Norman Mineta was ten when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He was a carefree fourth grader in San Jose, California, who loved baseball, hot dogs, and Cub Scouts. But after the attack, school friends turned on him, calling him the enemy and yelling at him, “Dirty Jap! You bombed Pearl Harbor!”
“I looked like the enemy, so they assumed I was,” said Norm, whose parents had immigrated from Japan. “I burned with shame.”
The FBI arrested Japanese American leaders, imposed a curfew, and restricted travel. People’s businesses were padlocked and their homes searched. “When we learned about the internment camps, it was very frightening,” Norm said.
He and his parents, his older brother, and two of his three older sisters were taken by train to a camp near Heart Mountain, Wyoming, Heart Mountain housed 10,000 internees who lived behind barbed wire in 500 barracks. Their rooms had a single light bulb. No privacy, no closet, no running water.
The Mineta family endured these hardships with grace and dignity. Norm found solace in playing baseball and doing well in school. Late in 1944 the family was sent by the government to Chicago so Norm’s father could teach Japanese to American army officers. They lived in a regular house, but were not free to go home.
That finally happened when the war ended in 1945. They had been gone three long years. Gradually they resumed their former lives. After high school and college, Norm served in the army. He married, fathered two sons, and joined the family insurance business.
Then he was elected mayor of San Jose and later served twenty years in the House of Representatives. While in congress, he and other congressional members sponsored a bill requiring the government to give financial restitution to each living internee. More important, each would receive a letter of apology from the President of the United States.
After long and arduous work, the bill passed, becoming the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Japanese Americans had been exonerated. Only then could healing begin for one of the most egregious civil rights violations in American history.
Norm went on the serve in the cabinets of two presidents. Today this distinguished statesman works actively to tell the story of the interment and to ensure the civil rights of all Americans.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the lives of Japanese Americans instantly changed.
As the US declared war on Japan, public scrutiny focused on the 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the Pacific Ocean. Would they help Japan if it attempted an invasion of the coast? A hateful, racist anti-Japanese American campaign swept the nation, and the government decided that for “public safety” Japanese Americans must be isolated in “internment” camps.
With little warning, the roundups began. They were forced to sell their homes and possessions for whatever they could get and to give away their pets. They were allowed just two suitcases each as they boarded trains and buses to over-crowded assembly centers, where they waited for months in primitive conditions until the ten permanent camps were ready.
Those camps were in isolated, inhospitable locations where the internees lived behind barbed wire, guarded by armed soldiers. Each family was assigned one room in a flimsy wooden barrack furnished only with iron cots. Everyone waited in long lines to use the restrooms and to eat. The children attended schools that were started in the camps. But jobs were scarce and adults had little to do.
While they could have sunk into despair, nearly all Japanese Americans wanted America to win the war, and if their confinement helped the war effort, they decided to cooperate and make the best of it. To stay busy they organized scout troops and baseball teams. They hosted talent contests, movie nights, dances, festivals, and celebrations. They started newspapers, libraries, poetry clubs, choirs, bands and orchestras. They took up woodworking and sewing and planted Victory Gardens. In some camps internees were allowed to grow crops to supplement their government surplus food.
Each morning they saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance. Many participated in Red Cross blood drives and knitted socks and scarves to send to soldiers. The young men from the camps who served in the war distinguished themselves with their bravery and helped ensure an Allied victory.
After the war, Japanese Americans began the difficult task of rebuilding their lives. Many had lost all their belongings and could not find jobs. Worst of all was the shame they felt over their country’s distrust of them. But they had proved their loyalty. And in spite of this terrible injustice, they raised their children to be good Americans.
Andrea Warren is the author of nine books of nonfiction for young readers and young adult readers. Each centers on young people who have faced grave challenges in difficult periods of history. Her latest, Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II, published by Holiday House, received starred reviews in School Library Journal and The Horn Book. It was selected as a 2019 Best Book by School Library Journal and is the recipient of the Bank Street College best nonfiction award. It has also has been honored by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Warren is a previous winner of the Horn Book Award and the Sibert Honor Award. You can read Vicki Cobb's review here.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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