Hawai‘i Hochi Writer Iwao Kosaka Returns to His Wartime “Home”

Karleen C. Chinen
(Reprinted from Oct. 7, 1988)

The mountains were Kosaka-san’s only guideposts — Abalone Hill to the northeast, Castle Rock to the southwest. If he found them, Hawaii Hochi writer Iwao Kosaka would have found what had been his wartime home 45 years ago.

It was a pilgrimage Kosaka-san, Herald advertising manager John Nakama and I will never forget — and one that John and I, as Sansei, will always treasure as one of the greatest experiences of our lives. As we inched upward through Northern California along Interstate 5, almost to the Oregon border — past Corning, Reddings, Dunsmuir, Mt. Shasta, Weed and, finally, Dorris — I wondered how Kosaka-san would react when we finally reached what he and about 29,500 other Japanese Americans had called “home” during World War II: Tule Lake Relocation Center.

“That’s the Tule grass that Tule Lake is named for,” said Kosaka-san, pointing at the reed-like grasses that grew in abundance on the banks of the Lower Klamath Wildlife Preserve. Other than that, he was silent — his eyes darting left and right, searching for his bearings — the two familiar mountains.

Within minutes, we were driving past the small town of Tulelake. A tall, galvanized steel water tower with the name “TULELAKE” painted around it in bold black letters stood proudly in the center of the town. Somehow, it seemed strange that a town would be named Tulelake, a familiar name, but with a different spelling than the one I had always associated with the shameful act of 46 years ago. But Tulelake, the town, was not the home of Tule Lake, the internment camp. That Tule Lake was still a few more miles ahead of us.

The sun was still high in the late afternoon sky. The vastness of mainland America stretched out before us as we headed east toward the town of Newell. The farther northeast we traveled, the more remote from civilization everything seemed to become. That was my first clue that we were nearing Tule Lake, which had been constructed over a dried-up lakebed. The other clue was the road sign telling us that we were entering the town of Newell. Population: 300.

Ironically, back in the mid-1940s, the sign would have read much differently. Population: 19,000.

There are some things memory does not erase, not even after 45 years, especially when it’s all you’ve seen for almost three years. Images of Castle Rock with its fortress-like summit, and Abalone Hill, shaped like an abalone, were as vivid in Kosaka-san’s mind today as they were the day he left Tule Lake Relocation Center in March of 1946. When his landmarks finally appeared in the distance, Kosaka-san knew he had come “home.”

Our 1988 journey by car to find Tule Lake began in San Francisco. In 1942, Kosaka-san’s journey had started in Honolulu.

Prior to leaving on our pilgrimage, Kosaka-san and I had retraced the steps leading to his internment on the Mainland — first in Utah, and then in Northern California.

In July of 1942 — seven months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — Kosaka-san was ordered to report to the FBI’s Honolulu office in the Dillingham Transportation Building for questioning. People like Kosaka-san, who was born in Hawai‘i, were considered by the FBI to be prime suspects as spies because he was Kibei-Nisei — born outside of Japan, but educated in Japan. Kosaka-san had also taught Japanese language school until the war broke out, when he began working as a carpenter’s helper.

The thought that the FBI would want to question him surprised Kosaka. Two years earlier, he and two fellow Japanese school teachers had reported to the Honolulu Armory to take their physical examination for induction into the Army. His friends had passed their physicals with flying colors, but Kosaka was classified a permanent 4-F and exempted from military service because of his extremely poor eyesight. His friends, Tsuyoshi Furukawa and Toshio Miura, went on to serve in the highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion. Both were killed in action.

Upon arriving at the FBI office, he informed the agents of his Selective Service classification. It made no difference to them that just two years ago, the American government had wanted him to serve in the U.S. Army.

Kosaka-san remembers the questions of the FBI interviewers: “Can you shoot your father if your father came to attack Hawai‘i?” Kosaka turned the tables on them. “I wonder if I can shoot him. How about you? Can you shoot your father?” he asked the agents. Kosaka remembers an agent of Japanese ancestry seated at the next table, eavesdropping on his interrogation. “He came to me and said [in Japanese] that because of Japanese like me, all the Japanese are going to suffer.” Kosaka-san asked him whether he was Japanese. “He shut up and walked away. . . . Maybe I should have said, ‘Sure I’m going to shoot my father.’ But it’s not an honest answer.”

They also asked him why he had gone to Japan as a child. “I don’t know why. My parents took me when I was a baby,” he replied. They asked him why he had taken military training in high school in Japan, which was compulsory for all male high school students.

The questioning continued for about an hour, after which Kosaka-san expected to be released. Instead, he was transported to the Immigration Office on Ala Moana Boulevard, where he anticipated being questioned again. He learned instead that he was being held for an undetermined period of time. He wasn’t even allowed to call his roommate to let him know what was going on.

Kosaka spent the next several days in a room lined with bunk beds on the second floor of a building behind the main immigration office. He recalls that after meals, he and another man, a Mr. Sekiya, washed the dishes and emptied the garbage. For the first time in his life, he knew how it felt to be a prisoner.

Several days later, he was transported by boat across Honolulu Harbor to the detention center at Sand Island. “We were the last bunch from Sand Island. After we left, they closed Sand Island and moved the remaining people to Honouliuli.” He says the FBI never informed them in advance of what to expect.

Today, nothing remains of the Sand Island camp, although Kosaka happened upon it about 20 years ago when he dropped his son off at a surfing spot near Sand Island. He had taken the wrong turn and somehow wound up near the old campsite. The conditions at Sand Island had improved by the time Kosaka was transferred there in mid-1942. Three two-story barracks buildings had replaced the makeshift tents that greeted the internees who were picked up on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The internees passed the long hours by cleaning their barracks, reading, gardening and even learning English from an internee from Kaua‘i. There were hardly any visitors. “They came with the boat, so the number was limited,” he recalls. Although it was somewhat livable, the camp was nevertheless surrounded by barbed wire.

When Kosaka-san learned that some of the internees were being transferred to the Mainland camps, he volunteered to be interned at Jerome in Arkansas. He was not selected, however. He was single at the time and with nothing to hold him back, he thought that he’d like to experience the mainland United States. Those internees who wanted to stay behind in Hawai‘i to be close to their families were eventually moved to Honouliuli in ‘Ewa for the duration of the war.

In February 1943, Kosaka-san was approved for transfer to a Mainland camp. Anticipating the cold weather, those internees being transferred stateside requested overcoats, which the Army reluctantly provided for them. Several weeks later, Kosaka and other internees were on a ship to the Mainland. They arrived in Oakland in March of 1943 and boarded a dusty old train.

“When we travel, we can put up the shade. But when we come into the town, we have to close the shade. And we couldn’t move around; the MPs were there,” he recalled. The internees had to remain on the train when it pulled into the various towns along the route.

“The only place where we could get off was in the desert, and the MPs surrounded us.”

They had no idea of their final destination. “We didn’t know where we were going. We rode the train — then one day later we heard that maybe it was going to Salt Lake.” The train chugged along past Salt Lake before finally stopping in Provo, Utah, where the group transferred to trucks for the remainder of the journey to Topaz Relocation Center.

“Topaz was a desert,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing.” There was only a barracks building that would be his home for the next seven months. He said Topaz looked like what he had left behind at Sand Island. “But at Sand Island, we couldn’t see any kids.” At least there were children at Topaz, and the Boy Scouts turned out to welcome them.

By then, Kosaka-san was a mature young man in his late 20s who was able to adapt to the many changes taking place in his own life. He felt for the children, the families and the elderly, however. “Those people suffered,” he says.

While at Topaz, Kosaka-san, like all internees over age 17, was required to state his loyalties in the controversial “Yes-Yes”/“No-No” questionnaire called: “Statement of United States Citizenship of Japanese Ancestry.” The most controversial were Question 27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?” and Question 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”

His refusal to answer Questions 27 and 28 led to his transfer along with 150 others — mainly those answering “No-No” — to the segregation camp at Tule Lake in September of 1943. “If I didn’t answer, it’s the same thing as saying “No-No.” So I didn’t answer, and they classified me “No-No.” The internees at Tule Lake were a mixed group of Issei, Nisei and kibei.

Prior to leaving Topaz, Kosaka applied to be repatriated to Japan so that he could rejoin his family. However, he decided not to sign the application until he was certain that his family and home were still there. An FBI agent from Washington, D.C., questioned him. “I told him that if they’re going to intern me, I’m going home. He didn’t say anything. I asked him, ‘If you were same like me, what would you do? You’re a German and had nothing to do with this and they intern you and keep you behind bared wire fence . . . if you were same like me, what would you do?’”

The flustered agent could not answer Kosaka-san’s question. “You just give me the answer; don’t ask me questions,” he replied.

Kosaka-san’s application for repatriation was denied because it was incomplete.

The train from Topaz took the group right up to the barbed wire gate at Tule Lake. Kosaka settled into Block 14, Barracks 4, Room C, which he shared with three other men from Hawai‘i. He said the Hawai‘i internees were feared. A few had been troublemakers and had gotten into scraps. But the Hawai‘i men pulled together when they were ordered to build a rock and concrete fireplace for the Officers Club, which was situated just outside the barbed wire fence. Kosaka was part of the crew.

Winters in Northern California were especially hard on the Hawai‘i internees who were accustomed to the islands’ warm climate. The sight of snow on the summit of Castle Rock and Abalone Hill was an exhilarating first-experience for most of the Hawai‘i internees, the majority of whom had never seen snow before in their lives. Kosaka-san said snowfalls in Tule Lake were rather mild. He and his roommates made an outdoor ice box for their fruit by cutting a hole in the floor of their barracks and suspending the box of fruit with some rope.

Kosaka-san believes the biggest price he paid while interned was the loss of his freedom. Day-to-day living was cheap. “Actually, you don’t need money in camp. I used to smoke, so I needed cigarette money. But clothes and things like that, you don’t need fancy kind.” When the internees finally settled in and resigned themselves to life in camp, they began ordering goods they needed from Sears mail-order catalogues.

Kosaka-san spent his free time — and he had lots of it, he says — playing mah jong, reading, practicing calligraphy and socializing with friends. He says camp life was hardest on families — single people like himself had only themselves to look after and were thus better able to cope with the hardships and changes taking place in their lives.

Many of the internees took jobs that were available in the camp. Kosaka earned $19 a month working as a security guard in his block. It was a relatively good-paying job and easy work compared to the $16 a month paid to kitchen workers and those who were allowed to farm and raise livestock behind Castle Rock during the daylight hours.

All total, Kosaka-san spent two and one half years at Tule Lake. His release came suddenly, and unexpectedly, in March of 1946. The War Relocation Authority had decided to close Tule Lake and send the remaining internees to Crystal City, Texas. In anticipation of the move, Kosaka-san had packed his belongings in a few boxes and two small suitcases. On the night before he was to be transferred, however, he was told that he was being released, not transferred, and that he should report to the administration office first thing in the morning to process his paperwork. By the time his paperwork was completed, the other internees had left. Kosaka-san regrets never having had a chance to say good-bye to them.

When we began our pilgrimage to Tule Lake, we knew very little about what had become of the old camp. Kosaka-san had put Sand Island, Topaz and Tule Lake behind him and moved on with his life — marriage, children, writing for the Hawaii Hochi. We knew only that a California Registered Historical Landmark plaque had been unveiled by former Tule Lake internees during a 1979 pilgrimage to the site. Exactly where that plaque stood, we had no idea. In those preinternet days, the mountains — Castle Rock and Abalone Hill — and that plaque were our only leads.

With directions from a few residents of Newell, we luckily found the plaque. It was along the main highway, near the gate Kosaka-san thinks he walked through in September of 1943, almost 45 years ago to the day we had returned to Tule Lake. The train tracks still ran alongside the highway.

The place had changed, Kosaka-san noted. John and I could only see a desolate piece of flat land that climbed up into Abalone Hill in the distance. But in Kosaka-san’s eyes, the area was alive. He saw trees and shrubbery where armed guard towers had stood in 1943.

Surprisingly, we found that old Officers Club with the fireplace that Kosaka-san and other Hawai‘i internees had helped to build. The club is now a general merchandise store, and a row of video games blocks their fine piece of workmanship.

The sun had begun to fall on Tule Lake. Elated with our discoveries, we called it a day and headed north, crossing over the California-Oregon border into Klamath Falls, Oregon, where we planned to spend the night. We would return to Tule Lake in the morning for an hour or two to shoot more photos of the plaque and the mountains and the chimney before beginning the long drive back to San Francisco.

Our couple of hours the next morning turned into an entire half day when we discovered what we had never even dreamed of finding behind the store. There were old barracks still standing, with people living in them!

At first glance, they looked like old rundown buildings that had been built by the same builder. Most of them were badly in need of a paint job. But as Kosaka-san studied them more closely — counting the number of chimney pipes on the rooftops, taking special note of where the doors and windows were located — he realized that they were Tule Lake’s old barracks buildings. The long barracks had been cut in half and were now being used as homes.

Dogs barked as we walked along the road, alerting their owners that strangers were in the area. As we studied one particular L-shaped home with its doors wide open, a woman suddenly appeared at the door. We introduced ourselves and explained our curiosity. Kosaka-san looked at the ceiling and knew positively that the home had once housed internees like himself.

As Kosaka-san and John walked around to the other side of the building, Dorothy Brown and I talked. She and her husband Leroy were from Oklahoma. They had come to Newell with their three sons in the early- to mid-1950s to farm potatoes. They used to live across the way. “Yup, this house used to be part of a Jap camp during the war,” she said. The word “Jap” hit me like a slap in the face. But I wanted information from her, so I set my emotions aside. She and Leroy bought their “home” in 1959 for $4,000, and had only recently made the final payment on it.

The government had apparently sold the barracks to individuals after Tule Lake closed in 1946. One of the buyers had cut them in half and sold them to people like the Browns.

Mrs. Brown said she and her husband had built the picket fence around the house and made a few minor repairs to it. But for the most part, the exterior was pretty much as they had bought it.

The other surprise of the day came just before we left Tule Lake. We wanted to get an idea of how many miles the camp once encompassed, so we drove along an old camp road in the direction of Abalone Hill. That’s when we found another building, an old mess hall.

It was old and extremely run down, but it had been a part of the lives of people like Kosaka-san. Without thinking that the building could collapse on me, I slipped in through one of the open doors. Sunlight leaked through the cracks in the roof, creating an eerie effect. Junk and horse manure was strewn about the sandy dirt floor. As Kosaka-san walked through the building, memories of 45 years ago were with him. He hadn’t eaten in this particular mess hall, but had in one that looked exactly like it across the ways.

I tried to visualize this place back then — mess hall workers serving up the food, mothers standing in the meal line with their children, rows and rows of tables with benches attached to them, children chasing each other through the narrow aisles, the din of almost a thousand black-haired people all talking at once.

I wondered how much longer this reminder of 45 years ago would continue to stand. In a way, I hoped it would stand forever, to remind us always of the inhumanity and injustice of places like Tule Lake.

Over dinner in Klamath Falls that first night, Kosaka-san told us a story I’ll never forget. It was a story about the human toll of war and the camps.

Japan had surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the war was finally over. Kosaka-san recalled that one of the internees, a kibei woman, had snapped and had clubbed her two young sons to death with a hammer after her husband had left for his camp job. It had taken three strong men to drag her out of her barracks and over to the camp infirmary, where she was heavily sedated. Kosaka-san was assigned to watch over her that night. Uncertain of her family’s future, she had been anxious and depressed. Would they be deported to Japan? Would they be able to remain together as a family? Would they have a home in Japan? How would they survive? She just didn’t know.

As Kosaka-san sat at her bedside, watching her, he wondered, “What’s going to happen to her when she regains her sanity and realizes that she killed her children? Would it be more humane for her to never regain her sanity?”

Camp life had hardened him in the 1940s. “Once you go in that kind of place, you’re not scared of anything, because there isn’t that kind of place in ordinary life,” he had told me early on. “I had no fear.”

Our journey to Tule Lake has not been a tearful homecoming for Kosaka-san, but that didn’t matter. He had reconciled himself with his past and given John and myself the priceless gift of a glimpse back in American history — a history that, in many ways, was our own history as Americans of Japanese ancestry. As much as we wanted to feel what Kosaka-san and 110,000 other Japanese Americans had felt — the bitter cold and deadly heat, the internees’ fear, anger and humiliation — we couldn’t. We hadn’t been there. If we felt anger in our hearts, Kosaka-san’s compassion and bittersweet memories of life within the barbed wire confines of Tule Lake helped us temper and redirect that anger into something constructive and educational.

In 1981, Kosaka-san was among four internees from Hawai‘i who flew to Seattle to share their camp experiences with members of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. He recited an old Japanese poem for them:


Mata ano koroya

Shinobare mu

Ushi to mishi yo zo

Ima wa koshiki.

If you live long enough

You will recall the olden days

Then, even the bad times

Will become fond memories.

Writer’s postscript: Iwao Kosaka died in May 2000 at the age of 85. I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to former Hawaii Hochi, Ltd. president Paul Yempuku for allowing Kosaka-san, John Nakama and myself to make this unforgettable journey to Tule Lake so that we could share Kosaka-san’s story with readers of The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Hochi.


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