San Diego North County Japanese-Americans recall World War II internments

In all, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in the camps. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. More than $1.6 million in reparations to surviving interned Americans and their heirs was later disbursed.

In San Diego County, which had a population of 2,076 Japanese-Americans in 1940, families were sent to Poston, 12 miles south of Parker, Ariz. Poston was one of 10 internment camps created during World War II after an executive order authorized the Secretary of War to designate specific areas as military zones and excluded certain people from living in them. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

In San Diego County and other Pacific coast communities, the reverberating terror of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese in 1941 fueled fear of conspiracies, treason and espionage from within.

Historian Gerald Schlenker researched and wrote about the period in his article, “The Internment of the Japanese of San Diego County During the Second World War,” published in 1972 in the Journal of San Diego History. In his article, it was clear the county was swift to call for action against the perceived threat.

Just one month after the Pearl Harbor attack, the San Diego Union published an editorial calling for the removal of Japanese from the coast, federal officials closed the Japanese-language school in downtown San Diego and the San Diego City Council adopted a resolution calling for the removal of the “known” subversive element in the area, according to Schlenker’s research.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors also passed a resolution urging internment of Japanese residents.

San Diego City College history teacher Susan Hasegawa, who has researched the internment era, said she doesn’t know of any North County municipality that adopted a resolution endorsing internment in 1942.

Schlenker, however, reported that the Fallbrook Grange No. 614 sent a resolution to the Board of Supervisors asking for immediate removal of all Japanese people from the county.

Hasegawa said granges, agricultural organizations that started in the late 1800s, competed with Japanese-American farmers and thus were largely supportive of internment.

Among those deported were the parents of Elaine Armstrong, a graphic artist at Palomar College.

“I’ve talked to people of that generation who said, ‘Oh, it was essential because it was to protect them,'” she said. “And I say, ‘Why were the guns pointed into the camp?'”

Sugimoto, who said he has mostly pleasant memories of spending his teenage years at the camp, was alarmed at the sight of armed guards at the camp.

“It was disconcerting for me to see a closed gate, barbed wires and soldiers at sentry boxes,” he said. “It was the same with the train ride from Oceanside to Poston. We had armed soldiers at every car.”

Armstrong said her mother, Hannah Sonoda, was sent to a camp in Arkansas, where she graduated from high school and worked in the post office. Her father, Howell Sonoda, was sent to Poston.

Her parents met and married after leaving the camps, and Armstrong said they were never bitter about the experience.

“They weren’t angry about it,” she said. “They were just farmers. They were practical people. I think growing up, my parents made sure we were super-patriotic.”

Matthew Estes, a teacher at Palomar College who has researched and written about the internment period, said that his interviews with former internees revealed a stoicism among many of the people who experienced the camps.

“The Japanese have this term, Shikata ga nai,” he said. “It literally means, ‘some things can’t be helped.’ It’s not fatalism, but just recognition that some things you can’t do anything about.”

Estes also said many Japanese-Americans did not talk about the experience because they had a sense of shame about being incarcerated.

“They were ashamed to talk about this with their children, even though they had not done anything wrong,” he said. “There’s a stigma with being locked up.”

Estes’ father was American, but his mother was Japanese and had family members who went sent to internment camps. One of his cousins is buried at Manzanar, a former camp in California.

Estes said many Japanese-Americans lost most of their possessions after leaving for the camps. In downtown San Diego, the exodus wiped out what once was Little Japan between Island and Fourth avenues, which had a thriving strip of businesses including Japanese restaurants, a barber shop, a grocery store and photo studio, he said.

Some San Diego residents took their possessions to a Japanese Buddhist temple in San Diego, but those were lost when the building was burglarized and firebombed, Estes said.

Japanese-Americans in North County were more fortunate. Sugimoto said poinsettia grower Paul Ecke, founder of the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, opened his warehouses on his agriculture fields for displaced Japanese-Americans to store their belongings.

Estes said people sent to the camps were free to leave for other cities away from the Pacific coast, but only if they had a sponsor and could prove they had a job lined up.

With rumors that lynchings and deportation awaited Japanese-Americans outside the camps, however, many people decided they did not want to leave, Estes said.