– Cloaked in a black and purple robe, Takeshi Ota and his
unlikely classmates were seated in the front row – center.
Sitting among 485 teenagers, Ota and his five classmates in
their 80s received the loudest applause from the audience. The
Salinas High School Class of 2005 didn’t seem to mind.
Gilroy – Cloaked in a black and purple robe, Takeshi Ota and his unlikely classmates were seated in the front row – center.
Sitting among 485 teenagers, Ota and his five classmates in their 80s received the loudest applause from the audience. The Salinas High School Class of 2005 didn’t seem to mind.
“Imagine – we have wanted our diplomas for 13 years,” said Associated Student Body president Kevin Achas. “They have wanted theirs for 60.”
Ota remembers all the details of the ceremony. He remembers walking out from the side and the people in the bleachers standing. He remembers the students applauding.
His hair, once black, is now gray. But his walk, steady and proud, is that of a young man.
“It was really something,” Ota said. “We were really overwhelmed by the applause. It was something.”
Ota was a young sophomore at Salinas High School when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
His father was a Japanese immigrant – a sharecropper – who worked in the fields, picking strawberries for Driscoll farms. Ota’s mother was born in Watsonville.
He is among the Nisei – second generation Japanese immigrants living in the United States – some of the forgotten victims of World War II who were detained in internment camps on American soil.
As fighting progressed and suspicions about Japanese Americans serving as spies abroad grew, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all individuals of Japanese descent, including natural born citizens, to be quarantined in camps on Feb. 19,1942.
“We were told to go to Salinas Rodeo grounds,” Ota said. “That became an assembly center for all the Japanese from Monterey, San Benito and South County.”
The Salinas Rodeo grounds housed 3,594 evacuees for about three months while permanent relocation centers were built in secluded parts of the west including Utah, Arizona, Idaho, California, Wyoming and Colorado.
“Everybody of Japanese descent, we were all told we had to leave the western coast because the war started – because we might be spies,” the 81–year–old explained.
Ota and his family were sent to the Salinas Rodeo grounds in April 1942 and remained there until July 4, 1942, when they were sent to the Colorado River Indian Relocation Center in Poston, Ariz.
“We could only bring what we could carry – nothing more,” he recalled. “We didn’t know how long we were going to be there. There were a lot of rumors going around that we were going to be shipped back to Japan. Lots of rumors.”
The relocation center was divided into three camps called Poston I, II, and III and located two miles from the banks of the Colorado River in the desert.
Evacuees nicknamed the three camps Roasten, Toasten and Dustin.
Together they held 17,814 internees. Poston was the largest relocation center in the country. More than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were housed in the relocation camps from 1942 to 1945.
Because the original plans for Poston did not include schools, the evacuees had to build their own.
Ota continued schooling in September 1942 there under the instruction of primarily young Japanese American college students and graduated a year later.
“We graduated just like anyone else, with caps and gowns,” Ota said. His diploma carries a seal from the Office of Indian Affairs.
Ironically, the man who graduated from high school inside an internment camp was drafted into the United States Army in Aug. 1943.
Sent to Florida for basic training, he was recruited to study intelligence at Fort Snelling, Minn. and learn the Japanese language to be become an interrogator and translator. He knew little of his parents language beforehand.
He was sent overseas and when the war ended, Ota’s ship was under repair at Pearl Harbor. He then moved to Tokyo for eight months where he taught English to Japanese and was honorably discharged in Aug. 1946.
After the war Ota’s family returned to the South County but no longer had a home.
“We were really poor,” he said. “My folks didn’t know too much English – so I thought I should stay home.”
Mr. Driscoll asked his father to move to Morgan Hill, Ota said, and Ota joined his father in the fields, farming strawberries and working in the orchards.
He moved with his wife to Gilroy in 2001.
Ota still keeps in touch with friends he met in the camps.
“They had a hard time getting work after,” he said. “You’ve got to start all over again.”
Ted Uchida, born in Japan, immigrated to the United States with his family in the 1950s.
“My father always said to thank those who came before us,” said Uchida, the owner of Zen Flower Garden in Gilroy.
Starting a new life in the United States was not as difficult for new Japanese immigrants because of the hard work and reputation those before them established, Uchida explained.
“We have to give a lot of credit to our forefathers who have already endured the discrimination,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who sacrificed to pave a good way for us. I have nothing but thanks for those people.”
In 1988, the Civil Rights Commission ordered reparations to the Japanese Americans detained in the relocation centers. Letters of apology were sent out. Ota has one from President Ronald Reagan.
“They gave us about $20,000 per person as a form of an apology,” he said.
He and his wife have one child. But he never talked about his experience in the camps with his family.
“It wasn’t until quite later that their kids and grandkids wanted to know,” Ota explained of the mentality other evacuees shared.
He has only recently started talking about his experience in the camps. “A lot of people have gone back and visited (the reservation.) I haven’t gone yet,” Ota said. “I don’t think I will.”
All that is left of Poston I is the elementary school, some classrooms and the auditorium the detainees built. All that is left of the high school Ota attended are a few slabs of concrete.
Nearly 60 years later, under Assembly Bill AB 781 authored by Assemblymember Sally Lieber, (D -San Jose) also called known as the California Nisei High School Diploma Project, any school district is authorized to retroactively issue a high school diploma to any person of Japanese descent who was prevented from graduating in their neighborhood school during World War II.
Descendants of some who have passed, received the diplomas in their honor. Others like Ota, were afforded the chance to wear their school colors and participate in a formal graduation ceremony.
Ota was one of six individuals who received an honorary diploma at Salinas High School’s graduation ceremony June 9.
Before the ceremony, they were given congratulatory letters from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lieber, and various other California politicians.
As they went to graduation rehearsal on the field, individuals already seated in the bleachers applauded loudly. Salinas High graduates clapped. Some went up and shook their hands.
The ceremony was very different from the high school graduation held in the interment camp, Ota said.
“That was just us. … I never expected this,” he said. “It was a wonderful memory.”