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Topics / EXHIBITS : Preserving a Dark Remnant of National History : Barracks from a World War II Japanese American internment camp is transplanted to Los Angeles.

November 10, 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 Los Angeles area sawed and hammered the three-unit, 20-by-60 foot barracks into shape after Sakatani and others brought the pieces back on flatbed trucks from the former camp in Wyoming.

The barracks, transplanted across the street in Los Angeles from the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, will be unveiled Friday as part of an exhibit called "America's Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience."

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

"The barrack 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 The order was rescinded when the war ended in 1945.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 fences 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.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.

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When the Japanese American National Museum considered organizing an internment exhibit two years ago, he jumped at the chance to bring back an original barracks. After years of negotiations with the museum and city officials, the barracks now occupy a city-owned lot.

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

Sakatani's quest to unravel the Japanese American experience does not end with the barracks. He fills his time presenting slide shows of the internment camps at high schools and working on a book chronicling information on the camps.

Said Sakatani: "There's much to be done. I see no end to what I can do to help people, especially the younger generations, understand our history."

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