Topaz Winter Coats

January 29, 2012 by Admin

By Chizu

I.

I snuggled down under the blankets, blocking out the shouts,  but his voice got louder. ”It’s snowing, it’s snowing!”  my brother Harry yelled with excitement at our first snowstorm in Topaz.  I couldn’t get back to sleep. It was still so cold in the barracks, and I waited for my father to light a fire in the stove that was called a Mae West because of its curved shape.  Papa took the ritual as a serious responsibility:  to warm up our one room. He said, ”I’m clumsy and can’t make furniture from scraps of wood like some others, but I can make a fire.”

He carefully organized the wood, which he had gathered from leftovers from the builders of our tar-papered dwellings  and added coal that he gathered from heaps by the mess hall. He put coal on the bottom, then splinters next to kindling wood, then the logs he always hoped to find somewhere in camp.

Father kept stoking the fire as I shivered through the cold winter of 1942, when we Japanese Americans were removed by the U.S. government from our homes on the West Coast because of unjust questions about our loyalty in the war against Japan. Most of us were U.S. citizens, our average age 18 years old.  Banished.  Stuck in Topaz, a camp of 8,000 people in the middle of a desolate desert in Utah.

Illegal?  Unconstitutional?

I tried to hide under the blanket. I woke up my sister Suddie, and we both dressed under the covers,  aware that my brothers’  friends would peek through the window and gleefully call out, ”Hey Harry, Tommy . . . wake up . . . it’s time for breakfast!” as they did every morning.

Suddie and I put on our clothes, totally unfit for this kind of weather. In those days girls didn’t wear pants.  Always skirts and blouses.  Bobby socks.  And if you had enough money, Spaulding shoes. In San Francisco, on our coldest days we were enveloped in dense fog or pouring rain.  We probably saw snow only once or twice before and never piled up on the ground.  And, of course, we had no clothing for very cold weather.

Now we dashed to the window and then outside.  What a sight greeted our eyes! The usual grey dusty scene had been replaced by a winter wonderland.  We saw white mountains in the distance, and  here snow hid the uniformly black buildings. Swirling, sparkling flakes danced to the ground.  An awesome white scene.    Everyone was outside before breakfast. We made snowballs, lobbed them at each other, shouting with joy. Some began rolling the snow to make snowmen.  This shower of white sprinkled its electricity into the air, a break from the dull routine of camp life.

Mama kept reminding us, “Hayaku, hayaku kina sai. Tabe ma sho (Hurry up, it’s breakfast time).” But most of us skipped breakfast. Who cared if we missed the oily fried bread with apple butter and coffee?  Mama and Papa sighed and trudged through the snow to the mess hall by themselves.  Most of us younger people outside screamed and laughed.

Freezing, we felt our bare legs turn red, and our teeth chattering. We finally went to the dining room, and the cooks were kind enough to save for us food.  We held the hot coffee cups in our hands, slowly thawing out.

As winter continued, snow became a daily event and lost its novelty.  The snow clung to the sand and stuck to our shoes.  Some of us ”grew” by  several inches.  And Mama, who was always trying to keep our room clean, screamed, “Wipe those shoes, don’t bring them in!” But she fought a losing battle.  The floors remained covered with sand, mud, and snow all winter long.

Many of us in the camp,  most from the moderate climate of California, began to catch colds.  When we complained to the Administration about our lack of  warm clothing, the government responded by giving us a small clothing allowance, and presented us with peacoats of black, bulky melton wool. “Probably left over from the Navy in World War I,” some of us grumbled.

These peacoats were huge, mostly sizes 38 and 40. Most  of the older generation (in their 40s and 50s) were  small, especially women like my mother, who was 4 feet, 8 inches.  To her and others, these coats were so heavy,  and she would bend over from the weight. But we all wore them.

What a picture. All of us looking like black bears, stooped over as we scurried to the mess hall, the bathroom, to school, to work.  I wish I had a camera (which was considered contraband in the camps and not allowed) so that we could send this scene to our outside friends.   We all laughed about it.  Yet the coats did keep us warm.

II.

Years later, I volunteered at the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) in San Francisco’s Japantown.  One of my assignments was to visit schools and talk about my wartime experience in Topaz during World War II.  I  usually brought some pictures and items from camp days.  Some of the Nisei present would exclaim, “Hey, do you have those old funny peacoats.  Remember them?  Those ugly peacoats?”

We searched all over, asking everyone, “Did you keep yours?”  But most all of us had discarded the coats because they were so heavy and took up so much space.  “Hey, that was the first thing we threw away. Too huge to lug around while we were trying to resettle.  We moved around so much after camp,” person after person said.  Different cities, different states, different  farms, we were scattered before settling down permanently. Threw away almost anything from camp life.  Discarded memories.

And then, four decades after the camps,  a volunteer at NJAHS received a phone call.  “We have an old peacoat issued by the U.S. government while we were at Topaz.  We found it at the bottom of an old trunk while we were cleaning out our basement.  Could you use it?”

We were so exuberant! We jumped up and down. We had been looking for a coat for such a long time. We hurried to pick it up.  What a treasure! It is now a part of the NJAHS collection of items from Topaz, which include various items of former camp prisoners:  our old aluminum dishes, pictures of our makeshift rooms, old trunks and duffle bags, and colorful curtains purchased through mail orders from Sears or Montgomery Wards.  Most of all, the collection contains handicraft and artistic creations of those who turned wooden pieces collected in the desert into interesting vases, animals, people, and birds;  watercolor pictures and ceramic pieces of the desert, mountains, and the skies; and furniture some made from desert bushes and scraps left over by the builders of Topaz.  We use these original materials when we have exhibits, or give talks about the camps to help others feel our reality of living in the isolated dismal areas of swamps and deserts and to appreciate the  creativity of us Japanese American people confined in concentration camps during World War II.

Whenever I spoke to meetings or classes about my experiences in Topaz during World War II, I would bring artifacts from the NJAHS collection.  The peacoats were a popular item, and I asked for volunteers to try them on.  To those of us who were dependent upon the coats for protection from the freezing climate of Topaz, their warmth was indispensable. To me, each coat is a symbol of our first winter in Topaz.   Children want to try a coat on, and as they stagger around the room they say, “It’s so heavy,” just as we did many years ago in the icy desert.

Over 60 years later, Chizu was honored with the Class of ’42 at UC Berkeley.

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In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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