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Retired Farmer Recalls His Firebrand Days at Manzanar

August 13, 1986|MIKE WYMA | Wyma lives in Toluca Lake

As he autographed books in a Little Tokyo bookstore on a recent Saturday afternoon, Harry Ueno didn't look the part of a man whose arrest once roused a crowd of thousands and triggered a riot.

Sitting quietly at a table in a back cranny of the store, a short man with leathery skin and small, direct eyes, he didn't look like a person once considered dangerous enough to the United States to be imprisoned for a year without specific charges and without a hearing or trial.

Retired Farmer

Ueno (pronounced U-eh-no) looked more like what he is, a retired cherry and strawberry farmer who lives in San Jose.

But in late 1942, at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Owens Valley, treatment of Ueno became the flashpoint for tensions that had been building between Japanese-Americans and U.S. government officials.

His account of the Manzanar riot--which left two dead--and of conditions during World War II for Americans of Japanese ancestry is contained in "Manzanar Martyr, an Interview with Harry Y. Ueno" by Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Arthur A. Hansen and Betty Kulberg Mitson. The book was published in July by California State University, Fullerton, as part of the school's oral history program.

Ueno was 36, married and had three young sons in February, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the U.S. War Department to evacuate from the West Coast anyone of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry. Although no Germans or Italians were affected, authorities rounded up about 110,000 Japanese, most of them U.S. citizens, and sent them to 10 hastily built camps.

The first of the camps was Manzanar, about 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and it grew to a population of 10,000 in a matter of months. Manzanar means "apple orchard" in Spanish, but the land had been left barren years before by diversion of Owens Valley water to Los Angeles. When the Ueno family arrived there in May, 1942, the camp was a collection of crowded barracks built on dusty ground.

The family shared its room with three other people. Ueno was put to work cutting sagebrush for $16 a month. Although he had lost a $32-a-week job as produce manager of a Hollywood market and, like other Japanese, was forced to abandon property in the abrupt relocation, he found at least one positive aspect to the upheaval. He was safe from the widespread anti-Japanese sentiment of the months following Pearl Harbor.

Secure From Threats

"I didn't have any strong feelings against the government or anything like that," Ueno says in "Manzanar Martyr." "I thought, well, we have to move, maybe that's some way we could be protected from people who were stirred up by newspaper or radio propaganda. Some people wrote that it was open season for 'Jap hunting.' At least we are secure from any outside threat. Every time I had stayed in town or rode a street car, I always kind of feared somebody might hit my head from behind. . . ."

Ueno and other evacuees set about making Manzanar more livable. He and friends built an 80-foot ornamental pond near their mess hall so that the wait in food lines, which at lunchtime lasted an hour for those without jobs, would be more tolerable. People in other barracks followed suit, and a total of 17 ponds were built around the mile-long camp.

"But people were getting unhappy," Ueno recalled during his visit to Los Angeles. "The camp officials assigned your job. They took away the right to compete for a better job. They took away the right to make more money. Soon people just cared about survival, and survival is food. Food is very important to people who are cooped up."

Ueno had been assigned to a mess hall. He and other food workers began complaining about injustices in the allocation of supplies. The Japanese population received less sugar than was called for in the camp's ration, yet Ueno scouted the Caucasian mess hall and found sugar in abundance. The same, he said, was true of meat and milk. Camp officials, he charged, were diverting food and equipment such as kitchen knives to a black market.

"There were a lot of complaints like that," Ueno says in the book. "When people went over and complained to the division head, nothing happened. They never paid attention. We figured the only way was we had to get together and organize. Probably then, they would listen more."

Popular in Camp

Ueno formed the Mess Hall Workers' Union. His frequent grievance meetings with Manzanar officials made him a popular figure in camp. The public role was a new one for Ueno. Born in Hawaii, he lived in Japan from age 8 to 16. That background--American birth, but a Japanese education--made him a "Kibei," and because of their choppy English and lack of familiarity with American culture, Kibei tended not to mingle with the U.S.-born and educated Nisei. Government authorities looked upon Kibei as the likeliest sympathizers with the Japanese war effort.

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