|Letter from a Concentration Camp
by Yoshiko Uchida
illustrated by Allen Say
Mailing Address: Barrack 16, Apartment 40
Tanforan Assembly Center
San Bruno, California
Actual Address: Stable 16, Horse stall 40
May 6, 1942
Here I am sitting on an army cot in a smelly old horse stall, where Mama, Bud, and I have to live for who knows how long. It’s pouring rain, the wind’s blowing in through all the cracks, and Mama looks like she wants to cry. I guess she misses Papa. Or maybe what got her down was that long, muddy walk along the racetrack to get to the mess hall for supper.
Anyway, now I know how it feels to stand in line at a soup kitchen with hundreds of hungry people. And that cold potato and weiner they gave me sure didn’t make me feel much better. I’m still hungry, and I’d give you my last nickel if you appeared this minute with a big fat hamburger and a bagful of cookies.
You know what? It’s like being in jail here- not being free to live in your own house, do what you want, or eat what you want. They’ve got barbed wire all around this racetrack and guard towers at each corner to make sure we can’t get out. Doesn’t that sound like a prison? It sure feels like one!
What I want to know is, What am I doing here anyway? Me- a genuine born-in-California citizen of the United State of America stuck behind barbed wire, just because I look like the enemy in Japan. And how come you’re not in here too, with that German blood in your veins and a name like Herman Schnabel. We’re at war with Germany too, aren’t we? And with Italy? What about the people at Napoli Grocers?
My brother, Bud, says the US government made a terrible mistake that they’ll regret someday. He says our leaders betrayed us and ignored the Constitution. But you know what I think? I think war makes people crazy. Why else would a smart man like President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign an executive order to force us Japanese Americans out of our homes and lock us up in concentration camps? Why else would the FBI take Papa off to a POW camp just because he worked for a Japanese company? Papa- who loves America just as much as they do.
Hey, ask Mrs. Wilford what that was all about. I mean that stuff she taught us in sixth grade about the Bill of Rights and due process of law. If that means everybody can have a hearing before being thrown in prison, how come nobody gave us a hearing? I guess President Roosevelt forgot about the Constitution when he ordered us into concentration camps. I told you war makes people crazy!
Well, Hermie, I gotta go now. Mama says we should get to the showers before the hot water runs out like it did when she went to do the laundry. Tomorrow she’s getting up at 4:00 A.M. to beat the crowd. Can you imagine having to get up in the middle of the night and stand in line to wash your sheets and towels? By hand too! No luxuries like washing machines in this dump!
Hey, do me a favor? Go pet my dog, Rascal, for me. He’s probably wondering why I had to leave him with Mrs. Harper next door. Tell him I’ll be back to get him for sure. It’s just that I don’t know when. There’s a rumor we’re getting shipped to some desert-probably in Utah. But don’t worry, when this stupid war is over, I’m coming home to California and nobody’s ever going to kick me out again! You just wait and see! So long, Hermie.
Note: In 1942, shortly after the outbreak of war with Japan, the United States government uprooted and imprisoned, without trial or hearing, 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. They were sent first to “assembly centers” located in abandoned racetracks and fairgrounds. From there they were sent to ten bleak concentration camps located in remote areas of the country.
In 1976 President Gerald R. Ford stated, “not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans.” In 1983 a commission established by the Congress of the United States concluded that a grave injustice had been done to Americans of Japanese descent. It also stated that the causes of the uprooting were race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership.