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December 3, 2023

Flag-signing project honors Japanese Americans imprisoned during WWII

WATSONVILLE—Twenty-five Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in World War II incarceration camps signed a United States flag Sunday at the Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL Kizuka Hall to make their mark on history.

Part of the Japanese American Incarceration Memorial Legacy Project, the event drew people who were children at the time of their incarceration and others that were born into imprisonment.

That included Sam Sakamoto, 96, of Soquel who was imprisoned at Tule Lake camp some 500 miles north of Watsonville near the California-Oregon border—the camp is now a national monument. 

Sakamoto is believed to be the last known living veteran of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team that was comprised of Japanese Americans from incarceration camps who volunteered to fight for the U.S. to help defeat Nazi Germany.

“I am very proud to sign this flag today,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Inspired by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Roberta Hayashi, Karen Korematsu and civil rights attorney Dale Minami, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Johnny Cepeda Gogo set out to honor the surviving Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during the war. He found a World War II-era, 48-star flag and sought to have incarceration camp internees sign it.

The flag will ultimately be donated to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose on Fred Korematsu Day, Jan. 30, next year. Gogo is collecting signatures in California, Hawaii, Utah and Arizona—where the majority of the camps were established.

Former longtime San Jose Congressman Mike Honda, who was imprisoned at Camp Amache in Colorado, was the first to sign the first of two flags used for the project, Gogo said. Norman Mineta of San Jose, the namesake of the city’s airport and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush, was the second. He and his family were imprisoned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

“I just felt it was important to honor the sacrifice, the memory, the courage and the hardships these people faced in these camps,” Gogo said. “We wanted to be creative in trying to honor these folks in the prison camps.”

Starting in 1942 the U.S. Government arrested, exiled and imprisoned 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese heritage, from young children to the elderly. Some killed themselves at the camps; others died from an illness. Upon release, many returned home to nothing or very little and had to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

Yoshiko Nishihara, 93, and her sister, Eiko, 95, of Watsonville, came to sign the flag Sunday. They said their family lived at the famed Redman-Hirahara House on Beach Road in Watsonville before they were sent to Arkansas to one of two internment camps there named Rohwer.

“Today is like a history lesson,” said Yoshiko Nishihara. “This is an important day.”

Eiko Nishihara said one memory she has of being in the camp was when she completed her school studies and graduated at the camp.

“You could only leave the camp for a very special reason,” she said. “My mother said it was important for me to wear nice clothes for my graduation. So we got permission to take the bus to town.”

Nishihara said that when her family boarded the bus they were stunned by the presence of Black passengers crowded at the rear of the bus.

“We had never seen Black people before,” she said. “We went to the back and took a seat, but they told us we had to sit closer to the front, so we did. It was all so different—being in Arkansas.”

In June, Mas and Marcia Hashimoto of Watsonville went to Valley Heights in Watsonville and helped Dr. Masako Miura, 107, and Louise Sako, 104, sign the flag.

“Because of their advanced age, we wanted their signatures as quickly as possible,” Mas Hashimoto, who also signed the flag, said.

Mae Yoshida, 92, who has lived in Watsonville since 1954, said she was an internee at Heart Mountain from 1942 to 1945.

“There are just not that many of us alive now,” she said. “I just remember how cold it was. My parents did not want us kids to misbehave and they were strict.”

Yoshida, who was born in San Jose,  said her father had worked in the orchards in Campbell at the time of the internment orders.

“There were three boys and five girls in our family,” she said. “When we came back it was very difficult because we came back to nothing. We had to work very hard; we had to start all over again.”

Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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