Sylvia Torigoe Kametches-Padrick spent five of her childhood years behind barbed wire fences guarded by American soldiers.
The Gainesville woman was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps in the western United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment two months after Pearl Harbor.
Sylvia was 7 years old when her family was ordered to leave their home in Seattle, Washington, in April 1942, giving up all their possessions, their house, car and furniture. Their bank accounts were frozen. The family included Sylvia’s 3-year-old sister, Joyce, and their mother. The FBI had taken her father the day after the Japanese attack, Dec. 8, 1941.
Without explanation and their mother in a near panic, they were bused to an assembly point with other Japanese-Americans to wait while the internment camps were prepared. They were housed for several months in what Sylvia described as former horse stalls and sleeping on straw mattresses, a place called Camp Harmony.
Then the family boarded a train for the internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. Sylvia remembers that nervous train ride with the window curtains drawn, the uncertainty of their destination, the lack of information about their future.
The internment camp was like a prison, she said, with armed soldiers walking around and guarding the barbed wire fences. Some were in a tower watching for attempted escapes. They were told those attempting escape would be shot, but few tried because the camp was in a flat, snake-infested desert with nowhere to go. The atmosphere was tense.
“Why was this happening to my family?” Sylvia asked herself. “I am an American.”
Her father was in a separate camp at first, but joined them a couple of months later. They lived in uninsulated barracks heated by a pot-bellied coal stove. They slept on cots.
Sylvia and her family ate in mess halls three times a day. There was no fresh food at first, but the Japanese-Americans later were allowed to grow gardens and raise pigs and chickens.
They bathed and did laundry in a common building with no privacy. There were not even curtains around the commodes. “It was humiliating,” Sylvia said.
Children went to school taught by Japanese-Americans in the camp or volunteers from outside. The used books they had were scarce. Paper wasn’t always available.
Outside school, children organized their own games. Churches brought balls and bats.
Sylvia’s mother got a job in camp as a dietitian and earned a few dollars to buy personal items. Her parents were an “arranged marriage,” and her mother divorced her husband in camp. At the time, it was very embarrassing, Sylvia said, as Japanese just didn’t do that.
Some in the camp were sent outside to do other work, including her aunt and uncle, who worked on a potato and sugar beet farm.
Eventually, Sylvia’s family, which now included her stepfather, were moved to Cascade, Idaho, where her parents worked at a sawmill, cooking for other workers. About 20 others had been released from the camp because they were considered loyal Americans and trustworthy, but they had to remain at their jobs. Their home consisted of cubicles in a converted restaurant.
“It was a little better,” Sylvia said of the move to Cascade. “We had warm springs to bathe in. I went to public schools, and we went to church.”
They had more freedom than in the internment camp. No soldiers guarded them.
The family was in Cascade about a year before being sent back to Minidoka.
On Dec. 18, 1944, the Japanese-Americans learned that the internment camps would be closed, but it would be 1946 before they would be free.
“I was very happy,” Sylvia said, when her family was finally released. They were given $25 per person and a ticket to anywhere they wanted to go. Her family decided on New York City because they believed there was nothing left in their former home of Seattle.
They stayed in a Christian hostel until her parents found jobs. It was in a poor part of the city, and Sylvia said the Japanese-Americans were treated fairly for the most part, experiencing very little prejudice. “We didn’t realize we were poor because everybody else was,” she said.
The family moved to Luray, Virginia, for a while before moving back to New York. When she was 16, Sylvia returned to Seattle to live with her grandparents. She got jobs in a restaurant, grocery store and somebody’s home making about $25 a week.
Moving back to New York, she married when she was 22 years old. She held several jobs, later divorced and ended up in Atlanta. She has one son, Greg, 62, who lives in Atlanta.
She never learned to speak Japanese fluently. There were no Japanese books in the camp, and she wanted to be predominantly American anyway.
Sylvia has been a real estate agent for 44 years. Now 88, she has no resentment about spending part of her childhood in an internment camp. She doesn’t believe the camps were necessary.
“I just wondered why,” she says, but “I’m grateful I’m an American. My mother taught me to look forward; you can’t do anything about the past. Be proud of what you do.”
Five of her uncles, Japanese-Americans, served in the U.S. 442nd Army Division in World War II. Two died in action.
Up until now, Sylvia has declined interviews about her internment camp experiences because “I like to be accepted for what I am today.” Why did she agree to be interviewed now? Her friend Helen Martin, local author, former educator and historian, convinced her.
“I just felt like her story needed to be told,” Martin said.
In Gainesville, Sylvia bowls every Wednesday night, is in the Lanier Women’s Club and attends Brenau University Leisure and Learning Institute.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford repealed Executive Order 9066, which President Roosevelt had issued in 1942 establishing the internment camps. In 1988, Congress apologized for the government’s policy toward Japanese-Americans and awarded $20,000 each in compensation to those affected.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.