Drawing on memories of darker daysBy Neil Gonzales
The odor of horse manure still lingered in the stalls where Jim Nakano and his family from Redwood City were forced to make their living quarters.
It was a far cry from the smell of chrysanthemums that they grew on their farm off Woodside Road.
Nakano, his parents, two sisters, a brother, a grandmother, an uncle and an aunt shared two stalls at the Tanforan Race Track, now a shopping center, in San Bruno.
"They just cleared the horses," said Nakano, who was a teen when the U.S. government sent about 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. "The stalls were not cleaned very well. There was one light bulb for each stable."
Other Japanese Americans from Redwood City endured a similar ordeal, uprooted from their homes and thriving flower-growing businesses to spend years behind barbed-wire fences patrolled bygun-toting guards.
Not many people today are aware of that painful chapter in local history, but an interactive Web site created by the Redwood City Public Library recounts that period using letters and personal video interviews of local former internees.
The site, called "Redwood City Remembers," was part of a project to preserve the legacy of the area's Japanese-American community and gather information about the internment experience for the library's Local History Collection.
The project centered on letters between local banker J. Elmer Morrish and many of the interned Japanese Americans from Redwood City.
Morrish is credited with taking care of the internees' finances and watching over their flower businesses during their absence.
"One thing we were trying to do is keep people informed about the history of the area," Scott Bauer, library division manager, said of the project. "Before World War II, there was a fairly large community of Japanese Americans in Redwood City. When the internment came, a lot of Japanese Americans lost everything they had. But Mr. Morrish took it upon himself to make sure the homes and businesses (of Redwood City Japanese Americans) would be there for them when they returned."
Nakano, now 80, appreciates such a project, saying, "San Mateo County has grown so much. A lot of people are not aware of the past and what brought us to this situation in the county. It's nice for people to be more aware of that."
Funded in part by a federal library technology grant, the Web site has been up and running the past three years and features sections on Morrish, the internment, the floral businesses of local Japanese Americans and other related subjects. The site includes a map of internment camps and pictures from that era.
"There's a lot of background info that otherwise, people would skip over," Bauer said. "The videos and documents just add interest to the site and make it more involving for people."
The videos show former internees talking about how Morrish helped their families, life in the internment camps and what their return home to Redwood City was like.
The archive section has a number of letters written to Morrish by interned Japanese Americans.
One of the letters was penned by Nakano's uncle, George, after his wife gave birth in a makeshift hospital at Tanforan.
George Nakano's letter, dated Aug. 28, 1942, reads: "Dear Mr. Morrish: Thank you very much for the past message of congratulations on our addition to the family. Both child and mother are doing very nicely. It seems that our days in Tanforan are numbered, since visitors are not permitted after Sept. 11 and notices are out that we will be going on a trip to destinations unknown (probably Abraham, Utah). Our life here was quite nice considering that the nation is at war and I hope it will be the same. I have run out of check blanks and will you send me check blanks and my statement?"
Nearly 8,000 people spent several months at Tanforan in 1942, including about 900 from the county, before most were transferred to the Topaz camp in Utah, according to the Web site.
His uncle may have called life at Tanforan OK, relatively speaking, but Jim Nakano decried the conditions there.
"It was really a snake pit at Tanforan," said Nakano, a slight man with a deep, robust voice, now living in Woodside. "Then they hauled us like cattle on trains to Topaz."
Fellow internee Jim Mori of Redwood City described Topaz as "horrible. It was in the middle of the desert. It was hot and dusty. There were barbed- wire fences and armed guards in towers."
In 1945, internees were finally allowed to leave the camps.
Mori's was among the first families to return home to Redwood City and pick up their chrysanthemum business, left intact with Morrish's help.
Morrish "did so much," said Mori, 75. "He paid the mortgages, collected rent and took care of the finances for everybody."
For more information, visit the Web site http://www.redwoodcityremembers.info.
Copyright ©2007 San Mateo County Times. Published 04/16/2007.