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Washington museum to honor Japanese Americans

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    Silvia Livermore, a volunteer at the Lewis County Historical Museum, stood outside the new exhibit which she helped curate which honors the Japanese Americans from the area who were sent to camps during World War II.


    Photographs are displayed inside a new exhibit honoring Japanese Americans at the Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis, Wash.

CENTRALIA, Wash. >> Men, women and children, all wearing yellow numbered Army identification tags, gathered at the Chehalis Train Depot on June 2, 1942.

These Japanese Americans were waiting for a train to carry them to the soon-to-be completed Tule Lake internment camp in California.

Today, June 3, one day past the 75th anniversary of the detainment, the Lewis County Historical Museum will dedicate a plaque with the names of the Americans from Lewis County who were put on the train. The ceremony will begin this morning at the museum, and the event has been dubbed “Remembrance Day.”

The plaque reads, “Time has revealed the injustice of your experience, which we regret. We admire your loyalty, patriotism and dedication to this nation.”

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of those of Japanese descent. The order was in the wake of the United States entering the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor while the paranoia of Japanese infiltrators was at its peak. The majority of those interned, around 120,000 Americans, were born in the U.S.

One person who was on that train was Irene (Sato) Yamasaki. She is the second youngest of the six Sato children who grew up in Adna. She was 18 months old when her family went to Tule Lake.

“I was really too young for any of this to have an effect on my life,” she said, now in her late 70s. “I guess I grew up not feeling any different.”

She doesn’t have any real memories of the camp, and it was something her family never talked about. But one of her earliest memories was returning home to their two-story house in Adna. She would get lost in it and run up and down the stairs.

“It just seemed so big compared to where I was living before,” she said.

Some neighbors in Adna kept the property in shape while the Satos were interned in the camps, event coordinator Jodi Baker said.

“Which was not the case for most of the people in the camps,” Baker said. “Most lost everything they had.”

Baker noted many of the people in the camps were born in the United States and had never known another home, but many of their parents had immigrated from Japan.

“They were given American names,” Baker said about the first generation of citizens. “They were American and wanted to fit in their new homes.”

While setting up the exhibit in the museum, Silvia Livermore picked out items that reflected photographs from the time. They are footballs, fedoras and plaid skirts.

At 78 years old, Livermore is too young to remember the camps. But growing up in southern California, she had a friend who was in one. Her friend never told her that she was there, she only said her parents were in one, and Livermore realized she was with them based on her age.

“It has been an eye opener doing this,” Livermore said about setting up the exhibit. “When I come in here, I just felt their spirits here.”

It took roughly two weeks to set up the exhibit, including research time and gathering of the artifacts from storage.

Yamasaki said she and her family didn’t experience the same prejudice in Adna as other Japanese Americans did throughout the country.

“Everyone knew everyone,” she said. “I’m glad we grew up where we did.”

While in high school, she and her sister were cheerleaders, in the glee club and on the drill team. The family was part of the community.

“When my father passed away from a heart attack, one thing I remember was they canceled the basketball game,” she said.

Yamasaki and her sister Jane were set to perform that night in the drill team and as cheerleaders. The opposing coach was a good family friend, and both coaches agreed not to play.

“So they canceled the basketball game in honor of my father,” she said.

Yamasaki graduated from Adna High School in 1959 and went to the University of California Davis.

She and her husband live in Auburn, Calif., north of Sacramento.

Her husband is a landscape architect and helped to design a memorial to the 442nd Infantry Division. It was an all Japanese American unit. Most of the men were from Hawaii. The unit fought in the European Theater in Italy, France and Germany. By the end of the war, it was known as the “Purple Heart Battalion” with 9,486 casualties. More than 600 died in combat.

According to “Onalaska,” a history book about the town written by Vic Kucera, the 1940 census showed 62 people of Japanese descent living in Lewis County. Many worked at the lumber mill in Onalaska.

Because of their experience in the mill, the local Japanese Americans were sent to directly to Tule Lake to help with its construction, Kucera writes. The Army needed their help to finish the camp where they would spend the war.

Although Tule Lake was in the desert, Livermore said, the barracks were small with no door and it snowed in the winter. Army blankets were hung as curtains. Families slept on cots in their single-room apartment. The camps were complete communities for the most part with schools, stores and a jail.

The group from Lewis County was one of the first to head to the permanent camp. Those from the Seattle-Tacoma area spent a few months in a temporary camp at the fairgrounds in Puyallup.

This is the first time the Chehalis museum has publicly recognized the camps and what happened here in 1942, Baker said.

“It was a piece of history that was starting to get lost,” she said.

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