Painful childhood memory

Originally published Dec. 6, 2007

Everyday as a second-grader, Bob Uyeyama recited the "Pledge of Allegiance," including the words "with liberty and justice for all."

He learned to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."

But, when he looked out the classroom window, all he saw were barbed-wire fencing and armed guards.

It was a barracks at the Jerome internment camp in Denson, Ark.

Uyeyama was among about 120,000 Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes to be locked up in desolate camps around the nation during World War II.

More than 60 years later, Uyeyama shares his memories about a dark and painful chapter in American history. "It is a story that has to be told over and over again lest we forget," he said. "To remind people a grave injustice was done to us, and we can't let it happen again. That the Constitution applies to every citizen."

The 72-year-old Elk Grove resident was one of 17 former internees whose stories were videotaped for a Web site produced by the Elk Grove Unified School District.

Uyeyama, treasurer of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, worked in the clerk's office of the Sacramento County courts for more than 30 years. He served as administrator of south county courts for six years until his retirement in 1998.

Born in Sheldon, he grew up in Florin on a 13-acre farm where the family grew strawberries.

The 7-year-old was just weeks from finishing first grade at Enterprise Elementary School when the family was forced to leave for internment in May 1942. It would be more than three years before they could return to Sacramento.

Ten internment camps were built after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. Two-thirds of the men, women and children of Japanese ancestry who were rounded up were American citizens.

Uyeyama's father, Miyasumi, and mother, Uto, and their eight children could take only what they could carry. The oldest child was 16, the youngest 6 months.

Two more children came later. One was born after the family was moved to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark. The other was born after the war.

The family was held in a Fresno detention center before being sent to Arkansas.

"All these places were prisons," Uyeyama said.

In Jerome and Rohwer, the family squeezed into a pair of 20-by- 25-foot rooms. In the sweltering humidity and heat of summer, the wood floors separated. During the first winter in Jerome, Uyeyama saw snow for the first time in his life.

Inside the camps, everyone had to eat in mess halls. There was no privacy in the group showers and bathrooms. But the rituals of daily life -- school, sports, church, hobbies -- continued.

"We made the best of a bad situation," Uyeyama said.

Family members were separated for more than a year when his father was sent to Tule Lake internment camp in California for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.

They reunited after their release in November 1945. Given $25 each, they returned to Sacramento.

"We had nothing to come back to," Uyeyama said.

The farm was gone. Furniture and other items left with a family friend were gone. Her son had made her toss them out after his classmates at Elk Grove High School called him a "Jap lover."

For the next six months, the family lived at Camp Kohler, near what later became McClellan Air Force Base, and at the Japanese Methodist Church in Florin.

The family started over, and four years later, they bought 12 acres to grow strawberries next to the property they had lost.

Uyeyama said his parents never spoke about the camp experience. His mother survived to get a $20,000 reparations check and a formal apology from the U.S. government in 1991.

Bob Uyeyama shares his family's story wherever he can. Every January to March, he provides his first-hand account to students visiting an exhibit on the Japanese American internment experience at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.

"Once you hear these stories, it makes history more real," said Shelly Atkinson, education and programs manager at the museum at 1020 O St., Sacramento.

Each spring, Uyeyama travels with other Florin chapter Japanese American Citizens League members to Little Rock, Ark., to talk to students about the internment camps in Jerome and Rohwer. The journeys began after their stories were featured in a 2004 documentary produced by Little Rock middle school students.

There are few photographs of the internment time in Uyeyama family albums. "It's a big gap in our lives," Bob Uyeyama said.

But, he knows that in telling his family's story, their experience won't be forgotten.