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Lawmakers Share Personal Stories : Panel Backs Wartime Internee Payment

June 18, 1987|GLENN F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Alan Cranston recalled Wednesday how he spent four days during World War II in a snow-covered Japanese-American internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., visiting his boyhood friends from Los Altos, Calif.

"One of my most poignant memories is of an intelligent and progressive-minded mother who was still managing, with much difficulty, to conceal from her 4-year-old child that they were prisoners in what most inmates considered a racial internment camp," the California Democrat said.

As senators from the West Coast and Japanese-American leaders dramatically recounted their experiences involving the wartime relocation at a packed subcommittee hearing, legislation to compensate the surviving 60,000 of 120,000 internees was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on a 28-6 vote and picked up its 75th sponsor in the 100-member Senate, David Pryor (D-Ark.).

Both House and Senate versions of the legislation would provide $20,000 apiece for each survivor.

Receive Short Notice

The proposed legislation "seeks to remedy one of the worst violations of civil liberties in our nation's history," Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) said. He described how Japanese-Americans were given 72-hour notice to pack, leave their homes and report to assembly centers after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"Without trial or hearing, without being charged, indicted or convicted of any crime, they were ordered into what can only be described as American-style concentration camps surrounded by barbed-wire fences, search lights and armed guards," said Matsunaga, who served in Europe during World War II.

He said that some internees were shot and killed by the camp guards when they inadvertently wandered too close to fences--one of them an elderly man who was killed while playing catch with his grandson.

"Under the camp rules, no one was to be seen between the two barbed wire fences after 6 p.m. Although it was after 6 o'clock, it was a summer day and still daylight when this incident occurred. The grandfather missed the ball and chased after it between the two fences. A guard in the watchtower aboved yelled: 'Get back!'

"The grandfather responded: 'Oh, I'm just going for the ball.' The guard then fired his machine gun, killing the elderly man instantly."

Man Commits Suicide

Matsunaga told the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal services, the post office and civil service that one internee committed suicide because he was ashamed of being branded as "disloyal" to the United States.

"Indeed, the stigma of disloyalty has haunted Japanese-Americans for the past 45 years and it is one of the principal reasons that they are seeking congressional action to remove that cloud over their heads," Matsunaga said.

If passed, the legislation would implement recommendations approved by the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. These include approving a total of $1.3 billion to be paid to individuals of Japanese ancestry who were interned between 1941 and 1946; establishing a fund to educate the public about details of the internment; and issuing an apology on behalf of U.S. citizens.

The office of the attorney general would be assigned the responsibility of using government records to locate eligible Japanese-Americans who were interned and distributing the $20,000 benefits to the oldest internees first.

Grayce Uyehara, an official with the Japanese American Citizens League, said that she was a 21-year-old college senior at College of the Pacific in Stockton in May, 1942, when her family of nine was sent to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.

Uyehara, who later relocated in the Philadelphia area, where she still lives, told the hearing that she thought she "was not wanted back" in California.

"No amount of money can compensate . . . or make whole again the victims who were economically, physically and emotionally broken by the tragedy of 1942," she added.

Share Own Stories

Several senators participated in the two-hour subcommittee hearing, sharing their own stories of the internment.

Pryor, who became the 75th senator on Wednesday to support the bill, urged Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) to tell a story about the day he visited a barber shop in San Francisco in the weeks after World War II.

"I was properly attired in my full military uniform with a row of ribbons and captain's bar on my shoulders and I felt good," said Inouye, who lost an arm while fighting for the United States in Europe. "I wanted a haircut before my parents saw me for the first time since I left them.

"I walked into this barber shop. There were three empty chairs. . . . This fellow looked at me and said: 'Are you a Jap?' I said: 'No, I'm an American. . . .' I said: 'If you want to know if my parents are Japanese, yes, sir.' He said: 'We don't cut Jap hair.'

"I was tempted to break up the joint. I thought better of it. If I had done that, I don't suppose I would be here today."

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