Though adults were outraged by their imprisonment, children quickly adapted to their new life at Topaz. Here they line up for school yearbooks. Photo courtesy of Topaz Museum.
Kids endured the heat and tedium of camp life better than adults, internees remember. Forced from their homes and jobs and accused of being disloyal Americans, the adults battled overwhelming depression and bitterness. It intensified as camp life broke down the traditionally tight Japanese family unit. Kids chose to eat in different mess halls with friends rather than with their parents and generally made their own way in camp.
“We would see a Gene Autry movie in the rec hall, then come back and run through the sage playing cowboys and Indians,” says Ito, who prepared for a career as an animation artist at Disney Studios by drawing in the margins of his mother’s Sears catalogs, then flipping the pages.
Saito, a retired mental health care worker who now sings with a swing band in the Bay Area, recalls sneaking under the camp’s barbed wire fence with a group of older kids to climb the ladder of an unoccupied guard tower. The older boys dared 6-year-old Saito to pick up the phone used by the guards. “I picked up the receiver and yelled, ‘Shit! Damn! Son of a bitch!’ Then we ran like hell back under the wire,” Saito recalls.
But the joy in the prank is overshadowed by a darker memory. “It was the same tower that they shot James Wakasa from,” Saito says. In 1943, a guard shot and killed Wakasa, 63, reportedly for refusing to back away from the four strands of barbed wire that separated Topaz from the vast emptiness around it. “Where was he going to escape to?” says Saito. “The desert?”