Bobby stepped onto the bus, his small suitcase loaded with metal army men. The pungent smell of fish and dirty water filled the air of the fish market under the metal gray sky. A large banner hung from a shop window “No Japs Allowed.” As the city of Seattle disappeared from the back window of the bus under the gun-metal sky, Bobby felt a burning fire in his belly. The ten-year-old boy vowed he would someday return. “Bobby, hold your head high,” his older sister Sachi said. “Gaman, we will endure.”
Bobby and friends learned about Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of December 7, 1941 when they left the movie theater after seeing Tarazan’s Secret Treasure. To their surprise and horror, paper boys hawking newspapers, shouted “Pearl Harbor attacked! Japs bomb Pearl Harbor!” A grizzled old man glared at them in hate.
His parents talked about the effort in California to move everybody of Japanese descent to evacuation centers. “We will be next,” his father said in Japanese. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the military to take persons of Japanese descent into custody. Authorities ordered aliens and citizens alike of Japanese ancestry to go to the courthouse to be fingerprinted. A curfew and travel restrictions were imposed.
When they received their evacuation notice in May 1942, Bobby’s mom and dad arranged for sale of their hotel for $500.00. The children were pulled early from schools. Strangers lined up outside their hotel hoping to buy their possessions at a cut rate. His mother and older sisters sold all the possessions they could as their father shooed away would-be buyers. “God dammu! Scavengers,” he said. “We should burn everything!”
When they arrived at Camp Harmony the Assembly Center in Puyallup in May, 1942, they were herded into the arena with all the other evacuees. A World War I veteran wore his Army uniform, his face scarred from shrapnel wounds.
Seven thousand people slept together in the arena before they were assigned rooms in animal stalls or hastily erected barracks. Snores of the many filled the stifling air of that hot, humid night of uncertainty. Everybody was given a physical examination.
The Kodamas were assigned housing in what was once used as a horse stall at the county fair. White paint covered the dead insects and hay. The barracks smelled like horse manure and urine. The tar paper roof leaked when it rained.
Sports leagues were quickly organized. Bobby and his friends played baseball, basketball and ping pong every day but Sunday. Bobby was small but he could hit the ball harder than most kids twice his size. He could also run faster than anyone else his age. He loved all sports but baseball was his favorite game.
There was no school. Whenever Bobby wanted to play he would stand outside the barracks and call to his friends. At the canteen, they could buy candy, ice cream and soda pop.
Two boys on his baseball team were “no-no boys.” When boys turned 17, they were asked whether they would serve in the military and whether they would swear loyalty to the United States. Both boys said no unless they were freed from camp. They were taken to Tule Lake where they were imprisoned.
In August, Bobby and his family were ordered to take a 30-hour train trip from Puyallup to a permanent camp at Minidoka, Idaho. Bobby had never been on a train. On the first day, they passed green trees, farm houses and Indians spear fishing in the Columbia River. The train changed engines in Portland.
On the second day, all turned to sage brush and desert. It kept getting hotter and hotter. Black soot blew into his car through the open windows. Black stewards served chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes. Half of the train became sick with diarrhea. The train stopped in the middle of the desert in southern Idaho.
They were taken by bus to Minidoka, a 960-acre concentration camp in the middle of the desert. Guard towers surrounded the camp as a barbed wire fence was being built around the camp. His family was assigned living quarters in a tar paper barracks in block 14, along with several other families.
Families strung line across the barracks to create partitions. Wood boxes were nailed to the walls to use as shelves and tin tops were nailed to cover holes and prevent wind and dust from blowing into the barracks.
More than 13,000 residents were housed in 600 buildings. Local government officials were elected. Residents were warned not to look under the barracks which shaded rattlesnakes and scorpions from the sun.
Dust storms rained dirt on the residents filling eyes and mouth with dust. And temperatures soared above 100 degrees.
The children did not go to school until November. Baseball leagues and work crews for local famers were organized. He and his friends oftentimes swam in the Snake River which ran along the camp until one boy drowned. Movies were shown every Tuesday night.
Bobby saw a snake slither under the partially completed barbed wire fence. As he watched the snake slither away, a soldier approached.
He pointed his rifle at Bobby. “You are too close to the fence. Step back.”
Bobby looked up and defiantly stood his ground.
“Step back or I will shoot.”
Bobby’s friend Mino approached and smiled.
“C’mon Bobby, let’s play some baseball. Shikata gai nai. It cannot be helped.”
Bobby and Mino signed up for work duty at a potato farm outside the camp to help with the fall harvest. Bobby, Mino, Tommy and John were brought by Army truck to a nearby farm.
Although the farmer was unfriendly, almost hostile, his wife was nice. Tommy, who was 17 and who was a farmer in Portland, drove the potato harvester. Mino found a pair of broken aviator sun glasses in the field that he fixed and wore.
At noon, the farmer’s wife brought ice-cold lemonade and egg salad sandwiches to her husband and the boys in the field. She also brought a bucket of water for them to wash their hands.
“You boys work hard,” she said and smiled. “They are hard workers, aren’t they Clem?”
The farmer grunted.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Mino said.
“Hope you boys like a good egg salad sandwich,” the farmer’s wife said.
At the end of the week, the farmer refused to pay the boys.
“I ain’t paying no Japs,” he said.
“You agreed to pay us,” said Tommy who was the oldest.
“I ain’t paying you or your buddies, not one cent.”
“We will see what the Army says,” Tommy calmly said.
“Pay them,” said the farmer’s wife. “We don’t want no trouble.”
The farmer went to his house and came back with his shotgun.
“Get off my property,” he threatened.
Bobby, had just returned from the field, and was behind the farmer.
“We don’t want any trouble, Mister,” Mino said. He turned to Tommy. “Let’s go.”
“Hey,” John yelled to distract the farmer.
Bobby then tackled the farmer from behind, knocking the shot gun from his hand.
Tommy grabbed the guns. He took the shells from the gun and then smashed the gun apart on the ground.
“Let’s go,” he said. The four boys left.
“Get the hell off my property,” the farmer yelled.
The four boys waited by the road for the army truck to pick them up. The sun was going down.
The farmer’s wife came running across the field. “This is my money. Here are your wages. Fair and square. I thank you boys for your hard work.”
The next night, the boys gathered together behind the barracks and dodged the search lights, making their way to a part of the camp where the barbed wire fence was not completed. They swam across the Snake River, trying their shoes and clothes to their head.
They walked in the dark to the potato farm, each grabbing a handful of potatoes. John who worked in the kitchen at the mess hall had tin foil.
The boys made a fire and then roasted their potatoes wrapped in foil in the fire. Never had potatoes tasted so good. They returned to camp before daylight.
School resumed in November. On Thanksgiving, turkey was served at the mess hall.
The winter brought cold weather – sometimes it dropped below 20 degree below zero. It snowed and water froze in the pond. On Christmas Day, Santa Claus gave every boy a scarf, color pencils and knife. After Christmas, Bobby and his friends wrote essays for school about the camp at Stafford Elementary School.
Spring brought rain and then good weather. The camp residents – many farmers – planted potatoes, beans, onions, alfalfa, and barley.
When the government asked for volunteers to serve in the military, more than 1,000 residents volunteered for duty. An all Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimetnal Combat Unit, was organized. Tommy and John both joined the Army.
The unit became the most decorated unit in the U.S. history for its size and duration of service. It won 21 Congressional Medals of Honor in World War II, more than double awarded to any division. Seventy-three volunteers from Minidoka were killed in the fighting.
And spring brought baseball. Baseball leagues were organized and the Milwaukee Braves played an exhibition game on the baseball field built by camp residents.
Bobby played second base and Mino played shortstop when he was not pitching.
The 442nd led the drive toward Rome in June 1944. “Casualties High as Nisei Spearhead New Offensive,” The Minidoka Irrigator, the camp newspaper, said. The unit fought in Italy and France, rescuing the Lost Texas Battalion in the Vosges Mountains and penetrating the Gothic Line in Italy during the final months of the war. Tommy was killed in the Vosges Mountains.
In June, a little league all-star team from Idaho Falls came to play the all-star Japanese American team at Minidoka. The Idaho Falls All-stars arrived inside the barbed wire camp on a school bus.
Bobby, batting leadoff, bunted for a base hit. The next hitter walked. Mino, batting third, hit a triple, knocking in two runs and then scored on a sacrifice fly.
Idaho Falls scored two runs in the top of the second on a single and home run.
Bobby hit a single in the bottom of the third and then scored after he stole and base and Mino singled him in.
The game ended when Idaho Falls hit a ground ball to Mino who threw to Bobby at second base who then threw to first for the double play. The Minidoka All Stars won 4-2.
At the end of the game, the two teams cheered each other and then lined up and slapped each others’ hands.