San Diegan Nancy Shimamoto is a fourth generation Japanese American – or Yonsei.
“I have two sisters, one of them was born in Poston, Arizona, in internment camps,” Shimamoto said. “My family has been here for four generations.
In December 1941, Japanese troops bombed Pearl Harbor, and in January 1942, Japanese Americans were classified as “enemy aliens.” Barely a month later, President Roosevelt authorized the evacuation of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes.
Shimamoto’s family were like many of their fellow Japanese citizens considered by the United States to be potential traitors. In 1943, Shimamoto’s parents were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona.
“Our family went straight to Poston,” Shimamoto said. “They had a week to gather their things and prepare for the evacuation. They were allowed to take one suitcase per person on the bus and were told to report to the main road at 6 am.”
“They were given a mattress cover and told to stuff it with straw for their beds after spending all this time on the bus during the day,” Shimamoto explained.
Shimamoto was born in the Imperial Valley into a farming family. His parents, along with his uncles, had moved to Imperial in the late 1930s and had started farming.
When the Shimamoto family’s neighbors, the Westmorelands, found out the family would be imprisoned, they stepped in to help. The Westmoreland family – the local ranchers – preserved what the Shimamoto family had worked to earn.
“The Westmorelands were friends of the family,” Shimamoto said. “When they found out my family found out they were going to be evacuated, the Westmorelands came and helped them preserve the farm.”
The Westmoreland family watched over the farm for three and a half years while the family was held.
“My mom, she said Roy Westmoreland brought with him lifeguards such as washing machines, a stroller and a crib,” Shimamoto said. Her mother took detailed notes of her time at the camp and shared them with her children.
“My mom had washed, rinsed and wrung out the thick sheets and diapers by hand and in the heat. It was very, very hard, so when they found out mum had a baby and was washing the diapers, they literally brought the machine laundry in and out and returned it to my mom, so they can use it for laundry, ”Shimamoto said.
Not everyone was as lucky as the Shimamoto. Many have returned home with nothing.
“You know, when they came back, there was nothing left of their things, they were just stripped,” Shimamoto thought. “They had nowhere to go back to. I just can’t imagine the horror they must have felt. Pack a bag.”
Many of those held in the detention centers were ashamed of what had happened to them and did not want to talk about it. In the 1960s and 1970s, the children of internees began to ask questions and seek recognition for the time their parents spent in the internment camps.
“There was this shame that they were stripped of everything and put in a prison camp,” Shimamoto said. “My dad was very reluctant to talk about it. My mom was a bit louder and she was actually interviewed for a book called ‘Americans Concentration Camps’.”
Asian American activists have fought for recognition of their contributions to America for decades, and in February 2020, the California State Assembly formally apologized to Japanese Americans for their unjust dismissal and incarceration during WWII.
An acknowledgment of the painful mistakes of the past – and although the scars remain, Nancy said she is a proud American.
“I’m 71. I never thought of living anywhere other than the United States and my family has been here for four generations, so we belong here and we call it home,” she said.
Shimamoto and his family eventually moved from Imperial to San Diego in the early 1950s.
Her parents went on to have successful careers. His mother was the first certified “nursery” in the state of California.