For nearly 20 years, Reiko Nagumo has been a fixture at the California Museum, telling visiting students about the bravery of her childhood friend, Mary Frances White.
Nagumo, 83, lives in Sacramento but grew up in Los Angeles. Attending elementary school there, she said she faced racism and antipathy after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
But her pal, Mary Frances, refused to turn her back on Nagumo, despite the wartime rhetoric and anti-Japanese sentiment. She refused to abandon their friendship.
The students “love this story about this tall, blonde second-grader and her little Japanese-American friend,” Nagumo said. “There are thousands of kids who have heard the story. Mary Frances has become this mythical person. They say, ‘I want to be just like Mary Frances. What ever happened to her?’ ”
Nagumo, for decades, wasn’t able to answer that question. She and White lost track of each other in the 1940s. “I was afraid I would die before ever getting the chance to thank her for being such a good friend,” Nagumo said.
That fear, however, recently evaporated. A British documentary film crew working with TV journalist Ann Curry got wind of Nagumo’s story from a Japanese-American historian and decided to feature it on the first episode of a new PBS series called “We’ll Meet Again.” The program, which premieres at 8 p.m. Jan. 23 on KVIE and other PBS stations nationwide, reconnects long-lost family members and friends separated by war or tragedy.
In July, the film crew took Nagumo to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park where she was reunited with Mary Frances White Peters, whom they had tracked down at her home in Cadiz, Ky. The two women had not seen each other nor spoken in 73 years.
“I saw this shadow standing under the archway, and because I’m pretty blind, I called out, ‘Mary Frances!’ ” Nagumo recalled. “We had this big hug.”
“Over the years we were separated, I often thought of Reiko,” Peters said in a recent interview. “She’s amazing. She’s got a mind like a steel trap and remembers a lot more than I do.”
Still, Peters said she recalls the pressure she felt from her parents to end her friendship with Nagumo. “I remember we went back to school Dec. 8, the Monday after Pearl Harbor, and my parents told me ‘We’re at war with Japan. You can’t play with Reiko any more.’ ”
But even at a young age, Peters had a mind of her own, she said. “Did you always do what your parents told you to do?” she asked rhetorically. “I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog. Why should we stop being friends if we hadn’t done anything wrong? It sounded like a ‘grown-up’ problem to me.”
At her home in East Sacramento, Nagumo has displayed her second-grade class photo as well as a photo from her recent reunion with Peters. Looking at them, Nagumo recounted her story of “friendship in the face of racism. She was very courageous!”
Nagumo said she and Peters became friends in kindergarten. Even after Pearl Harbor, the two were inseparable. “Every time the teacher told the class to line up two by two, Mary would run and come get me. Then we would eat lunch together. I remember when we came back from Christmas vacation (in 1941), Mary asked me to come to her apartment to see her Christmas gifts. She said, ‘My mother works at the hospital. She will never know.’ ”
But when the girls got inside the apartment, they realized Mary’s uncle was home. “Mary told me ‘Quick, hide behind the sofa,’ ” Nagumo said. But the uncle spotted Nagumo and told her: “ ‘You go home and don’t you ever come back. And Mary Frances, you’re going to be punished!’
“I cried all the way home because I thought she was going to be punished (for having me over),” Nagumo said.
Months later, Nagumo, her parents and her five older sisters and brothers were sent with about 10,000 other Japanese Americans to the internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., for the remainder of the war. “The internment camps were really incarceration camps,” Nagumo said. “When we got there, we were given canvas bags and told to fill them up with straw so we could have something to sleep on, but I had hay fever and asthma.”
They were released in August 1945. When Nagumo returned to her school in Los Angeles in September, “I was afraid to go back,” she said. “But the teacher came forward and made a very nice welcome-back speech, and Mary Frances was the first kid to come up to me and take my hand. It made me feel safe.”
Soon after, Mary Frances and her family moved away, and both she and Nagumo went on to create their adult lives. Interestingly, both picked professions that centered on helping others.
Peters lived in Arizona where she volunteered for hospice care, created a bereavement group for people who had lost loved ones and worked with families of alcoholics. She moved to Kentucky in 2006, where she continued to help bring comfort to the ill.
Nagumo became a public health nurse for the state of California, then joined the U.S. State Department and worked in Cairo and Cambodia before resettling in Sacramento.
Each winter, in February and March, Nagumo once a week meets schoolchildren on a field trip to the California Museum, during what is known as the “Time of Remembrance” for the internment. This year, she invited Peters to join her.
“I would love to, particularly in today’s world where there’s so much bullying going on,” Peters said. “This will really speak to the kids.”