a lot of them came and we would meet through the fence. And, of course, the patrol guys would come by and they had rifles, and we were all kids, so we were fascinated. And some of the guards were very friendly and actually sympathetic, and would let us touch the rifle and talk to us and all that. So I do remember some of the kind guards. I think a lot of the guards, you know, they were thrown into a situation themselves that they weren't really familiar with. A lot of them had never actually seen a Japanese person, and suddenly here they're confronted with guarding all of us. And like maybe watching some old wartime movie that we were barbaric savages that would cut their throats.

KL: That's interesting that you had some interactions, though, with people as individuals.

WI: Yeah, right.

KL: Did you... this would have to be kind of looking back on it, but did you observe any coping mechanisms that your parents or your grandparents employed? Did their demeanor or behaviors change and how, if so? I mean, I don't know that I would have picked up on that as a seven-year-old.

WI: Well, yeah, that's true. But you know, I'm sure... well, their attitudes changed. They were in the situation they had no control over a happy life like we experienced on New Year's and Cherry Blossom Festival, those things were like, "Are we ever gonna have that kind of an experience ever again?" And so, see, I tried to put myself in their place at that age. So if that happened to me now, I mean, it would be such a horrendous to suddenly lose your home and separated from all your kids and grandkids and not knowing what the future is going to bring. But that would have been horrendous, and I think a lot of my friends still harbor that resentment, especially those that were older that was going to university or even high school to have it totally interrupted. And then not knowing am I ever going to get a degree, and ever going to be able to find a good job. So it's not knowing.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

KL: You guys ended up in Topaz and you were talking about the dust on the open truck. How did you get from Tanforan to Topaz?

WI: By train.

KL: What do you remember about the train?

WI: We had to keep our blinds down, and it was like we were going to a secret destination which they didn't want us to know about. And then as the train would pull into all these little train stops, sometimes you'll hear outside, "Oh, bunch of Japs," and they'll be throwing rocks at the train, thump, thump, thump. We're inside, but you hear all this thumping, finally the train will pull out.

KL: How was that for you as a kid?

WI: Oh, it was a little scary, it was a little scary. Because I've never experienced any sort of anger of that nature. It was a little concerning.

KL: What time of day was it that you arrived at Delta or at Topaz?

WI: Yeah, it was day, and it was probably early afternoon, because I do remember the, it was windy and the alkaline dust was blowing around. And it was warm because we were dressed like you would in San Francisco, and suddenly it's that heat. It was fortunately dry heat. Then we thought, oh, finally, as we could see the barracks in the distance, and we got to the point where we were, we departed the buses and trucks and were assigned our barracks. And we went in feeling, oh boy, we're gonna escape this heat. It was as hot inside, because no insulation. There were just wooden buildings with tarpaper for insulation, nothing else. And then sitting in the middle of the room was a potbelly stove where we would burn coal during the winter to keep warm. But during the summer you had to leave the windows open for cross ventilation. And at that time the alkaline dust would be blowing in and out, so my mother said, "Oh, we can't leave the doors and windows open because look at how dusty it is." But then without it, it was scorching hot, and it was just something that we never really experienced that type of climate change.

And then, of course, when winter came... well, yeah, when the following winter came, winter of '42, never experienced such cold. It was horrendous. And then, of course, we were only able to bring what we could bring. So the necessities that we brought were our basic San Francisco clothes, so we had to get the Sears and Roebuck and the Montgomery Ward catalogs to order winter clothes, jackets and boots, scarves. I never experienced where you have to wear mittens and gloves and earmuffs. This is all a new experience for me. And so that first winter, everybody made a big dash for the community area where the trucks would come and dump coals, and we had little coal buckets, and we would all make a dash for the truck, get the best pieces of coal, we had to scramble. And then we would all huddle around the potbelly stove for warmth, because if you ventured too far from the stove to where our beds were, it was just freezing. So that was it.

KL: What was your apartment, or your address?

WI: 31-12-C. Barrack 31, Building 12, Apartment C.

KL: Who was in there with you?

WI: That was basically my mother, father, my sister and myself, four of us.

KL: How did you guys...

WI: In a room not too much bigger than here.

KL: How did you guys set up that room? Same kind of question as for your house in San Francisco. If we walked in the door, what was where?

WI: Yeah. Well, I don't remember too much strategically where we had our beds, but I remember a lot of our blankets were hung for a partition. So where my mother and father slept, the blankets hung in partition, and then I had one corner and my sister had the other corner. And then around the middle we had the stove, well, the stove maybe favored one wall, and then we had a little table, and the table was makeshift. My father gathered leftover lumber from the barracks that was built, and made makeshift tables and chairs and whatever.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

KL: Would you compare... I'd like to hear about the school in Topaz. Sometimes it's easiest to compare things to something else, so maybe how it compared to your school in San Francisco.

WI: Well, of course, when I was going to school, American school, it was ethnically mixed. And then when I went to Japanese school, it was a different discipline. But now in camp, the class is all Japanese kids, but we didn't have to maintain that strict discipline as the Japanese school, so that was a change. So now we were all kids just going to kindergarten and first grade and whatever, and had a looser atmosphere. But the kids were all Japanese kids.

KL: What was the school?

WI: The school was designated in one of the barracks. The way the camp was laid out, we had a mess hall, and it was all community. And then, of course, the bathrooms and the latrines were all community. And then one of the barracks was designated for school, and I think each room was a different grade level. I think that's how it was.

KL: Any teachers stand out, or any memorable friends or lessons?

WI: Well, see, we had Caucasian teachers that were recruited from the outside, or those that volunteered and wanted to come into camp, because they had to live in camp. So there was a number of Caucasian teachers that came in. And then a lot of the teaching assistants were young Japanese students that were taking teaching in college. So they became my teaching assistants. Some of those that had full credentials were full time teachers. So I thought the school, thinking back, was very good. We did learn a lot, and it was disciplined. We got report cards and our parents knew what we were up to, you know. And again, I kept taking art classes. Kids of my age, we had groups that, like Shig, that was very athletic. They were always out to play ball and play some sort of game. But I would love to go home and start drawing.

Now, one of the things that I did, I mentioned the Sears and Roebuck catalog. So every three months they would send us new ones. So with the old expired ones, on the edges of the margin I would make a little animation and then you flip it. So I made my flipbooks, which was my first or early foray into the art of animation. So that's how I amused myself.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

KL: This is a little weird to ask these question because I know parts of the answers, but did your folks work in camp?

WI: Yeah. My father was the, took up barbering. So he became barber in camp. And then about maybe three months before we were allowed to go, we left camp, my dad left early. And remember I told you --

KL: When was that that you left?

WI: In 1945, let me see. I would say January or February.

KL: Okay. I probably have it written down somewhere but not easy to access. Okay, early 1945.

WI: Yeah. And because he made all those arts and crafty brooches and things, so he gathered all his supply and went back to Chicago. And around Lake Michigan, all the fancy hotels, he approached the gift shops there and sold the little brooches and stuff and then made a few bucks. And then he returned to San Francisco and enrolled in barber college.

KL: Did he barber in Topaz?

WI: That's where he started up, yeah. But, of course, to be commercial you have to get a license, so he needed to go to barber college, which he did.

KL: Where was his shop in Topaz, where did he cut hair or beards...

WI: I think it was like a community center place where we had... well, basically community center, yeah.

KL: What about your mom? How did she fill her days?

WI: Oh, she was, had her hands full keeping the dust out of the barracks. But she was very domestic and did all that. Of course, one of the things that wives didn't have to worry about was cooking, because we all went to the common mess hall. But my mom did, took care of us.

KL: Your sister was pretty little, still, too.

WI: Yeah, she was five at that time.

KL: Did you ever go to a library in Topaz? I was amazed, I read in the Densho encyclopedia that there were four hundred and fifty visitors daily to one of the libraries in Topaz.

WI: Oh. Well, I don't really recall physically going to a library and sitting there and all that. I may have, because I remember before going to camp, I used to find books on animation and cartooning, so I very much may have gone to the library to see if I could find anything of this nature.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

KL: You described a roll call sort of, or like attendance in the evening at Tanforan as part of the daily routine. Was there anything like that in Topaz, a curfew or a count?

WI: Yeah, at the beginning they were, they still needed to monitor everyone, make sure everyone was there, whatever. But of course, by then, you're right in the middle of the desert, and the closest town is sixteen miles away, of all desert. So if anyone wants to get out or attempt escape, what are you going to do? But yeah, they did come around.

KL: So that was at first, and then that...

WI: Yeah, things sort of started to get a little more lax.

KL: What about any encounters with the MPs or guards or anything in Topaz?

WI: Well, you heard of that one story of the guard that shot.

KL: I have. Do you recall, do you have recollections of that happening?

WI: I heard various versions of it, like the guy's dog just sort of got away from him, and the dog was running towards the barbed wire fence. And he was just chasing the dog and the guard said, "Halt, halt," but it turns out he was hard of hearing. I don't know if... that's the way I kind of heard it. I heard different versions of eventually, and then he got shot.

KL: Did that have an impact on your behavior or your attitude?

WI: Well, when we first heard that, we were, said, "Okay, don't go anywhere near that barbed wire fence. It's dangerous, the guards are trigger-happy," and a lot of them, they just wanted to... but as it turns out, we never had a close encounter with the guards like Tanforan where they were right there and we would be able to interact with them. They stayed, did their things, changed the sentry, next there's another guard, who knows? But never did. One of our very early encounters when we were able to leave camp to go hiking or go looking for arrowheads in the sand and whatever, we would pass by farmlands, and the farmers would be out in the field and would see us coming and just read the riot act to us. "Get the hell out of here, get back to camp." And that was intimidating, because these guys were real farmer, roughy types, and when they're yelling at you with profanity, it's like, oh, gee, I don't want to be anywhere near these guys. And I guess even going into the town of Delta, you still had a lot of rednecks, I guess you might say, that would see us. So it was kind of impressions that I...

KL: What would they do? Was it similar to the farmers' behavior? What would the people in town respond with when they saw you?

WI: Some of them would kind of glare at you, some of them would say things like, "You're a Jap," kind of, not yelling it out, but you know. So it was uncomfortable to go to camp, or go to town. But especially for grownups, as a kid, maybe you're a little more immune to the subtleties of it. If they're screaming it out, then you go, oh. But if they're subtle about it, adults could catch it but kids, it goes right over your head.

KL: How frequently did you go into Delta?

WI: Well, I think myself personally, I spent more time heading out into the desert hiking and looking for arrowheads. There was a lot of adventure actually being out in the desert. So going to town was not a big deal for me because the adults needed to go shopping and I didn't want to go shopping. If I had an opportunity to get real ice cream cone in Delta, then I said, "Hey I want to go." Because the ice cream we got was ice milk, so that rich, creamy ice cream was... so when we finally left camp, my uncle, the one I was telling you about, was working at the Golden State ice cream factory in Salt Lake City, so we went there to visit, and I got my first real true ice cream cone. On, I still remember that first lick, oh my gosh. This is really something. Then, of course, I was older then, too, to appreciate it more.

KL: Near Topaz there was a former CCC camp, what was its name, Antelope Springs, about 90 miles west of the camp? Were you ever there, or it was more local, when you would go out into the desert, you would just kind of go from camp and look around.

WI: Yeah, right. The CCC, what was that?

KL: It was a former camp from the '30s for the Civilian Conservation Corps. But then I guess -- Manzanar didn't have anything like this -- but Topaz, it became part of Topaz and it was like a place where people could go tent camp or hike or whatever.

WI: No, I was unfamiliar with that.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

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.

<Begin Segment 16>

KL: In Manzanar I've heard a lot of accounts that it was typical that there would be more Issei or more Kibei people working in the mess halls, and I don't know, do you think that was true of Topaz, or do you have a sense for that?

WI: Well, that's true, too, because if the majority of those in camp favored Japanese cuisine, leaving it up to the Isseis and Kibeis would be a good bet. Because most of the Niseis... although that age group, we all grew up eating Japanese food, but how proficient they became as chefs, that's the question. But the Isseis were available to work in the mess halls. And so I think that would have been the logical thing. And the Kibeis also were very well versed in Japanese cooking. It was kind of a funny period because the Kibeis and the Niseis, they really get together. Technically my father is a Kibei, Kibei-Nisei.

KL: Yeah, where did he fall in that dynamic?

WI: Most of his friends were like the older Niseis. And as I recall, after the war, his customers at the barber shop were older, mostly Isseis. But for some reason, the younger Niseis and the Kibeis, they were like night and day. They didn't really get along, play together, and the whole bit. And then, of course, later -- I'm kind of jumping ahead -- the 100th Battalion out of Hawaii and the local Niseis that were in the 442, they didn't get along either. And at that time when they said, okay, we're gonna put all the Japanese Americans in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to train together, the Japanese community said, "Oh, the kanakas and the kotonks, they're not gonna get along at all." And sure enough, when they were pitted together at Camp Shelby, there was that animosity between them. But in war you just merge together, and of course, history-wise, the most decorated unit of the war, such a proud outfit that it's a legacy that for us younger guys, we can be proud of.

KL: You said your dad's friends typically though were Nisei, not so much Kibei friends?

WI: Right, right, yeah.

KL: So back to the 442nd commentary you were giving, did you have anyone in your life who volunteered from Topaz, or were you acquainted with people who did military service from the camp?

WI: Yeah. I can't recall anyone from... someone that I knew closely in Topaz. I became more aware of the 442 later. While I was in camp, I had no idea or even recollection of any mentioning of it.

KL: Do you remember any, I mean, again, you were really young and I would have picked up on this as a kid, but do you remember any conversations about older people's attitudes or even kids' attitudes toward that question of whether it was appropriate to volunteer or do the draft?

WI: Yeah, not so much at that time. I remember Sergeant Ben Kuroki's name being bantered around, and he was making the rounds of the camps to propaganda and try to get a lot of volunteers and all that, you know. And there was a lot of criticism about that. But outside of that, the exploits of the 442 weren't really that publicized while I was there in camp. I'm sure it was being talked about with the older generations that would hear about it.

KL: Yeah, Ben Kuroki came to Topaz.

WI: Oh, he did come, yeah, okay. I kept thinking I do remember the hoopla of this "hero." But I wasn't too much into war games, more cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. Once in a while, recreation-wise, they would run wartime movies at the recreation hall on Saturday nights, it was one of those John Wayne wartime movies. And we would, of course, root for John Wayne. We would hiss at the Japanese flag on the screen, yay, and so... it's funny with kids and their mentality and whatever. But yeah, those were some of the things that I remember as far as the war was concerned.

KL: Where did your grandparents live in the camp?

WI: Well, let's see. The camp was divided into sections, and it was Mountain View and Desert View. And even the schools were called Desert View school and Mountain View school. And I think, if I recall, we were in the Mountain View, but that's all I can remember. [Laughs]

KL: Were your grandparents in the same block as you?

WI: No. They were in a different -- oh, I'm sorry. Same block but different barrack.

KL: Okay. And so that garden was pretty close?

WI: Oh, yeah, yeah, we used to go visit. I used to call them Ojiichan and Obaachan, go over and visit. One of the things I remember is whenever we visited my grandparents when we were in San Francisco, is they would always have treats for us. So even in camp, even though how scarce it was to get certain things, they would always have a little treat for me, a piece of candy or whatever. Because, you know, as you know, we had the canteen that you could go to and buy a few things and whatever. But it was fairly vivid. Catalog, my mother being Americanized, Christmas was a big deal. So before camp, I would hang up, my sister and I would hang up our stockings, and the next morning the stocking would be brimming over with little tchotchke things, candy and things of that nature, candy cane. And even in camp, with the limited resource and everything, my mother managed to, we would hang our stockings. We couldn't hang it on the stove because that stove was going full blast. But somewhere near the stove, and my mother would say, "Well, Santa Claus is going to come through here," and I would get a stocking full of goodies. And I guess they would order through Sears & Roebuck catalog all kind of toys and goodies. They try to maintain as much normalcy as they could. So that was good for them, because in retrospect, I think, god, that took a lot of effort. My dad as a barber made, what was it, nineteen dollars?

KL: That was the top end, typically.

WI: Oh, then I don't think as an apprentice barber he would have got that. But whatever he got, it was put to good use, I guess you might say.

KL: Yeah, that's a testimony to their caring.

WI: Yeah.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

KL: This is a harder question to ask and I'm sure to answer, too, but you lost your grandfather, I think, in the camp.

WI: Yeah, out of broken heart. He just, he got sickly, and then I guess it was like he just sort of gave up. I'm not really too sure his age, I have to look at my uncle's notes, but he was fairly young.

KL: What was the effect on your grandmother and on other members of your family?

WI: Oh, well, it was quite devastating, being the patriarch, and with five offsprings. And so my cousin, which was my mother's older sister, they were in Amache, and they were allowed to come to Topaz to attend the funeral. And I remember that very vividly because that was the first funeral that I have ever attended and actually seeing someone that's passed on in the coffin. And I don't think back then the dressing up of a corpse was very good, because he looked dead. I remember that, like, oh my gosh, that's not my grandfather at all. And then we had that long procession to the town of Delta where they put him on the train and shipped him to a mortuary in Salt Lake City. And then... so I remember I couldn't swallow, my throat just... so I held my saliva from the funeral, and that long drive all the way to Delta, and then when we finally got there, I sort of snuck away and I had a mouthful of saliva, my throat was just so constricted. So that was an odd reaction. So then thereafter, when I had to attend other funerals, I was afraid that I was going to experience the same type of thing, but it was fine. Because my grandmother passed away and went to the funeral and I was fine. But yeah, it's strange how, as a kid, certain things just sort of have a profound effect.

KL: Was his body sent back to...

WI: Yeah, it was sent back... from Salt Lake it was cremated, and then his ashes is now up in San Francisco at the Japanese cemetery up there.

KL: Yeah, it sounds like it was very affecting for you to have that kind of physical reaction, and it sounds like an affectionate relationship.

WI: Yeah, it was.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

KL: So we've mentioned your parents, your grandparents, Ben Kuroki, kind of a discussion about him, the gentleman who was shot whose name was James Wakasa. Were there any other people from your time at Topaz that were either leaders that kind of affected you indirectly, or close friends or any other people that stand out from your time there?

WI: Not so much my time there, but thereafter when we came back, and like a fellow named Fred Hoshiyama got the YMCA rejuvenated and got all of us in the community to attend. And I guess, again, it was a period where we were all so haphazardly coming back. Well, of course, the community was always afraid that we would all go wayward, because before the war, the parental guidance was very strong in our community. But after the war, now, they're all scrambling to try to reestablish themselves working as domestics and doing whatever they can, the kids are running around on the streets of San Francisco just unattended. Some guys like Fred Hoshiyama who reestablished the YMCA program, so we had somewhere to go to to learn sports and be involved in sports is good, and then eventually Boy Scout Troop 12 was formed, or reformed, let's see, 1947. So it was like two years after we came back that now we had structure with Boy Scouts. And then by then, a lot of the clubs according to age group would start forming their own basketball clubs and teams, playing against the other basketball teams. And I was a member of a group called the Barons, the San Francisco Barons. And to this day, we're still in existence. And next year we'll all be going up to San Francisco for our eightieth reunion.

KL: Will you play basketball?

WI: [Laughs] That I doubt. Shig would. Shig is eighty-two, he's a couple year older than me, he still plays basketball every week.

KL: Who is Shig for the tape?

WI: Shig Yabu is my partner in crime. We both grew up postwar San Francisco, and we were close friends. And we were in the Boy Scouts together, and then at the time of the draft, Shig volunteered for the navy and moved down to San Diego. I in the meantime continued my school and came down and went to Chouinard. And throughout the years, every five years, six years or something, we sort of get in touch with each other. But he was running the Boys & Girls Club of San Diego, he was the executive director of that club there. And so he moved up to Camarillo and then they formed the Boys & Girls Club of America there, and he became the director of that.

So anyhow, he always knew I loved drawing, he knew I was in the industry, so he contacted me in 1998, and he says, "I wrote a book," about his pet magpie that he had in Heart Mountain. And he says, "Would you be interested in illustrating it?" And I still had a year to go before I retired, so I said, "Oh, Shig, I'm so busy right now," found excuses to get out of it. But I said, "I'll tell you what, Shig, send me the manuscript and let me look it over," which he did. Then I finally retired, and one day I was in my office and I picked up the manuscript and I read it, I said, "Oh my gosh, this is about his adventure in Heart Mountain, and that's a subject that I would love to tackle." And so I got back to Shig and I says, "Hey, let me see what I can do with this." So I took the manuscript and I illustrated it and the rest is history.

And suddenly I just kind of felt, wow, maybe this is my calling. I should be doing these books reflecting camp stories. So in my retirement now, that's what I'm doing. And Shig is all excited, too, and he wrote the draft for A Boy of Heart Mountain, but we assigned it to a professional writer that I used to work with her Disney Studio. So she took A Boy of Heart Mountain, wonderful story, and made it a chapter book. And so now I'm working on Kimiko, and then I have...

KL: Why don't you tell us a little bit more about that project while we're on that?

WI: Kimiko?

KL: Yeah.

WI: Well, again, when I stood on the hallowed grounds of Topaz, I got sort of inspired. You don't hear too much about Topaz through all of these camp dedications and this and that. But having gone and actually experiencing Topaz after seventy years, it was quite an experience. So one night when I was laying in bed at the hotel in Delta, I started thinking about Topaz and the moving experience I had earlier that day.

KL: And what was that? We heard it but the tape hasn't.

WI: Yeah. Well, my docent, Jane Beckwith, says, "This is where your barrack was, 31 and 12, this is about where the unit was. And then here's C, this is, should be approximately where the front door is," but right now there's nothing there, not even an old foundation. It was just nothing. But that gave me a clear view of the Utah desert with the mountain range far in the distance. And I'm thinking, gee, I remember walking out there in the desert looking for arrowheads and seashells and things. But the adventure that I had, because the wind would come up and the tumbling weeds, and I thought that was really quite a memory that I'm enjoying. Then when that wind hit me, it was unlike any wind hitting me in the face that I have ever experienced. Not San Francisco wind, not Los Angeles wind, not Disneyland wind, it was just uniquely a Topaz experience. And I think that's what gave me the... suddenly I felt so inspired. So I just kind of stood there for the longest time with my memory just... and again, behind me were people taking pictures and people yakking and talking about camp, but I was kind of in a world of my own, just sort of experiencing this. And so I guess that night I thought, "I'm going to write a book about Topaz," or at least have Topaz as the central camp. So I wrote up a story, came home, put it down on paper. Well, I should have started well into it by now, but too much distractions.

KL: There's life, you know. [Laughs]

WI: It's not autobiographical, but I used certain things that was my own personal experience. And so hopefully the book will appeal to young girls. Hello Maggie! is, it could be boy or girl because it's basically a bird. Boy of Heart Mountain was this boy of Heart Mountain. So I remember the museum, JANM would call and ask, "Is this book good for girls to read, too?" because it says "boy." And I said, "Well, I think when you get into it, it's sort of bisexual." [Laughs]

KL: It works for anybody. [Laughs]

WI: But I think hopefully Kimiko will be our next answer.

KL: Yeah, I'm excited that you're working on it.

WI: Well, thank you, yes.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

KL: Back to sort of immediate, or the two years postwar San Francisco timeframe, you talked earlier about how there were a lot of African American and southern migrant workers who had come in. Was it difficult for you guys to reassimilate, for your family in particular?

WI: Yeah, well, you know, since our enclave changed so drastically that it was like we weren't too sure. Have we assimilated or are we just back to an old neighborhood that has changed demographically or what. So the first day of school they gathered us all out in the yard, and the principal came out and said, "Well, here it is September 1945, the war has ended, and many of our Japanese American friends have returned. And so we would like to welcome them back, and that they are our classmates now." Then I look over and there's a big cluster of African American kids all sort of looking somewhat angry, like, "This is our territory now." So we were gonna hang on to a type of attitude. And so it took a little bit of getting over that re-acclimation, the hard part. But then as it turned out, see, like that YMCA that Fred Hoshiyama set up, lot of African American kids were also members there. Then we came, and then we assimilated, and then we became great pals. And then in school, our African American friends and us, we really got well together, got along. To this day, even our high school reunion that I went to school with these... unfortunately, many of those are now gone. But oh, we stayed in touch and we became the best of friends. But I think it was more of the hard core business owners in Japantown that was threatened because their businesses might be taken away or we would reclaim the Japanese sukiyaki restaurant, or whatever the case may be.

But there was a little bit of that, and then, of course, a lot of southerners have never experienced living side by side with Japanese Americans. A sprinkling of Chinese, because Chinese are all over. They have Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants everywhere. But because of the war, the Japanese quietly kind of got away from their enclave and resettled in other areas that people weren't used to seeing us. So I think a lot of the southerners that came out here has never seen us, worked with us or lived with us, so it was a whole new experience. Everyone's kind of cautious. But that was an interesting period of readjusting.

KL: How long do you think it took for the friendships to form and the suspicion to...

WI: Well, as a kid, kids tend to be a little more... but the older folks, they're always a little more suspicious. Then, of course, these little Issei Japanese women, they'll be sort of afraid to walk the streets or go shopping. Whereas before the war, no matter what time of the day or evening, they could freely walk down and go to the market and whatever. But after the war, once it got dark, they stayed in their homes. So, you know, it took a little while. But the YMCA program, a lot of the big athletes, in San Francisco that played basketball in San Francisco stayed, or the San Francisco 49ers, they would all come down to Japantown because Japantown was "Bop City." And so they would hang out there, we would see and say, "Wow, that's [inaudible] or Joe Perry or whatever from the 49ers, and we'd go up and talk to them, and it was such a nice friendship and whatever. And then you'd go to the YMCA, and there they are, shooting hoops and, "Ooh, that's so and so." So it was good for the community.

KL: The one time I walked around Japantown I didn't see a lot of vestiges left of that Bop City identity. When do you think that...

WI: You saw that new section that was rebuilt from scratch? They tore it down completely and rebuilt where the hotel is. That's when they all left, and that's where it became pretty much hundred percent Japanese. So those that did migrate away from what was left of Japantown settled on Fillmore Street. Fillmore is just... well, it's one of those big avenues that after the earthquake, San Francisco earthquake, Market Street was devastated. So Fillmore Street suddenly became overnight the shopping area. And then that was the area that the Japanese Americans were able to settle and form a Japantown. And so today, Market Street is... oh, I'm sorry. Fillmore Street still has a lot of the African American shops and stores. San Francisco is so funny because it's defined division. You go up to Sutter Street, which is African American, then after that it's sort of like it became... what's the word?

KL: Urban renewal or something? Gentrification?

WI: You know, young guys with BMWs and all that.

KL: Yuppie?

WI: Yuppie coffee shops. Lot of coffee shops and trendy little shops. But that one street, Sutter, and then down is liquor stores and bars. [Laughs] So it's like... and then boom, next street over is Japantown, it's all basically, it's not one of these gradual transitions, boom, boom. Pacific Heights, here's all the ritzy homes and whatever. But Pacific Avenue is, like, boom, defined. So San Francisco is funny that way.

KL: What were the schools that you attended after the war? You mentioned that principal who gave that address, where was that?

WI: That was called Pacific Heights, and that was like a middle school. And then after I graduated there I went to Polytechnic High. And the reason for that is it was the only high school in the city that offered Cartooning 101. [Laughs] All the other schools were pretty academic. You went to Washington High if you excelled in basketball, and you went to Poly High, the one I went to, because they had the championship football team. Lowell High School, where a lot of my Japanese American friends attended, was academic. Oh, very academic. So you had a lot of Chinese kids in there, a lot of Japanese kids in there. I could never make the grade there, so thank goodness for Polytechnic. [Laughs] So that's where I graduated from.

KL: Were those all public schools?

WI: Yeah.

KL: It was kind of like a magnet system for the public schools in your area.

WI: Just plain old public high schools, yeah.

KL: But you chose your discipline. That's interesting, that's a different model than a lot of places use now.

WI: San Francisco is such that they didn't put us into districts, or you had to go to this school because you lived in this, you were kind of free to pick and choose, which was fortunate.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

KL: What about after that? I would like to hear about your career.

WI: Okay. After I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist. But I was seventeen when I graduated high school, so I was figuring, okay, I've got to go to college a couple of years. So I attended San Francisco City College, which is a two-year school, at which time I took nothing but art, art courses. And so when it was getting close to graduating, my friends, my contemporaries, all that, they were now attending Cal Berkeley, you know, University of California Berkeley, Stanford, University of San Francisco, taking up things like pharmacy, pre-med, engineering, lot of the girls were taking, going into teaching and all that. So I started thinking, I says, "God, I want to be a cartoonist, but that seems so inhumanitarian. Everyone else is doing something so substantial." [Laughs]

So I went to my art instructor and I said, "You know, since I like doing fine rendering and muscles and all that, I think I'm going to pursue medical illustrating." And he looked me straight in the eye and just said, "You're not gonna be happy." He says, "You're destined to be a cartoonist, an animator." So he says, "Here's what I'm gonna do. My contemporary at Chouinard Art Institute, Don Graham, is the dean of the school. I'm gonna write him a letter of introduction, and this summer, you go down to L.A., take your portfolio, and apply for a scholarship." And I'm thinking, "It'll never happen." So I, the day arrived for me to leave, I told my mom and dad, "Well, I'll be home in the fall, and I'll probably attend San Francisco Art..." I forgot the name of the school even. "But I'll be home, so keep my bed warm." So I came down, I applied for the scholarship, and I was awarded the scholarship. But it was a working scholarship for the summer, so I figured once the summer's over, if I choose to stay or I deem myself good enough to continue, then my dad had the college fund set aside for me, so I might do that.

Then while I was taking classes, I always, always wanted to see the inside of Walt Disney Studios. I just grew up looking at the Encyclopedia Britannica and I would go right to "animation" and I would see pictures of the Disney Studio. Oh, I was obsessed since I was five. So I said, well, as long as I have my portfolio, I'm going to use it as a ticket to see the inside of the studio. I seriously don't expect to be hired because I'm not finished art school, I don't have a degree and whatever. So picked up the phone, called Disney personnel, and they granted me an interview. So, again, it was a hot summer day in Burbank. A friend of mine drove me up there, I was dressed in my San Francisco vest, which was a wool jacket and tweed slacks. [Laughs] And even my necktie was tweed. Everything was just hot. And I'm carrying this portfolio which weighs a ton. And he dropped me off in front of the studio, and I see the sign, Walt Disney Productions. Oh, I was so intimidated, I thought, "Oh, this is it." But here's this little Japanese boy that grew up in the camps with nothing but Japanese. I come home, I'm living in my enclave of nothing but Japanese in Japantown, and here I am at Walt Disney Studios. I really didn't know what to expect. So I walk on to the lot, and the animation building, the big sign, "Animation." And there's a signpost that says, "Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive," which you see pictures in all these books about animation. I said, wow, there's that iconic sign, and I just kind of rubbed up against it. [Laughs]

I finally went into the building, and the blast of the refrigerated air conditioning. But meanwhile, the walk from the parking lot to the animation building, I had really worked up a sweat with my San Francisco vest. So I walk in and I see the elevator and I know I have to go to the fourth floor so I pressed the button. The elevator door swings open and I step in and press four and I'm waiting, and the door starts to close. Then suddenly it swings open, and there standing before me is Walt Disney himself. And he's with an associate and they're both yakking away, but as they step into the elevator, Uncle Walt looks right at me and acknowledges my presence with a polite nod. Then they both turn around and they continue yakking. And then, meanwhile, the elevator starts up, and I'm looking at the back of Walt's head, thinking, "Oh, my god." World's longest elevator ride for four floors.

Then finally we get up there, the door swings open, they leave screen right, I go over to personnel and I announce my arrival. Ken Sealing was the personnel manager, so he gets on the intercom and says, "Mr. Ito's here now for his appointment." So a couple minutes later, in comes two guys and one big hulking guy with kind of a pink face, and he was like a production supervisor. Well, following behind him, the contrast, was a little Asian guy, and he had this kind of look on his face like, "What am I doing here?" type of look, with a crew cut. So I got totally intimidated again seeing someone I totally didn't expect to see. But then when we were introduced, "I'd like you to meet Iwao Takamoto, one of our animators." "Willie Ito," and shook his hand. So I kind of relaxed and everything and we made chit-chat. And then they took my portfolio and went in the other room, and I sat in the outer room. But on the walls, just covered with original Walt Disney animation art that I just couldn't get enough of. So finally Ken Sealing emerged and says, "Well, thank you for coming in. We enjoyed looking at your portfolio. Don't call us, we'll call you." Says, "Hey, I know the routine," I'm thinking. I'll just finish school and I'll wow them with my professional portfolio that I learned four years in school.

So about two weeks later I came home from night school, I was tired, and it was hot in school, and I had to clean up the ceramics room, had all the dusty clay thing, my hair was all covered with it, whatever. I came home, and I was just ready to hit the sack. But there was a Western Union telegram stuck in my door. Oh my goodness, so I gingerly opened it, and, of course, back then, a telegram could only mean extremely good news or bad news. And being away from home with my parents up there, I go, oh, my gosh. So I read it and it says it came from Walt Disney Productions. "Please report to the studio Monday morning, 8 a.m." So I did.

And walking, I got off the bus and you'd walk up half a block to the studio main entry, and parked in front of the studio was an old Helm's Bakery truck. Now, I'm sure you don't remember that, but that was one of the things. Like you had food trucks that stop in front of a place, back then it was like the Helm's Bakery that stopped there. And I think it was a nickel apiece, I bought six doughnuts. Two for breakfast, two for lunch, and two for dinner. That's all I could afford, being a student. And so I walk into the studio, now I'm more intimidated than ever. So I report to our production manager and he assigns me a desk and gives me a bunch of drawings of various Disney characters, Goofy and whatever. So I spent the morning practicing drawing the characters, and then at noon I turned it in, went out to lunch.

After lunch I came back and he says, "Well, we reviewed your drawings, we like it very much, and you're hired." Oh, my goodness. So he says, "We're going to start you in the lady unit. And I'm thinking, "Lady unit?" Ink and paint is all ladies, and maybe that's an entry level. When you go in and you trace drawings on acetate and color, and so I thought that was it. But I figured, well, I'm in the studio, so I'll make the most of it. Well, it turned out that lady meant lady from Lady and the Tramp. And so he told me to go report to my, the fellow that's going to train me, and so I walk up the hall, knock on the door, "Come in." Open it, and there's Iwao Takamoto standing there. He says, "Yeah, welcome aboard. You're going to be working with me on Lady and the Tramp," and whatever.

And so that's how it started. He was such a precise artist that I felt I could never learn how to do this the way he does it. He did it with such ease, and every drawing he made was perfect. Every drawing I made, I didn't think was perfect at all and needed a lot of guidance. But I persevered, and after about six months, the production of Lady and the Tramp was coming to an end. So I worked on other scenes other than under Iwao's tutelage, and then finally we completed, we went on overtime, so consequently, because of overtime, I couldn't continue my schooling at Chouinard except for Saturdays. But by Saturdays I was so burnt out. But it worked out.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

KL: So this is tape four, we're continuing an interview on December 5, 2013, with Willie Ito.

WI: Pretty soon it will be the 7th.

KL: [Laughs] Yeah, we won't keep you here that long, I don't think. We left off talking about a mentor of yours, Iwao Takamoto, who's important in Manzanar's past, too, and he was your mentor at Disney and the person who interviewed you, and he came back into your life later, too. So I wonder if you could kind of share with us what happened in between and how he came back into your life.

WI: Well, when Lady and the Tramp was completed, the next feature, which was Sleeping Beauty, was still a few months away. So the other studio I always yearned to work at, well, visit and then work at was Warner Brothers, classic Bugs Bunny, Coyote, Roadrunner, that whole group of characters. So I called that Friday afternoon, when I was called in and told to take a few months off and then come back for Sleeping Beauty. So I went back to my office and I called Warner Brothers and says, "Well, I'm available." Because at that time they told me, "We don't train at Warner's. But once you get trained, we'll hire you." So when I called the production manager at Warner's, I said, "Well, I just got trained at Disney Studio," so he says, "Well, then come on down."

So that following Monday I started at what we refer to as "Termite Terrace." The reason for that is the studio was a real true, truly a dump. Whereas Disney was the state of the art studio with refrigerated air conditioning and just... whereas Termite Terrace, no air conditioning, we had to work in the summer smog of Hollywood with the windows open. But the opportunity really presented itself, because no sooner did I start there that I suddenly found myself promoted in Chuck Jones' unit. And so my career, I felt, was really now rolling along. Disney did call and said, "Well, we're ready for Sleeping Beauty, so ready to come back?" I said, no, I told them how much I was now making and what was my category and all that, and he says, "Well, this is the major leagues, and Warner Brothers is, you're playing in the minors." So I figured, okay, well, I turned down Disney, I'll probably never end up being invited back there. So my next six years of my career at Warner Brothers was really moving along.

Now, I have to also mention, since this is an oral history of camp experience, the Japanese American experience and all that, Iwao was one of those guys hired right practically out of Manzanar. 1945, the war had just barely ended. But, see, in our industry, it's rather unique. They look at your portfolio and they see what you can do. Then they look up and look at your face, and says, "Oh, what is your name?" Willie Ito, Iwao Takamoto. It's all based on what you do, and you get hired. So Iwao was so unique in the fact that being hired right after Manzanar, and in nine years achieved such a reputation as one of the top artists, that he in essence laid the groundwork for all of us that later followed. So nine years later, I started at Disney. There was a few other Japanese American kids that were working there at that time when I came in. But Iwao's reputation was so unique, everybody, all the top animators to work with them. And Iwao was a very unique artist in the fact that he could do female characters, cute characters, with such precision. Like the character in Sleeping Beauty... oh, gosh. Anyway, I can't remember cartoon names anymore.

KL: Is it the villain?

WI: Not... Ariel was the...

KL: Aurora?

WI: Aurora.

KL: The lead? Yeah, yeah.

WI: He was assigned to key all of the Auroras to make her just consistent and perfect. And same with the Lady character, all of the closeup of Lady with the eyelashes and the cuteness like that picture, yeah, Iwao was assigned to key it. But overall he was so extremely talented. And so by the time I got there, there was no need for me to feel any sort of intimidation. And so I just kind of came on and became like one of the boys.

KL: Was he conscious of that, do you think? Did he ever talk with you about...

WI: Yes, he was.

KL: What did he say about that?


WI: Like lunchtimes I used to go and say, "Hey, you want to go get some sushi? We could drive down to Little Tokyo." And he would look at me and say, "I don't eat that stuff." He sort of rejected anything Japanese. Like I would say, "Hey, August is Nisei Week and they have the Obon and all that in Little Tokyo. You gonna go?" And it's like I dared to talk to him about those things. So I thought, "How strange." And all of his studio pals were all Caucasian guys, and he was dating Jane, and drove a Jaguar. And I'm thinking, oh my gosh, this is not the stereotype Japanese American, you know, is my first thought. He was a man about town. But I certainly, certainly can't deny his talent. I mean, he was just so good. So when...

KL: Did you guys ever have a conversation about Manzanar and Topaz? Did he ever speak about that?

WI: Not to any extent. He didn't want to talk about it. He was of that... because he was in school and got all that, so disturbed. So no, we never sat and talked about camp experience. I would say, "Hey, I went to Topaz," and he never reciprocated by saying, "Yeah, I went to Manzanar." [Laughs] Yeah, so it was kind of strange. So when I think back now, and how he used to avoid these things, I said, yeah, okay, he was sort of rejecting his ethnicity to a certain extent. But at the same time, his mother used to do these elaborate oshogatsu New Year's spread and he would go and partake and all that. But then trying to get him to go to lunch in a Japanese restaurant at that time... so years later, I hadn't really seen him for six years. I went to Warner's and then (Snowball or Bob Clampett's) and all that. And then finally when I started at Hanna-Barbera Studio, there was Iwao working there. I said, "Oh my gosh, what are you doing here?" He finally had it up to here with the Disney politics. I guess as talented as he was, he was pigeonholed. Because he was so good that they were reluctant to let him out of that corner to develop himself. And so he finally says, no, it's time to move out. Which was the best thing he ever did, because he became a lifetime member of the Hanna-Barbera company, and then when Hanna-Barbera sold to Warner Brothers, he was the only one retained to go with the company. Even Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera was no longer... well, technically they did retire. But of the whole crew, he was, Iwao was the only one that ended up having an office at the Warner Brother Studios. And unfortunately he passed away on a Sunday when he was supposed to be at work the following Monday.

KL: Yeah, it was really sudden, wasn't it?

WI: Yeah. He was having problems, and the last time I saw him in person, we were doing an oral interview with the animation thing, you know. And he was slow and his breathing was like a hard thing. But we got through the interview, and in front of the mike his sense of humor flourished and we bantered back and forth and whatever. And that was really about the last time. But during the days at Hanna-Barbera we became very close. And we socialized, and he married one of the secretaries at Hanna-Barbera, and we were all close, birthday parties with the kids and all that.

KL: You mentioned something when we were talking earlier, too, about a book of sketches from Manzanar. Would you just tell... I know it's gone, but would you just tell us what that was?

WI: Oh, yeah. Well, it was unfortunate that... well, what happened is as the war was coming to the end and schooling being interrupted and all, he was sort of beside himself as far as, "Now, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna go back to school, what's in the future for me?" A couple guys that were in the art game before the war, says, "Hey, you draw so well. Why don't you get a couple of ten-cent store sketchbooks and if you have time, just sketching anything. People walking, just sketch it, a dog over here." And so he filled up two sketchbooks full of beautiful sketches and drawings. And now remember, Iwao was untrained. He never actually went to art school, he was like a natural. And whether he took some art in school or whatever that I'm not aware of, he never had formal training. So he took those two sketchbooks and made an appointment with the Disney Studio, and boom, he was hired. And, of course, the fact that... well, he felt that he wasn't trained, and when he was just coming out of camp and being Japanese American, "What chance do I have of getting hired at a prestigious studio like Disney Studio?" So that was quite something. So when we worked together at Hanna-Barbera, he excelled because he was given free hand to do what he could do. He wasn't held down by animators that needed a beautiful Aurora or a beautiful Lady or whatever. So boy, the sky's the limit. So he started with the Jetsons and did more Flintstones and all. And I think, of the lineup of all of the Hanna-Barbera characters, he was probably responsible for at least seventy-five percent of designing all the characters. Now, his biggest credit is designing Scooby Doo, and that's where the correction is. He designed Scooby Doo; he didn't create Scooby Doo, but he designed him. So initially he was involved with the creation of the graphics of Scooby Doo, but not the concept and the story and whatever. So when he passed away, of course, publicity says, "Iwao Takamoto, the creator of Scooby Doo," which brought up a number of resentment from some of the writers that actually worked on developing the character. So poor Iwao, after passing on, was still being criticized for taking credit where credit is not due, but that's not right. So that was kind of unfortunate. Iwao has a son named Michael who also worked in the business with us. And his first wife, Jane, was also an animator. That's how they met at Disney Studio. Then Barbara, his widow today, was a secretary and they started dating at the studio and got married.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

KL: Bringing it back to you, you've said that there was kind of a trigger for starting to think back about your own experiences with Japanese American removal and confinement.

WI: Oh, yeah. Well, I always sort of had that in the back of my head, like assimilating in the workforce. When I was going to school, that was fine, it was all fellow students and all that. But then school ends, I come back to my home, and here I am with all my friends in our enclave. So being away from home and being in what you might call the "big white world" was a little scary for me. But like I was saying, in our industry, it's all predicated on what you can do at the drawing board, it's not who you are or what color you are and all that. I was at Warner Brothers for six years. Nobody ever mentioned anything about, "You're the only Japanese American," that has ever worked there and all that. But after I left, I investigated, and yeah, I was the only Asian. There was a Filipino fellow when I started there, but he was just there for a couple years. But basically, from the very inception of Warner Brother cartoons, I guess I was the only Asian or of Japanese background that has worked there. But it was never brought up, never mentioned, no one ever made an issue about it. I thought about it later and says, "Oh my gosh, yeah." After I left, a Chinese fellow came aboard. But little by little, our industry started to flourish with a lot of Asians, especially when we started to do what we call "runaway production." Because the production output exceeded the amount of personnel in Hollywood to do it, so we had to look to Japan and Korea and Taiwan and now the mainland China and also the Philippines, and even New Zealand -- I'm sorry, Australia's got studios. But at that time, we started to import also a lot of highly talented Japanese animators from the anime industry. So we have a number of them now. Plus, with the use of computers, which a lot of the Asian countries excelled in a lot of the computer graphics, so we have a lot of computer technicians also here working.

But that was my point, and then it was kind of interesting. I was always on the, served on the executive board of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists local union. And one election period I was nominated, and got elected as vice president of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists guild. And at one of the very heated meetings, our president got really upset with the membership and stormed off the stage. Well, I forgot that I was vice president, so I'm sitting there saying, "Oh, gee, that's unfortunate." The Sergeant at Arms says, "Willie Ito, you're vice president, you take over the meeting." Oh, my gosh. [Laughs] I was really caught with my pants down then. So anyway, I went up there and I did the Robert's Rules of Order and conducted the meeting, did as good as... thinking that Charlie, the president, will return next month. Well, he didn't. So meanwhile, the Hollywood media, paper like the Hollywood Reporter and the Variety got news of the fact that a Willie Ito was president of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists. And so I started getting phone calls from the trades. And they're saying, "Ito, what are you?" I said, "Well, my ancestry is Japanese, but I'm American." He said, "Well, the point is, you're a president of a big cartoonists industry." I'm thinking, well, what of it? Well, during that period, Hollywood industry was lily white or nepotism. So if you wanted to be in the cinematographers union or the makeup union or the grips or whatever, it was either you were a relative of a producer or you were white.

KL: When was this, approximately what year?

WI: That was prevalent in the late '60s, early '70s. And so I got written up in the Hollywood trades that it was kind of unique that I was president. But then we had African American president, but the name was like, well, his name was Bob Goe, so no one from the trades bothered. The other was Bill Perez, but could have been Spanish, you know, not Mexican. So that's when I... I used to go to the big international meetings where all the teamsters and all of that, it was kind of strange to see, you go to Hollywood, Florida, and they're all wearing the short white sleeves and all these big burly teamster type guys hitting the gavel conducting meetings. And then here our group, which not only was ethnically mixed, but gender-wise we had, half of our executive board was female and all that, and we would go and sit at our table that had the sign Local 839. The whole place was just all men, and half of them look like they drive trucks and all that. [Laughs] So our little group was rather unique in that way. It was always fun at the cocktail parties, I'm standing there with my little cocktail and these would come and say, "Hey, what do you do?" "What local is that?" I'd say, "We're all cartoonists." [Laughs] They just couldn't make any heads or tail of our little group. So that was also another interesting experience with my ethnicity. There was never any sort of animosity, it was always sort of done more in curiosity than that.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

KL: You said earlier, I think while we were recording, that you kind of feel that it's something of a calling to try to share your experience in Topaz and in Tanforan, just your family experience with the public, particularly a younger audience. And I wonder, first of all, when and why you started to feel that desire to share that.

WI: Well, I think working with Shig on the book sort of got me thinking that I could put my talent to use other than drawing Mickey Mouses, and to be able to tell the story in a child-friendly manner. And, of course, I really became aware when I started having grandkids, going to school, and I would ask them whether, "You heard anything about us being in camp, your grandparents, your great grandparents." You know, sometimes they'll mention it, but not to any great extent. So one of my granddaughters' teacher attended the book fair that the L.A. Times sponsors every year at the USC campus, it's a big, three day affair with booths and setups with celebrity writers and all that. And this guy comes over and he recognizes the book, and he says, "Are you Kayla's grandfather?" Said, "Yeah." Says, "Well, Kayla brought this book to school," and he was all excited about the fact that I was Kayla's grandfather. But the subject matter of the book as a teacher, he felt that, wow, this is really something. So more and more, it just kind of spurs me on. Rather than go into retirement and hibernation, I'd rather continue doing this than not.

KL: It struck me when you talked about trying to share books done in a child-friendly manner, and Whitney and I were talking a little bit about this last night. And we were kind of hoping that you would articulate a little bit about just how you do that. When you say child-friendly, what does that mean and what could you share with ranger staff at Manzanar or educators or other people who do want to talk to children about this, how do you think about that?


WI: When Shig and I do our presentation, I'm usually at the drawing board. And Shig, because it's his story and his experience with little Maggie, basically, as you know if you had pets before the war, what did you do with them when you had to go to camp? You couldn't take them. So that's basically the premise of the book. And then being a pet lover, he adopts a bird in camp, which is Maggie. So while I'm sketching the characters from the book at the easel, Shig is telling the story. But at the same time, he's also telling of his own personal experience at Heart Mountain. So we make a nice, interesting presentation. And when we did it in Manzanar, we had -- later, when we went in to do book signing, we had people that would come in and say, "God, we didn't know this existed. We were just driving up to spend the day in the snow, and we saw the guard tower and the sign," so they drove in and happened to catch our presentation. And they were fascinated because they didn't know anything about that experience. They had little kids, and of course, you see the exhibit, and it was like, "Did that really happen to the Japanese Americans?" and we would explain it. And we were, one morning we were at the motel in Lone Pine, and we were having our morning breakfast, complimentary breakfast at the motel, and there was a Japanese family from Japan sitting there. They were on their way up to Mammoth also. And Shig is one of these guys that will go up and talk to anybody. And so he was before me, so he was already in there talking to this family, and then when I came in, he says, "Oh, that's Willie, he worked at Disney," and blah, blah, blah. So I had to sit there and make little sketches for the kids and all that. But we were explaining why we were at Manzanar and what Manzanar was all about, and they too had no idea. So we invited them to come over, so they did come over to Manzanar and caught our presentation, and they were totally amazed. I guess in Japan they sort of suppress that story, that information. They don't really want to make public knowledge that we were incarcerated. So they were really fascinated. So I guess that was some of my motivation. The more deeper I got involved, and the more interest and the more people really know about it. And then, of course, when we do book signings during the holidays, many of the parents, Sanseis now, third generation, will come and buy our book for stocking fillers. And saying, "Oh my gosh, our parents or our grandparents never talked about it, and this is a good book to go buy." So that sort of inspires us.

KL: Sound like kind of a combination of techniques that draw people in and trying to awaken their curiosity or just make them aware.


KL: You had that kid in your class whose father was arrested, and the shooting, the man who was killed, and there were shootings at Manzanar and violence, so it is kind of a struggle. You don't want to make the story sanitized, but you also don't want to, it's difficult to talk to, perhaps inappropriate to talk to a wide-eyed five year old junior ranger about the men with guns. So it's an interesting challenge.

WI: One teacher, my niece I guess you might say, my sister-in-law's granddaughter, she was attending high school, so she took a copy of my book to her class. And then I got a phone call a few weeks later, and the teacher invited me to come and make a presentation to her high school class. So that was a little scary, because you know high school kids. Talking to little kids, they're more attentive, especially when I'm drawing. But high school kids... and they had it scheduled for the lunch hour.

KL: Just like us. [Laughs]

WI: So how many high school kids is going to take the time to sit in some presentation about wartime camp history and stick around? So I get to the school and I see the kids, their pants is low and they're wearing hoodies and they have that kind of look on their face. I said, "Oh, boy." Well, we went in the room and the lunchtime bell went, and the room filled up. Half of them, of course, was eating their lunch, but the place filled up. So I gave the presentation, and afterwards I figured that they would all scoot out of there to get some lunch hour. They all hung around and asked tons of questions and all that. But the interesting this is the teacher who invited me, she was African American. And so she is teaching, or some of her lessons pertain to slavery. And so this bit of history with us was, sort of complemented her lessons. And then she later took the group down to the Japanese American museum that day. So she was really, really into it, and she had sort of a purpose for my presentation. You know, they all sort of work in and sort of interlocks and whatever. But we're not gonna get rich doing the books, but we're having fun and we're being able to teach and talk about it, so that's good.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 24>

KL: This is my last big question and it kind of ties into what you were just saying. And the question is why is it important to you to get the story out and awaken people's awareness?

WI: Well, you know, I woke up one morning and said, "Hey, I'm going to be eighty next year." Habitually, every morning, when I read the Times, I go right to the obituary to see if I've lost any friends. And I'm amazed at how many Japanese surnames that's listed, and then I see their ages, and they're in their eighties and nineties. And it will say, "Veteran of the 442," or, "Went to Manzanar camp during the war," and whatever. And for the population that now exists for Japanese Americans, it's very small. Because we don't have any immigrants, and the Japanese tend to intermarry more than the Chinese or the Vietnamese or some of the other Asian groups. So our kids are all hapas and all that. So in a few years, our generation of Japanese Americans that experienced World War II and shortly thereafter will all be pretty much gone. The Japanese that are coming here today, they're students. They go to UCLA, they get their degree, and they go back. Maybe a young businessman will come here to overlook things at our Honda plant in Torrance, and then when his term is over, he'll go back. But there is no longer a big influx of families moving here. And so I could see where whatever vestige of time that's left, will want to grapple to make the most of it, tell the stories.

KL: The last question is a short one. It's what happened to your Dopey bank? Oh, wait, don't get up, we'll look at it later. But you still have it, huh?

WI: As a matter of fact --

KL: I see it. Oh, great.

WI: As a matter of fact, I always carry it when I make my presentation, because that's sort of the focal point of my presentation. And so in Kimiko, it's not a Dopey bank, but it's a little china doll, because Kimiko's best friend, she's a Chinese girl that they met when they both lived in Chinatown. But it's like two Asian culture that's so different, language-wise, the cuisine, the customs. So that's a story I also wanted to tell. So the little Dopey bank in Kimiko is a little china doll that Mei Ling gives to Kimiko, and Kimiko carries it to camp, and it's sitting in camp, and then comes home from camp and ends up back on the same dresser, that one.

KL: Was it in Tanforan and Topaz with you?

WI: No.

KL: It was waiting.

WI: Mine was where, when I left, it was like the last thing I looked at, sitting on my dresser. And then I figured I'd go to camp, and then you come back and things would be all gone like a lot of my comic books are already. Because Chuck had a daughter about my age, so she played with a lot of my toys. But that survived.

KL: That's great.

WI: And that's the only actual toy that I was given. The rest of it were all purchased later as a collectible.


KL: That's the end of my questions, and I'm really happy with how it's gone, but I wondered if there were things that you wanted to share, expected to share, that I didn't touch on.

WI: Well, I guess basically what I discussed was pretty much it. I would hope to eventually see all of our camps have like an interpretive center, museum, or some focal point where survivors, which would be far and few between, historians, writers and all to be able to visit and say, "Oh, my gosh, this is all part of history." And I think the fact that Manzanar is really up and running now, and same with our...

KL: What's going on at Topaz to that regard?


WI: The museum is really rolling along. I know there's a lot of funds that Topaz will still have to raise to do a lot of finishing on the inside and get the displays up, and their target date is September of 2014, and I hope to be able to be part of the opening ceremony. When I went to Topaz for the groundbreaking, I was gonna do my presentation by doing my chalk talk and giving my talk and all that. Somehow the time got... well, it was sort of, I wouldn't say disorganized, but it was like boom, boom, boom. And then the next thing you know, they were calling the people to the buses to go out to the site and all that. So I never really got a chance to do it. So that night, the committee had a little barbeque in the backyard, and then so Jane says, "Would you be able to do your presentation for us?" I said, "Okay, let me have another beer," and whatever, and it got darker and darker, next thing you know it's too dark to do it. So I said, "Jane, the next time I see you, I promise I'll do it." So it was two weeks ago at Topaz when I could get away, so I missed it again. So I told Jane, "Well, hopefully September I'll get out there and do it," so we'll see.

KL: Would you tell us a little bit about Jane Beckwith? She's an important figure, but I don't know that we have any recordings of her.

WI: Okay, Jane, as far as I know, she's from Delta, Utah. She's a schoolteacher there. And her father printed the local newspaper. So one of the camp internees was sort of hired by Jane's father to work at the press and newspaper itself. So I don't really have all the detailed information about that, but through the years, being a permanent resident of Delta, she's gotten to know a lot of the people that has visited, and got to know a lot of the people that are instrumental in getting this project off the ground. And Jane, of course, is really the one that's troubleshooting. What else? I don't... see, a few years ago, Shig was in San Francisco for, it was a Heart Mountain committee meeting that Jane attended. And so Shig was talking to Jane and Shig mentioned that we were partners, and so Jane asked whether I would be interested. But at that time -- I have to be honest -- I was not really that motivated with the camp movement and all that. Although I was younger, I still had that attitude like a lot of the olders, "I don't want to really talk about it." I don't even really remember half of what went on. You just tend to sort of block it out. So that was too early in the stage before I started to get interested enough. So I told Shig, "Okay, yeah, I'll be in touch with Jane," but never really got around to doing it until this last year when they had that groundbreaking. I literally had to have my arms twisted by another friend of mine in San Francisco. He took the bull by the horn and he made the reservation and hotel reservation and all I had to do was make arrangements to fly to Salt Lake City, met him at the airport, he rented the car, he drove and did the whole bit. But once I got there, I really got motivated. So now I feel more compelled to want to continue.

KL: That's great. I didn't know that about her dad's connection to the story.

WI: Yeah, yeah. I'm going to have to read a little more about that phase of it, but that's Jane's connection with Topaz and the internees goes back. Jane's younger, so she wasn't there during that time, but her father has all these stories.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright © 2013 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.