Former internees share memories of Heart Mountain

“I was two months away from graduating high school when they took my family and I to the camps,” said Joyce Masumitsu, who had spent her early adulthood in a Japanese-American internment camp during World Ward II. “I was mailed my diploma with an attached consoling note from my principle.”Masumitsu sat on a panel with four other internees following the Nov. 4 matinee of the Santa Monica College production “Heart Mountain.” Nearly half the audience in attendance were fellow internees, or had relations to the camps. “Heart Mountain,” a play written by G. Bruce Smith, SMC Public Information Officer, and directed by SMC Theatre Arts Department Chair Perviz Sawoski followed a Japanese-American family from Venice, Calif., through their four-year term at the Heart Mountain internment camp, in 1942. Even though the play recounts a fictional story, it represents several stories collected through live interviews and research into life at several camps throughout the United States, according to the program. As introduced by Sawoski, the panel included Noboru Kamibayashi, Arnold Maeda, Brian Maeda, Masumitsu and Kanji Sahara. Each panelist shared their personal relocation and internment camp story, and their efforts in appeasing that little-told piece of history. One of the panelists compared relocation to being herded like cattle onto buses by cowboys, and put in dusty barracks. A former internee in the audience spoke about how he suffered from mental trauma and a heart condition post-internment. Masamitsu told a vibrant story of how she snuck out of her internment camp in hopes of buying a chicken to bring home to her family, but returned home with two eggs and tales of the lesser living conditions of a kind Native-American family’s home on a nearby Indian reservation. Brian Maeda, Arnold Maeda’s brother, was born in an internment camp. Although he does not recall his experience, Brian is dedicated to writing and directing films and documentaries about Japanese and Japanese-Americans; his current project, “We Said No-No,” is funded by a 2011 National Park Service grant. The Loyalty Oath, given to all internees over the age of seventeen, asked two questions: One asked if internees would be willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States wherever ordered, and the other asked them to swear allegiance to the U.S. and to denouce any allegiance to the Empire of Japan. Those who answered “yes” to both could be drafted into the U.S. Armed Services; those who answered “no” to both were sent to Tule Lake internment camp, reserved for traitors. Kamibauashi’s family answered “no-no,” and was sent from Manzanar internment camp to Tule Lake. The former internees in the audience were asked to stand as the panel discussion came to a close. They appeared proud and smiled at the sitting attendees. “Heart Mountain” cast members were invited on stage to present the panelists with gift bags and praise. Smith, who spoke briefly and attended the panel discussion, said although he had heavily researched the topic for the play, he learned new information from the panel and audience that night. “Heart Mountain” dancer Heather Regan said the play was “just a little piece of a much bigger story,” after listening to the panel discussion. Alice Stek, a member of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker Committee, did not attend the matinee due to it being sold out days in advance, but chose to stay for the panel discussion. Stek was in awe of the stories she had heard from the panel members. “What would I have done? Would I have answered no-no?” Stek said. “I can’t imagine going through that.