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Documents reveal 73-year-old injustice

Investigation sheds light on one of community's darkest chapters

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A Coastside family's story
Isamu Kuwahara holds a photo of his father at his home in Pescadero. Like other families of Japanese ancestry living on the coast, the Kuwaharas were expelled from their South Coast land in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But patriarch Tsunematsu Kuwahara was treated especially harshly. New-found government documents reveal why. Cat Cutillo / Review

Tsunematsu Kuwahara was 44, a farmer, and — like most individuals detained in the months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor — Japanese. On March 28, 1942, a deputy sheriff and an FBI agent appeared on his doorstep in Pescadero and took him into custody under suspicion of being a “dangerous enemy alien.” He would not be released until 1946, a year after the end of World War II.

Charges were never filed against Kuwahara. He received no trial by jury. He was not permitted a lawyer. In the absence of due process of law, Kuwahara spent years separated from his family in special internment camps run by the Department of Justice and the Army, treated as a prisoner of war.

Kuwahara died in 1968 without knowing why he had been singled out by the government. At a time when 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to live behind barbed wire in “relocation centers”— including Kuwahara’s wife and three of his five children — his family assumed it had something to do with being Japanese. At least one of his children was not satisfied by that explanation.

“He came here to Pescadero (from Japan) when he was 16 years old,” said Isamu Kuwahara, 89, one of Tsunematsu Kuwahara’s two surviving children. (His daughter Michiye Kuwahara declined to speak for this article.) “I don’t see how he could have been so dangerous.”

The details of the elder Kuwahara’s case remained a secret for 73 years. But documents recently acquired by the Half Moon Bay Review tell the story of a popular farmer brought down by a phone call from a local businessman during one of the darkest times in this community’s history. Kuwahara’s journey also sheds light on the operations of the Enemy Alien Control Program, a secretive Department of Justice program that ran independently from the War Relocation Authority, which handled most internments during World War II.

Kuwahara’s story was uncovered during an investigation into the internment of more than 100 Coastsiders. The project was conducted over the course of a year and involved combing through thousands of government documents; consulting census records, historical maps and newspaper microfilm; and conducting interviews with scholars and former internees.

Though the events in question took place in the 1940s, the specter of internment lives on in public discourse. In November, David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Va., sparked a national debate when he suspended local assistance for Syrian refugees and favorably compared his efforts to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s actions toward Japanese-Americans. (Bowers later apologized for his remarks.) Earlier this month, after calling for the United States to ban all Muslims from entering the country, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told Time Magazine that he does not know whether he would have supported or opposed internment during World War II.

Yet most Americans remain unfamiliar with the largest forced migration in U.S. history. And few Coastsiders are aware it occurred in their own backyard.

From haven to hornet’s nest

In 1940, San Mateo County had a population of 131,782, according to U.S. Census records. There were 1,218 Japanese-Americans, 418 of whom were resident aliens. On the Coastside, 132 individuals, both citizens and noncitizens, self-identified as being of Japanese descent.

They were farmers, grocers, housekeepers and clerks. The youngest were infants, the oldest approaching 70. They mostly lived on leased farmland in Pescadero, tending the fields as a primary or supplementary source of income. Though small, the Japanese community was active enough to sustain an Asian market, a judo school, a Buddhist temple, and a Japanese language and cultural center in Pescadero.

Tsunematsu Kuwahara and his family lived in a small house on Level Lea Farm. He was, according to newspapers at the time, the largest producer of vegetables in San Mateo County, though he later told the FBI that he hadn’t realized a profit in several years. His son Isamu said that while his father was a quiet man, he was well-liked by both the Japanese and white residents of Pescadero.

"He had lots of friends," said Isamu Kuwahara.

But the Pearl Harbor attacks on Dec. 7, 1941, created deep rifts on the Coastside across ethnic lines. Cartoons by Dr. Seuss and others appeared in the Half Moon Bay Review depicting Japanese people as bug-eyed insects in need of swatting. Japanese, Italian and German immigrants were forced to surrender their guns and radios, keep to a strict evening curfew, and were forbidden from crossing to the west side of what is now Highway 1. Gripped by fear of another attack, Americans were told to report anything that seemed remotely suspicious to the authorities.

On Feb. 18, 1942, one citizen did. FBI documents show that on that day Charles J. Contini, the president of the Half Moon Bay Chamber of Commerce and manager of the Bank of America of Half Moon Bay, called the San Francisco office of the FBI. He told an agent that Tsunematsu Kuwahara was a reserve officer in the Japanese army, that Kuwahara had a son and daughter currently living in Japan, and that the son was also enlisted in the Japanese military.

Contini stated that he hadn't heard that Kuwahara was engaged in subversive activities but thought Kuwahara should be included in the files of the San Francisco Field Division.

The special agent who composed the memo then added the following disclaimer: “In view of the nonspecific nature of this information, it is not recommended that further action be taken.”

Further action was taken, however. Despite no indication that the Bureau attempted to verify Contini's information, the FBI file shows that the tip gained momentum as it traveled through official channels. By March 9, 1942, memos sent between the FBI and the War Department described Kuwahara’s military affiliation and that of his son as though they were facts.

A few weeks later, the deputy sheriff and FBI agent appeared at the elder Kuwahara’s home with a search warrant signed by the U.S. attorney general. They seized a tabletop radio and a medal from the Japanese Red Cross. They also seized Kuwahara, booking him in the San Mateo County jail before delivering him to Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco.

A pillar of the community

Many Japanese military records were destroyed at the end of World War II. Of those that remain and are digitized by the National Archives of Japan, the Review found no reference to either Tsunematsu Kuwahara or his son Takeshi. Isamu Kuwahara called the idea that his father might have been a reserve officer “completely false.”

As for his brother Takeshi, Isamu said part of the story was true. Takeshi and his sister Hisaye were studying in Japan and the two were stranded there during the war. But Isamu said Takeshi wasn’t helping the Imperial military — he was helping the American military.

“I remember when we lived in San Mateo after the war, and some servicemen came to visit and thank him,” said Isamu Kuwahara. “He was doing translating for them.”

It was impossible to confirm Takeshi’s role. Takeshi Kuwahara died in 2003.

Where Contini obtained his information on the Kuwaharas and why he chose to contact the FBI remains unclear. Isamu Kuwahara says he does not remember Contini, and that his family patronized the Bank of America in Pescadero, not Half Moon Bay, where Contini was employed. Newspapers from that time depict Contini as a highly visible member of the community, a man who hosted charity events, organized a local softball league and often appeared in the society pages.

Contini was also an Italian immigrant. He became an American citizen in 1921, according to government records. (Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become American citizens until race-based requirements for naturalization were removed in 1952.) He died in 1981.

Many Americans reported their immigrant neighbors to the authorities during World War II, said Grant Din, community relations director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, where many “dangerous enemy aliens” were detained before being sent to internment camps.

“Sometimes there were clearly racist feelings; sometimes it was fear and paranoia,” said Din.

Din cited the story of a Japanese man who was picked up by the FBI because his neighbor’s radio wasn’t working properly. The neighbor had convinced the FBI this was because the Japanese man was sending enemy communications through his own radio.

“It didn’t take much,” said Din.

A secretive program

The phone call alone was enough to put Tsunematsu Kuwahara on the radar of the Enemy Alien Control Program. Run by the Department of Justice and accelerated by several presidential proclamations issued by President Roosevelt in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the program was tasked with processing and detaining potentially dangerous citizens of other countries living in the United States.

In contrast to the War Relocation Authority internments, which exclusively targeted Japanese-Americans, the Enemy Alien Control Program interned thousands of German and Italian Americans in addition to Japanese-Americans. Some weren’t Americans at all. The National Archives states that, on the basis of “hemispheric security,” the United States offered to intern potentially dangerous enemy aliens from Latin American countries. Fifteen nations accepted and sent an estimated 6,600 such individuals to the United States.

The National Archives estimates that the Enemy Alien Control Program interned more than 31,000 suspected enemy aliens and their families — including several Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany — by the end of World War II. While some individuals demonstrated "pro-Axis sympathies," others were incarcerated based on little or no evidence.

Some of these individuals were held in barracks at Sharp Park in Pacifica, where the archery range is currently located. Kuwahara spent two months there awaiting the hearing that would determine whether he would be incarcerated.

He finally appeared before the Alien Enemy Hearing Board in San Francisco on May 28, 1942. The board was comprised of five people: an attorney, a Stanford professor, an assistant U.S attorney, an FBI agent, and an immigration inspector. An interpreter was also present.

Kuwahara was not permitted an attorney of his own but had with him a man named Stanley Sorensen, whom Isamu Kuwahara identified as one of his father’s business contacts. Records show that Sorensen described Kuwahara to the board as the “kingpin of all the Japs” on the Coastside.

The board reviewed a report on Kuwahara prepared by the FBI and asked him several questions. Kuwahara denied he was a member of the Japanese military. He admitted he visited the Japanese consulate yearly to register for draft deferment from the Imperial Army. Kuwahara also admitted he sent money for the schooling of his children to Japan, as well as several Red Cross packages, the latter which resulted in the medal that had been seized from his home. Although documents show Kuwahara twice told authorities he had been a member of a Japanese-American association, Kuwahara denied this to the board.

“His responses were extremely evasive and his attitude while testing forced the board to the conclusion that he was not telling the truth,” read the board’s report.

Contini’s name was not mentioned as the source of the accusations brought against Kuwahara. In the report and at the hearing, Contini was simply referred to as “Informant A.”

The board also reviewed several letters of recommendation submitted on Kuwahara’s behalf, including one by a woman named Julia McCormick. Isamu Kuwahara said McCormick was the town’s telephone operator, and noted that, at that time, telephone operators listened in on telephone conversations to determine when to disable the connection. It's unclear whether McCormick’s letter mentioned any overheard conversations — the Review was unable to locate the letters of recommendation.

The letters seemed to matter little in the board’s deliberation. Members voted unanimously for his incarceration.

“In view of the subject’s past activities in various Japanese organizations and the fact that he presently had a son serving in the Japanese Navy, the Alien Enemy Hearing Board was of the opinion that the subject should be interned for the duration of the war and so recommended,” wrote the FBI agent in a memo for Kuwahara’s file.

Kuwahara was taken immediately to Fort McDowell on Angel Island, where he was held in the same building as Japanese prisoners of war. A few weeks later he was sent to his first enemy alien internment camp in Lordsburg, N.M. A year later, he was transferred to one in Santa Fe. Records indicate Kuwahara was also interned at Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, N.D., but it is unclear when he might have been incarcerated there.

Trouble at home

If Kuwahara’s apprehension made waves within the Coastside Japanese community, its members did not have long to contemplate it before facing their own troubles.

In late April 1942, the Army announced that all persons of Japanese ancestry in San Mateo County would be evacuated from their homes to temporary “assembly centers” between May 8 and May 10. Coastsiders were told to pack only what they could carry and meet in front of the general store in Pescadero. There, armed military guards escorted men, women, children, citizens and noncitizens alike, onto Greyhound buses. The windows were covered with brown paper so the passengers could not see out.

Government records indicate that of the 132 Japanese-American Coastsiders listed in the 1940 census, at least 67 were taken to Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, now the site of The Shops at Tanforan. Another 14 individuals were taken to the Merced County Fairgrounds. Twenty-three individuals had moved and were sent to other assembly centers. At least one individual, Tsunematsu Kuwahara, was interned through the Enemy Alien Control Program instead of the War Relocation Authority, and at least two — the Kuwahara children in Japan — were abroad during the evacuation.

The Review could not determine what became of 25 individuals listed in the census but not on internment records, nor is it clear why some Coastsiders were taken to Merced while the majority were sent to Tanforan. Eight individuals not listed on the 1940 census were living on the coast at the time of the evacuation and were also taken to Tanforan.

At Tanforan, Japanese-Americans stayed in horse stalls, grandstands, or barracks for months, awaiting their assignment to an internment camp. Among those at Tanforan were Kuwahara’s wife and three children who were living in Pescadero, as well as the Imamura family. One of the Imamura children would grow up to be Naomi Patridge, a seven-term mayor of Half Moon Bay.

“We felt very lucky to have been given a clean horse stall because we were a family with children,” said Patridge, 75. “Some people had stalls where the manure was just whitewashed over.”

Most Coatsiders spent about six months at Tanforan before being sent via train to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Delta, Utah, where they spent the duration of the war. (Those who had been sent to Merced were primarily interned at Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, in Granada, Colo.) The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and supervised by armed guards; internees lived in barracks arranged into blocks.

Records show that during their internment, Kuwahra’s wife and children sent letter after letter to government officials pleading to be reunited with Tsunematsu.

“My children need their father’s guidance very badly,” wrote Kuwahara’s wife, Yuku, in a letter to the officer in charge of the Department of Justice camp in Santa Fe, N.M., dated July 31, 1944. “Please do all you can to have him here with us.”

Tsunematsu Kuwahara was never permitted to travel to Topaz, but officials finally agreed the family could be reunited at what was then known as Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility in Crystal City, Texas. The Kuwaharas were reunited on Jan. 25, 1945.

In the book “The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II,” published early last year, journalist and author Jan Jarboe Russell discovered that hundreds of individuals who had been processed through the Enemy Alien Control Program and held at Crystal City were exchanged for high-profile Americans held behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany. While some individuals volunteered themselves and their families for repatriation, many were deported against their will.

The Kuwaharas were never deported, but like many immigrants who wished to escape internment, they requested repatriation to Japan in August 1945, a month before the end of the war. Although Tsunematsu had been recommended for parole a few months prior, he was prohibited from returning to the coast due to his dangerous enemy alien status. Kuwahara told authorities that if he could not return home, he wanted his whole family to be reunited in Japan.

Documents indicate that the Kuwaharas subsequently received a letter from the commander of the American occupation forces in Japan saying the two Kuwahara children were being well cared for there. The family changed their request in February of 1946 and asked to be able to remain in the United States.

“I wish to pursue the normal life under American democracy ... as I have enjoyed for so many years prior to the global war’s outbreak,” wrote Tsunematsu Kuwahara to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in 1946. “I earnestly hope this petition will be granted.”

The petition was granted, and the Kuwaharas were permitted to remain in the United States.

Kuwahara received another parole hearing in May of 1946. He and his family were released from Crystal City in August 1946, a year after the end of the war. Tsunematsu and Isamu were instructed to report to the U.S. draft board immediately upon their arrival in San Jose to inform them of their change of address.

Freedom

It took the Kuwaharas several years to find their way back to the Coastside. Isamu Kuwahara said his family lived in Hunters Point, then San Mateo, then returned to Pescadero in 1949.

They were one of the few Japanese-American families to do so. Signs had also been erected along the roads in Pescadero stating Japanese-Americans were not welcome. Isamu Kuwahara and Naomi Patridge said they recall only one other Japanese family returning to the Coastside after the war other than the Kuwaharas and the Imamuras: the Morimotos, farmers who had grown strawflowers in Pescadero. Shortly after the Morimotos returned, their house was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances.

Patridge said she knows of several former Coastsiders who moved to other parts of the Bay Area after leaving Topaz, seeking agricultural jobs and a less hostile environment than the one they were likely to find on the coast.

Eventually, the Kuwaharas began farming again at Level Lea. Tsunematsu became an American citizen in March 1954, his wife, Yuku, also became an American a few months later, in December. Isamu Kuwahara says he remembers his mother teasing his father about it.

“She said, ‘How come you get to be a citizen before I do? I thought you were a dangerous enemy alien?’” said Kuwahara.

After years of pressure from the Japanese-American Citizens League, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, offering internment survivors a formal apology and $20,000. By 1999, when the redress program ended, 82,219 individuals had been compensated for a total payout of more than $1.6 billion.

But no check was destined to reach Tsunematsu Kuwahara. He had died 20 years prior to the passage of the law, on June 14, 1968. His remains are buried at Skylawn Memorial Park.

Today, Japanese-Americans live on the coast, but Pescadero never regained the reputation it had in 1940s as an epicenter of the Japanese community. The Asian market, the judo school, the Buddhist temple, the Japanese language and cultural center — none reappeared in town after the trauma of internment.

Still, Isamu Kuwahara lives in a small house down the street from the one he and his family left behind in 1942. He says he enjoys gardening in his spare time, but the tribulations of old age prevent him from doing as much as he’d like.

Kuwahara said he was surprised to learn the details of what happened to his father.

“I never knew somebody reported him,” he said. “I never knew.”

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