Nob Hashimoto and Susumu Yenokida stood together at the Merced County Fairgrounds over the weekend and found their names engraved on the wall dedicated to the more than 4,600 people who were wrongfully imprisoned during World War II by the American government.
Both men were Livingston High School students when they were locked up with their families and friends 72 years ago.
“People lost their land, all their money, their retirements. They lost everything,” Hashimoto said.
The two lifelong friends gathered Saturday with more than 300 people for a “Day of Remembrance” dinner at the same spot where they and thousands of other men, women and children were interned after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.
The president authorized internment of more than 120,000 first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans in 10 prison camps across the United States. Saturday’s event was sponsored by the Livingston-Merced Japanese American Citizens League.
Hashimoto, who lives in Winton now, said too many people don’t know enough about the grim episode of American history he and his loved ones lived. It shaped his life and the lives of nearly everyone he cared about as a young man. It’s still hard, he said, not to feel bitter.
“You never forget it,” he said. “Not any of it.”
In the fall of 1942, Hashimoto and Yenokida and other prisoners transferred to another camp in Colorado, where they spent the next three years.
“We graduated from high school at camp in 1944,” Yenokida said.
In 1945, both men were drafted into the Army. Hashimoto served, but Yenokida declined and spent more than a year in prison for refusing to help the government that locked up his family and friends without cause or any deference to their constitutional rights.
It was a scary time, Yenokida said, but he believed he was doing the right thing.
“They just grabbed all our land,” Yenokida said. “We all had our own reasons for doing things then and who’s to say who was right and who was wrong.”
Hashimoto praised his friend’s decision.
“People like me should’ve protested, too, but most were too scared,” Hashimoto said. “He (Yenokida) stood right up to them and they gave him a ball and a chain for it. He acted like a good American. He protested like a good American.”
Hashimoto is proud of his military service, despite the “real raw deal” he received from his country.
“It’s the greatest country in the world, I think,” Hashimoto said. “You look at other countries; this is the best. We’re very proud.”
That pride always mixes with fear that perhaps racial paranoia and wartime panic could again one day punish American citizens for their heritage and force them from their homes.
Such anxiety helps fuels the annual “Day of Remembrance” in Merced, said Bob Taniguchi, a spokesman for the JACL.
“It’s not about us being victims, now,” Taniguchi said. “It’s about us helping to educate people about history.”
History was on the mind of 14-year-old Grant Dunford of Ballico, whose grandfather, Harry Nishihara, was also imprisoned in Merced. “I think it’s kind of touching to be here, to think about what happened,” he said.
Dunford’s mother, Monica, said the annual banquet and memorial in Merced is about recognizing tragedy and celebrating the triumph over that tragedy. It’s crucial, she said, for her family, for all families, to remember the stories of the older generations.
“It’s my father’s history. It’s our country’s history,” she said. “It’s so important to tell the story of what happened in World War II and help others learn from those mistakes.”