Sumi Seo Seki remembers entering the expansive grandstands of Santa Anita in Arcadia, with their magnificent view of the San Gabriel Mountains. On that Easter Sunday in 1942, the roses were in bloom at the track, one of the country's most sumptuous arcades of wagering and horse racing, where legends like Seabiscuit and Whirlaway had once run.
But Seki, 17, felt as if she were going into a dungeon, into a deep, dark hole. Her depression worsened that night as she and her family slept on a mattress of straw in a former stable. She carried her possessions in a duffel bag and suitcase that she had just unloaded after a long ride from San Pedro in a pickup truck.
Seki and her brother, sister, mother and father were among the hundreds upon hundreds of Japanese-Americans from throughout California who arrived in Arcadia as part of the nation's largest forced evacuation, ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The track, its season forestalled by America's entrance into World War II, was playing a major role in that evacuation.
By the summer of 1942, six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly 20,000 of the approximately 93,000 Japanese-Americans who lived in California would be led--without the due process of legal hearings--behind the barbed-wire fences of Santa Anita.
Another 5,500 would go to the Pomona fairgrounds near Los Angeles County's eastern border. Among the 12 makeshift assembly centers in the state, the race track and fairgrounds were the county's only such facilities where Japanese-Americans were processed, staying as long as six months, before being sent to internment camps.
Eventually, 120,000 Japanese-American men, women and children, most of them passing through these temporary compounds at fairgrounds, race tracks and labor camps, were taken farther inland--away from the coast, which was considered vulnerable to Japanese attack as well as sabotage.
By the fall, all but one of the temporary assembly centers had been shut down. (The one at Manzanar in the Owens Valley was converted into an internment camp.) The Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens and who were all from California, Oregon and Washington, were sent to sprawling camps with row upon row of tar-paper barracks in the deserts, mountains and swamps of the West and South.
Now, more than four decades later, assembly center and camp internees like Sumi Seo Seki of Long Beach are telling their stories of life in the centers in Santa Anita and Pomona and of the internment camps in California, Arkansas, Wyoming and Arizona.
Those stories may be easier to tell now. President Reagan signed a bill Aug. 10 providing for an apology and tax-free payments of $20,000 to each of the living internees of the World War II camps.
"It was an experience, and I hope nobody else has to go through the same thing," said Seki, now 63. "It's just a sad thing that happened . . . The hurt is still there, still hurting down deep, and the curing process is still going on."
The Japanese-Americans tried to make the best of things by replicating the community life they had left behind. With nearly 20,000 residents at its peak, Santa Anita had its own police and fire departments and its own hospital, run by Japanese-American physicians. There were 81 baseball clubs, 23 World War veterans, Scout troops, religious groups, a newspaper, PTA groups, literary societies, volleyball courts, canteens that sold items from aspirin to shoes, and a 15-piece orchestra.
And those who were U.S. citizens made camouflage netting for the Army in the grandstands.
But there were other painful restrictions. All Japanese books and publications were forbidden, even to those who did not speak English.
U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose), one of the sponsors of the reparations bill, was one of those who was confined at Santa Anita. In an interview last year, Mineta told The Times of the 345-mile train ride from his home in San Jose to Santa Anita and of his boyhood experiences there.
"We were fortunate because . . . we were not in the horse stables," Mineta said. "We were in barracks . . . that had been built. I remember going to visit friends . . . in the horse stables during the hot months of the summer. They might have swept out the horse stables, but the stench was still there. How, frankly, they lived in those, I'll never understand."
The confinements, lasting as long as three years, were at the time staunchly defended by the nation's leaders who said the unusual measures protected the Japanese-Americans who might be subject to harassment from Americans.
News accounts of the day presented conflicting reports of life in the assembly centers.
Journalist Carey McWilliams, in a September, 1942, Harper's magazine report of his tours of Santa Anita and Pomona, attempted to reassure those who sympathized with the internees by saying: