• Art Nomura

Chapter 17, segment 3 of 3, 'Before the Storm, 1937-1942'

In April, Ayako was asked to leave North Hollywood High School. Of the scores of Japanese Americans that were present at the school when she arrived before Christmas, only a few remained by late April, 1942. On a sparkling spring day, Ayako and the other Japanese Americans still attending were called into the principal’s office.

“I think it would be best if you don’t come back anymore because we fear for your lives,” said the principal without preamble.

Ayako and rest of the students looked at each other, then stood up and left in silence. They had all experienced more and more challenging looks and direct threats each day. Six weeks before the end of the school year their time at North Hollywood High School ended.

Since the Nomuras lived nearby the newly designated Valley Air Force/Army Airfield they were identified as among the first in the Los Angeles area to be shipped away to a 'relocation center'. Unlike subsequent evacuees who were consolidated at “assembly centers” the Nomuras were routed directly to Manzanar Relocation Center located in the high desert near the Sierra Nevada mountain range in eastern central California.

On the cloudy morning of May 2, 1942, a detachment of armed soldiers stood guard over a line of red Trailways buses idling at the curb. The Nomuras dutifully boarded the lead bus with just the personal belongings that they could carry. The two married couples, Yoshiko and Sam Hasegawa, and Henry and Mikako Nomura, joined Mizuko and the rest of her family as they boarded. Sam’s older sister Sakiko and their father, Kinzaburo Hasegawa also climbed aboard.

As the bus neared capacity, the line of evacuees was halted momentarily and two military policemen in combat uniforms armed with rifles affixed with bayonets got on. The windows of the bus were blocked with black curtains so no one could see in or out. The anxious passengers were each handed a box lunch, and the bus lurched away.

Although no one knew exactly where their final destination was located, they were afraid to even ask questions of their stern-faced, armed escorts. What few discussions did occur among the passengers were hushed and brief. The presence of the soldiers kept everyone fearfully on edge.

After eight hours of travel, the bus stopped for a brief break on the shores of Owens Lake in the foothills of the high Sierras. The barren periphery of the lake heightened everyone’s feelings of isolation and alienation. But being able to step out of the hot, cave-like interior of the crowded bus into the clean mountain air helped to lift Mizuko’s spirits.

Every moment of confinement on the military bus had exacted a toll on Mizuko’s psyche. She, who had spent a lifetime trying to do the right and honorable thing, was being excluded, shunted away, and imprisoned, not for anything she had done, but for the horrific actions of the military of her distant homeland. Worse yet, the children whom she had raised to be productive, honest, and respected members of American society, were being jailed as well.

Back on the bus, Mizuko took a look at each of her children to gauge their wellbeing. Across the narrow aisle Henry sat uncharacteristically silent with his new bride Mikako. Feeling his mother’s gaze, Henry pursed his lips and shook his head slowly. Behind them Yoshiko, four months pregnant, seemed on the verge of succumbing to the morning sickness that had plagued her pregnancy from the start. Her rugged husband Isamu, usually full of smiles, stared stoically ahead. Ayako, settled next to her mother, seemed unable to tear her eyes away from the armed soldiers stationed at the front of the bus.

Mizuko reached over and touched her daughter’s folded hands until Ayako broke her stare to look at her mother. Her expression of dismay and confusion nearly broke Mizuko’s heart.

Turning to look toward the back of the bus, Mizuko could see Kaworu and Jimmy sitting together. Kaworu’s expression was guarded, but Mizuko knew that of all her children, he was probably feeling the injustice of the situation the most. He turned and glanced her way and nodded, as if he understood the necessity of maintaining his composure.

Twelve year-old Jimmy, her youngest, was the only one of her children with a smile on his face. To him, the evacuation was a great adventure. She could see him craning his neck as he tried to see through the distant windshield. She scanned the bus for her second son, Jiro, until she remembered he had left two months earlier to help build the Manzanar facility.

Shikataganai, thought Mizuko. We will make the best of whatever happens. With gaman we will endure.

After another hour of jostling travel, the bus turned off the main highway, and proceeded slowly over a rutted road. Finally, the bus wheezed to a stop. As soon as the door opened the MPs exited the bus with their rifles held upright in a “present arms” position and stationed themselves officiously at each side of the doorway.

Climbing slowly down the steps of the bus, the Nomuras’ anxious demeanor lightened momentarily as young Yoshito called out to a waiting Jiro. Then, for a long moment, the sheer desolation of their new surroundings robbed everyone of speech. Seemingly within reach through the crystalline air, the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range loomed to the west.

Immediately before them and stretching into the distance were identical wooden barracks aligned in rows like the graves at the Veteran’s Cemetery in West Los Angeles. Each building was identical to the other, the only distinguishing feature being a plaque with a barracks number. Surrounding the perimeter of the ‘camp’ were multiple guard towers adjacent to an perimeter of barbed wire fencing. In each of the nearest towers, a soldier stood, aiming a weapon down at the new arrivals.

While the initial shock over their new environment subsided, Jiro helped his family and others unload their belongings onto the dusty ground. Before they were assigned quarters everyone was escorted by armed soldiers to a large open bay barracks nearby. There, each new arrival filled out medical histories, and were given vaccinations for whooping cough and other communicable diseases. Mizuko was surprised to see that most of the doctors attending them were Japanese. Along with the volunteer Japanese construction workers, the doctors were among the first internees in the camp.

After the medical work was finished, the Nomura family: Mizuko, Jiro, Kaworu, Jimmy, and Ayako, along with Henry and his bride, Mikako were told that they would share the same unit in barracks #15. Yoshiko and Sam, with family members Sakiko and Kinzaburo, were assigned to a different unit in the same barracks as the Nomuras.

As they milled around before leaving the assembly area, the dusty ground rose in powdery puffs around everyone’s feet. To Mizuko, the four inch thick layer of dust was so fine that it reminded her of baking flour. As they began walking to their assigned quarters lugging their belongings, the gentle breeze that had greeted their arrival abruptly turned into a powerful, swirling, wind. The floury dust went airborne and transformed into billowing clouds of grit that obscured everything.

Everyone instinctively grabbed for sweaters, jackets, or whatever else was at hand to cover noses and shield eyes from the noxious powder. Luckily, Jiro had memorized the location of Barracks #15 and lead the way foward.

Concealed by the blinding wind he led them forward by calling out, “this way, this way.” After what felt like an endless shuffling forward, they literally walked into the front wall of a rudimentary wooden building. Using the roughhewn surface as a guide, they groped their way to the barracks doorway.

The roar of the windstorm diminished as Jiro pulled the flimsy wood slat door shut behind them. The assembled family stared silently at their accommodations in the late afternoon gloom. Puffs of dust, driven by the wind outside, rose up through cracks and knotholes in the rough flooring. Illuminated solely by the hazy afternoon light passing through its bare windows, a nearly empty room stood before them.

Stacked against the far wall were the straw-filled mattresses that Jiro had brought in for their use. As they slapped the dust from their clothing and belongings, Ayako was suddenly overcome with a fit of violent coughing and sneezing. Jiro and Mizuko patted and rubbed her back until she was finally able to breathe normally.

“Let’s get busy,” said Mizuko with steely conviction. Following her lead, the Nomuras turned to the tasks at hand. Like it or not, Manzanar was their new home.

end of Chapter 17, segment 3 of 3, 'Before the Storm, 1937-1942'

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