Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsChildren

COLUMN ONE

Childhood Lost: the Orphans of Manzanar

In a little-known chapter of World War II, Japanese American children with no families were rounded up and sent to an orphanage at the internment camp.

March 11, 1997|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Army took 3-year-old Annie Shiraishi Sakamoto away in the summer of 1942.

Before the soldiers came, Annie lived at a Catholic orphanage in Los Angeles, the unwanted baby of a single mother and a married gardener.

Maryknoll nuns took care of the girl--first brought to them as a 2-pound premature infant, sick with double pneumonia--until she was forced to leave the only home she knew.

She was one of 101 Japanese American orphans and foster children--some as young as 6 months--quietly rounded up by soldiers during World War II. The children, some with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry, were sent to a hastily built orphanage at the Manzanar internment camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The story of the orphanage, known as Children's Village, is a largely untold chapter in the history of the camps. For more than 50 years, the orphans rarely talked about their war years, and the few remaining government documents on Children's Village are in vaults at the National Archives in Maryland.

Now, scholars at Cal State Fullerton are beginning the first comprehensive study of the orphanage. Their project has taken on a sense of urgency with the recent deaths of several orphans and the fading memories of others.

The orphans want to see the history of Children's Village written before it's too late.

"[We need] to cite the injustice of innocent young people being targeted by prejudice," said Sakamoto, 57, a Highland Park registered nurse. "It shows what human nature in any history is capable of doing."

Even without the hindsight of history, Manzanar's top official denounced the government's treatment of the orphans in his final 1946 report on the camp.

"The morning was spent at the Children's Village," Manzanar director Ralph P. Merritt wrote, describing Thanksgiving Day, 1942, "with the 90 orphans [to date] who had been evacuated from Alaska to San Diego and sent to Manzanar because they might be a threat to national security. What a travesty [of] justice!"

Some former internees say the Army's decision to detain the children, who were already institutionalized, underscores the wartime anti-Japanese hysteria. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Army evacuated about 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in its zeal to guard against espionage and sabotage.

San Diego resident Francis L. Honda was a 7-year-old orphan when authorities moved him to Children's Village, the only orphanage among the 10 war relocation camps.

"It was a very lonely place and sad too, with babies crying and nothing to do," Honda told a government commission on the internment camps in 1981. "It was like the end of the world for me."

*

Manzanar's history is well- documented and has seeped into the public consciousness through books, including "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "Farewell to Manzanar." But even experts on the camps contacted by The Times had either never heard of Children's Village or knew only that it had existed.

Fullerton history professor Arthur A. Hansen, who is overseeing the research project, snared a rare carbon copy of a government report on the orphanage from a former Manzanar official, who unearthed it from his Laguna Niguel carport in the early 1970s.

The report--27 typed pages on faded onion skin paper--is a starting point for a team of graduate students that is interviewing more than a dozen orphans.

Some, including Honda, want to leave their bitter memories behind.

"I have always had jobs that paid a minimum wage," Honda, now 62, said in his testimony before the government commission. "I will never have a good job because of my past sufferings at the Manzanar concentration camp.

"I went from being a good student at [a prewar orphanage] to a mediocre American citizen for the rest of my life."

Nuns Moved Children Out of Evacuation Area

The mass evacuation of the West Coast began in March 1942.

In Los Angeles, Catholic nuns at the Maryknoll Home for Japanese Children didn't wait for the Army orders. They tried to whisk their 33 orphans to foster homes outside the West Coast evacuation zone. (Eventually, only seven of their orphans were sent to Manzanar, Maryknoll records show).

Meanwhile, Father Hugh Lavery of the Maryknoll mission tried to press the Army: What would happen to the orphans?

He got his answer from Col. Karl R. Bendetsen, the Army's chief evacuation architect in Washington, D.C.

"I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must all go to [an internment] camp," Bendetsen told him, according to a 1949 article in the Pacific Citizen, a newspaper for Japanese Americans.

Bendetsen was true to his word.

He gave the first order to evacuate an orphanage--the Shonien, or Japanese Children's Home of Los Angeles--in a telegram on April 28, 1942. Bendetsen ignored the frantic pleas for mercy from the home's board chairman, T. G. Ishimaru, according to military records declassified in 1973 and filed with the National Archives.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|