Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Casualties of War : Letters to the mother of Deloris St. John held the painful secret of a close family friend. The correspondence from internees during World War II is now part of a collection of Japanese immigrant history at UCLA.

March 15, 1992|BERNICE HIRABAYASHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deloris St. John thought she knew everything about her longtime friend Lillie Yamada McCabe.

St. John had known McCabe for 45 years. She became friends with St. John's parents in the mid-1930s. She had been St. John's nanny and was like a second mother to her.

It wasn't until St. John was sorting through the Bel-Air estate of her late mother, Lela Cardozo, this past year that she learned there was at least one part of McCabe's life that she had not shared.

McCabe, an American-born citizen, was one of 120,313 people of Japanese ancestry forced to abandon their homes and farms and carry their personal belongings to the relocation camps of World War II.

St. John discovered that fact in a bundle of letters--about 100 of them--bearing postmarks from eight of the 10 relocation camps established in the western United States. The writers had all been Westside friends and acquaintances of her parents.

A dozen of the letters were penned by McCabe, who was interned at Amache, Colo.

St. John was stunned. McCabe had never once, in the 45 years they had known each another, mentioned this part of her life. "This was the most emotional find we came across," St. John said of the task of going through her mother's belongings with her sister, Carol Stronach. "To read about what people that are close to me went through is just heartbreaking."

St. John said that after the discovery she tried to gently bring up the subject with McCabe over lunch.

"When I told her we found these letters, her eyes widened a little," St. John said. "She said, 'It was in the past and we didn't want to worry you about it.' "

Other letter writers whom St. John had known from childhood died years earlier, their secret also intact.

St. John's mother was 87 when she died a year ago. She was something of a "pack rat" and had saved antiques, greeting cards from the family business, Buzza Greeting Card Co., and love letters from her late husband written before they married.

The habit saved the internees' letters from the waste bin, allowing them to stand testament to friendships that endured an atmosphere of racism and the physical barriers of distance and barbed wire. The letters also capture snapshot accounts of the relocation experience.

When UCLA history professor Yuji Ichioka learned of the find last month, he immediately set off through heavy rain to St. John's home in Dana Point to examine the letters. He asked St. John if she would donate them to UCLA's Japanese American Research Project Collection, the world's largest collection of Japanese immigrant and Japanese-American history.

St. John said she would turn the letters over to UCLA. There, they will be preserved under climate-controlled conditions and will be accessible to researchers, Ichioka said. The collection has original documents dating back to the late 19th Century.

"There's a lot in writing already," Ichioka said, "but these letters give a kind of raw feeling. . . . They are very personal letters, very revealing of the feelings at the time."

About 10 people wrote from eight different camps from 1942 to 1945. The letters include the usual friendly greetings, followed by unusual descriptions of the writers' lives.

Ray started to work in a mess hall, the Nishimoto family wrote. He figured he could get us more to eat. Everyone wants to work in a mess hall.

The Ida family wrote thank you for storing our junks,, safe and available.

The letters describe how several families shared a single barracks, hanging sheets across the room for privacy. The floors were dirt, temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero and cracks in the uninsulated walls let in the driving, dust-laden wind. Entire blocks of barracks shared common bathroom facilities.

Some are written on lined, unbleached paper. Others are written on camp stationery, with rows of barracks and camp scenes depicted in borders.

Fusa Nakano, the Cardozos' housekeeper, wrote about two dozen letters from Heart Mountain, Wyo. One implored Cardozo to stop trying to send her ducklings because the first shipment arrived spoiled.

Please don't send them, Nakano wrote. As much as I appreciate them, it makes me sick to think that they spoiled after you went through all that trouble. . . . I'll just imagine that I had a delicious duck dinner, and again, thank you so much.

Another frequent writer was Kenzo Uyeno, who worked at Cardozo's Bel-Air home in exchange for room and board. The Cardozos lived less than a mile from UCLA, where Uyeno is pictured in prewar photographs in graduation robes, flanked by the Cardozos.

He wrote: I hope the time will arrive shortly when I will again be fighting for a foothold in the economic structure as a means toward a normal secure living. Meanwhile, in this desert city of Poston, I am spending my young life.

In the mid-1930s, Lela and Ralph Cardozo were introduced to McCabe and her first husband, Ernest Yamada, through a mutual friend. Yamada owned a thriving import business.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|