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Building on the Past : A Reconstructed Relocation Camp Barracks Becomes a Learning Experience

October 23, 1994|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifty years after World War II, Bacon Sakatani finds serenity in resurrecting a barracks--one of hundreds at the internment camp where he and 10,000 other Japanese Americans were forced to live by the federal government.

On a recent, breezy Sunday morning, the West Covina resident and several volunteers from across the city sawed and hammered the three-unit barracks into shape after Sakatani and others brought the pieces back on flatbed trucks from the former camp in Wyoming.

The barracks, across the street from the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, will be unveiled Nov. 11 as part of an exhibit called "America's Concentration Camp: Remember the Japanese American Experience."

For Sakatani, who was 13 when incarcerated with his family in 1942, the barracks will memorialize a painful wartime experience.

"The barracks has taken out much of my anger," said the retired computer programmer. "I had a lot of anger before. But now I don't have to speak about it. They can just look at the barracks and understand."

Standing before his work, he said with a smile: "I am so proud of this. When I saw the walls up . . . it was the most exhilarating moment in my life. I was so relieved, as if the burden was off my shoulders."

During the war, the government ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to evacuate their homes, abandon their jobs and relocate to camps throughout California, Arizona and interior states. The order was nullified when the war ended in 1945.

As Sakatani rode on a train bound for the Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming, the experience seemed like "an exciting adventure."

"As a teen-ager, I had fun at the camp. We would go sledding in the snow, camp at the river and even at Yellowstone Park," he said. "But for my parents, it was very painful; they lost everything."

At the time, his father, a farmer, had just bought a new tractor for his prospering Los Angeles-area farm.

Sakatani's parents and their six children were eventually forced to leave their home, carrying only the bare necessities on their backs, and to move to a barracks at the camp, confined by barbed-wire fencing and armed guards. For three years, his parents endured meager pay for limited manual labor at farms and factories.

"My father was in his early 40s, the prime of his life. I don't think I could forgive the government for depriving him of those years.

"Nothing can ever repair the pain. But I think the barracks will alleviate some of that pain," he added.

It took Sakatani nine years to bring the barracks exhibit to fruition. In 1982, a reunion with friends from the internment camp prompted him to research this episode in American history.

As he examined government documents and newspaper articles from that period, Sakatani said he was driven to tell the story.

"It was a rude awakening. The more I read, the more fascinated I became of what happened to (Japanese Americans)," Sakatani said.

His home is cluttered with boxes of documents, academic reports and literature on Japanese American internees. Hoping to bring back a barracks, Sakatani took 10 trips to Heart Mountain Camp, now a farmland with only about 24 of the 450 barracks that once housed 10,000 internees.

When the Japanese American National Museum considered organizing an internment exhibit two years ago, he jumped at the chance to bring back original barracks. After years of negotiations with the museum and city officials--the barracks sit on a city-owned lot--he and 40 other Angelenos revisited the Wyoming camp last month to dismantle and load up flatbed trucks with two 20-by-60-foot barracks.

The exhibit represents only half of an authentic barracks; space limitations precluded them building it full-size and setting up the other one.

A family of three usually lived in a single unit, half the size of a typical living room and supplied with a single light bulb, a few steel cots and a coal stove. There was no running water and just outdoor communal bath facilities.

When he first moved to the camp, Sakatani said, the huts had no ceilings or insulation. Instead, the drafty wood-frame barracks--often with inch-wide openings in the planks--were merely covered with tar paper on the outside.

"Sometimes it would get down to 30 degrees below zero and we had no insulation," said Sakatani, rubbing his fingers down the peeling black tar paper.

Although the museum paid for the supplies needed for the reconstruction and transportation of the barracks, Sakatani relied on volunteers to rebuild it.

Micki Takeshita, a Denver resident who met the California group in Wyoming, flew to Los Angeles last weekend to work on the barracks.

*

"This is something I can do for Japanese American people and the museum," said Takeshita, who was a teen-ager when he and his family were in an internment camp.

"You cannot describe the camp. You had to be there. The government kept it real quiet. So I think this will help people be more open about the past," he added.

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