SYRACUSE -- Four Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II shared parts of their stories Saturday at Syracuse High School.
It was a stark reminder that once their generation is gone, there will no longer be internees to tell of their first-hand experiences. In order to remember the events and see it never happens again, the Wasatch Front North Japanese American Citizens League hosted the event for the Annual Day of Remembrance.
"Each year we express our appreciation for the legacy that generation left us because they are the ones who suffered discrimination and taught us to live a good life," said Alice Hirai, one of the panelists who now lives in Ogden.
"Most of us have died, with only an eighth of us still alive," Hirai said of the 120,000 Japanese Americans along the Pacific Coast who were forced to leave their homes, cars, jobs and families to live in barracks located at one of the 10 camps built in desolate areas of the country. One of those was Topaz Internment Camp, located approximately 15 miles west of Delta.
Hirai, 73, says Japanese people are naturally reserved, making it hard for them to talk about their experiences. "We've learned that we have to talk about it, though, since it was one of the biggest mistakes our country made."
Ted Nagata, 78, a resident of Salt Lake City, lived in San Francisco when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order on Feb.19, 1942, ordering the internment.
Nagata spoke of his family having only 10 days to pack whatever they could carry before they were taken to live in horse stalls at the Tanforan race track, which was set up as a temporary camp while the permanent camps were built.
Nagata was 7 when he entered Tanforan. He lived there for six months with his family before they were taken by train to the Topaz camp.
"There were many wealthy, educated and cultured citizens from the San Francisco Bay area, who had never lived in a horse stall, which was an affront to their dignity," Nagata said.
"Everyone was saying we were a menace to society, forcing us into jails with no hearings, no trials and put there because of the color of our skin."
Panelist Lily Harvey, 81, who now lives in Salt Lake City, was at Camp Amache in Colorado. She talked about envying one of the rabbits she kept seeing because it could hop through the fence and head into the state of Kansas, five miles from the camp.
"To me, it symbolized the Promised Land, but it lay beyond the barbed wire," Harvey said.
When she returned for a camp reunion several years ago, her son drove her to Kansas for the first time. "I said 'thank you' to my son, but it wasn't enough because it meant so much to me," said an emotional Harvey.
Camp Topaz was large -- about a mile square -- surrounded by fencing, barbed wire, armed guards and searchlights.
Life at Topaz included sleeping on cots with straw-filled bags as mattresses. The barracks, about 20 feet by 60 feet, each housed five to six families. There were no walls, according to Nagata, so the families improvised by draping sheets over string attached to ceiling.
The restrooms consisted of toilets lined up in rows next to each year without partitions. "It was a very crude experience," said Nagata, who also said there was no running water in barracks.
There were schools for the children in the camp, and opportunities for employment, but there were hours of immense boredom. Sports, including baseball, football and sumo competitions, became very popular.
Raymond Uno, 82, who also spent time at Topaz in his early teen years, said the most difficult part of his experience was seeing his father in the camp.
"It changed my whole life and perspective on civil justice," Uno said. "My father was a veteran of World War I as an American citizen, yet he was a prisoner of war."
Despite the hardships suffered by the internees, all of the panelists went on to successful careers. Uno is a retired circuit judge, Nagata has his own successful graphic design business, Hirai has served as a nurse for more than 50 years and Harvey is an artist.