Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: Katsumi Okamoto
Narrator: Katsumi Okamoto
Interviewer: Richard Potashin
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Date: November 7, 2007
Densho ID: denshovh-okatsumi-01-0011

<Begin Segment 11>

RP: Kats, you said you were one of the first to arrive at Minidoka?

KO: No, we were probably, maybe, the first third, put it that way. Because Block 1, I think they came up from Block 1 and they had forty-eight blocks, wasn't it, or something. We were Block 13 so you can imagine what sequence we were coming in.

RP: There were many stories shared about the earlier hardships of Minidoka, like a portion of the camp was still under construction, there was no sewage system, the coal was late in arriving at winter. Can you share with us your personal impressions of the early months at Minidoka?

KO: Early months, I really can't say it because I didn't stay at home much. [Laughs] I stayed with my friends, we would, after we'd pass out mattresses, we'd kinda wander around camp because there wasn't that much to do at that point. Nothing was established yet. I guess we walked around as buddies. Somebody had a record player; they had these 45 records and we'd sit there and listen.

RP: Is this the group of friends that you kind of acquired?

KO: Yes, and then we remained friends. Yeah, all of a sudden we were kind of attracted to each other. There were some, we knew some, we were together a little bit in Seattle. Now this bonded us together.

RP: Were you all the same ages, or...

KO: Yes, we were pretty much the same age. We were class of '44 or '45.

RP: Can you describe to us a little bit about the camp environment, the landscape around the camp? Was it mostly sagebrush, desert?

KO: What I recall was we'd wander around the camp, and everything was the same, really, you think about sagebrush, watch out for rattlesnakes. We followed some guy, we thought we were tough enough to go after rattlesnakes. Made nooses, some guys would actually catch 'em and cut the rattles off and hang them on their belt. That actually happened. I guess we were not that daring. Oh yeah, we didn't want to get bitten. We pretended to be pretty tough, but I guess we weren't.

RP: Did you go around collecting items? Some people would collect arrowheads, or stones?

KO: No, we didn't. But my uncle, they were interested in, they learned that there was a certain type of wood they called greasewood to make things out of. He was interested in that. I think my uncle made, got the wood and made a couple of chests. My sister has one of those, in fact, in Chicago. It's amazing how he did it. It looks real good, it works well. I think he dovetailed a lot of it so you don't have to pound nails. It's more of a fit, dovetail fit, so he must have been quite talented as far as I'm concerned.

KP: I'm still not quite sure of the situation of the barbed wire and the guard towers at Minidoka. When you first arrived there, were there guard towers with the barbed wire? Did it change as you were there?

KO: I don't recall ever seeing guards up in the guard towers. I think other people have told you that, haven't they?

RP: There was, in going through some of the literature, it appears that it was months before they decided to build guard towers and barbed wire. People had respected the boundary signs and that type of thing, and then suddenly they began constructing barbed wire and guard towers, and there was this big outcry, "Why are you doing this?"

KO: Yeah, some of the people. The older ones.

RP: I guess they electrified the fence, too, for a short time.

KO: I don't think so. Did they electrify it? I don't believe they did.

RP: Yeah, they said they did, and that created even more conflicts, so there was really no problem to begin with and the WRA created a problem by constructing guard towers and barbed wire. But there was a huge outcry about it and I guess they took most of the barbed wire fence down.

KO: Yeah, I heard rumors of first-generation Isseis, some of 'em going out and cutting it. Nobody can verify that.

RP: Cutting the barbed wire?

KO: Yeah. Then I remember the only thing I heard of was that one of the guard towers burned down 'cause kids were up there smoking. [Laughs] They must have lit a bonfire or something and the guard tower burned down. I don't ever recall seeing a guard up in the guard tower. They didn't need it, they knew they didn't need it.

RP: Right, right.

KO: The soldiers knew it, the guards, you know. Some of them were South Pacific veterans. Most of 'em were quite reasonably nice, you know, they were.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2007 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.