Woman who began singing in Japanese internment camp releases CD

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter


photoAfter World War II ended, Chickie moved to the Los Angeles area and began performing with Tets Bessho's big band and later with the Jim Araki quartet. She was 25 years old in this photo.

Seventy years after beginning her singing career in a Japanese internment camp, Frances "Chickie" Ishihara White is releasing her first CD.

The Vancouver woman was a big-band singer in the 1940s and '50s. But it's been 56 years since she has sung for an audience.

White wanted to make a recording for her son, Patrick. He's never heard her sing.

"I'd like to leave my voice with him so he can hear me singing even after I am gone," she said.

White began her singing career as a 15-year-old interned behind barbed wire during World War II. In 1942 her family was given a week to pack and move from their home near Tacoma to the Puyallup fairgrounds, which had been transformed into an assembly center called Camp Harmony. White became the vocalist with the 13-piece Koichi Hayashi Band formed by internees from Seattle. Every night for four months she performed with the band.

If you go

• What: Accompanied by the four-piece Vancouver Jazz All Stars, White will sing jazz standards from her album at the CD release party.

• When: 3 p.m. Sunday, July 29.

• Where: Community Room, Courtyard Village Independent Senior Living, 4555 N.E. 66th Ave.

• Information: Laurie Miller, 360-693-5900. The CD titled “Chickie” is available online on CD Baby.

Then her family and 10,000 other internees were taken by train to the Minidoka War Relocation Center, 20 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho.

Internment of Japanese Americans

Dec. 7, 1941: Japanese naval and air forces attack U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and other Pacific targets.

Dec. 8, 1941: U.S. declares war on Japan.

Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans along the West Coast. Nearly 120,000 would be forcibly relocated to 10 internment camps.

April 28, 1942: Seattle-area internees — including the Ishihara family — are sent to temporary detention center at Puyallup fairgrounds, called Camp Harmony.

Aug. 10, 1942: Minidoka Internment Camp near Twin Falls, Idaho, receives its first internees, including the Ishihara family.

February 1943: 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit consisting entirely of Japanese-American soldiers, is activated. Like many young Japanese-American men, George Ishihara, White’s brother, joined the U.S. Army to prove his loyalty to his country. Later the 442nd becomes the most decorated unit in the war.

May 8, 1945: V-E Day (Victory-in-Europe Day) proclaimed.

Aug. 14, 1945: V-J Day (Victory-in-Japan Day) proclaimed.

Sept. 2, 1945: Japanese sign surrender agreement aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. World War II officially over.

Oct. 1945: Last families, including the Ishihara parents, left Minidoka. Camps closed.

"It was quite a train ride," Chickie remembers. "The night before, they had fed us a chicken dinner — like the last supper. The next day, we arrived in the Idaho desert surrounded by nothing by sagebrush. The elderly people got down on their knees and prayed. It wasn't until much later that

To learn more

Minidoka National Historic Site

Japanese American internment camps in Idaho and the West, 1942-1945

The National World War II Museum

I realized they thought this was the end, that we were all going to be shot."

The majority of the internees would spend the remainder of the war living at Minidoka. The perimeter of the 960 acres was ringed by a high barbed wire fence guarded by soldiers with guns.

Each family was given a room in an uninsulated tar paper barracks with no interior walls or running water. A potbellied stove supplied heat. People slept on cots. Latrines and showers were a hike. Dust drifted indoors through unsealed windows.

The desert temperatures reached 120 degrees in the summer and plummeted below zero in the winter. When it rained, the clay soil became muck.

"I lost one of my favorite white rubber boots in that mud. It was stuck and I couldn't get it out, so I just walked out of it," White recalled.

At Minidoka, there was no big band because there were few young men. To prove their loyalty to America, they had volunteered for the Army and had gone off to war.

During the 31/2 years Chickie was interned at Minidoka, she sang every weekend in the mess hall and was accompanied by a Juilliard-trained pianist. Her favorites were "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "You'll Never Know."

Many nights at Minidoka the teens brought their records to the mess hall and danced.

"Music was a morale booster for us," White said. "The music really pulled us through."

She attended Hunt High School at Minidoka and graduated in 1944.

The war ended a year later. Minidoka and the other nine camps were closed in October, and White's family returned to Seattle.

Eventually she moved to the Los Angeles area and worked in the office of a big company. On the weekends, she sang with Tets Bessho's Band, an all-Japanese big band that performed for the Japanese-American community. The piano player was the same woman who had accompanied White at Minidoka.

When big-band music went out of style in the early 1950s and the band broke up, she began performing with a four-piece combo, the Jim Araki Quartet. She has fond memories of playing with the quartet.

"When you sing in a big band, you have to sing the way the band plays," White explained. "But when you sing in a small combo, the musicians follow the singer's lead."

While bowling on her company's summer league, she met, Ed White, who was white. They married in 1956 when she was 30.

At the time interracial marriage was not common or accepted. Although his family accepted Chickie, her family was not as pliable.

"My Japanese family had a difficult time accepting us," she said, noting that she was the first person in her family to marry outside of the Japanese race.

As was common in that era, after White married, she quit her job and became a homemaker. She also stopped singing. They had one child, a son.

After the Whites moved into Courtyard Village last summer, she began thinking about leaving her son a recording of her singing. She hired former Fort Vancouver High School music teacher Jim Iafrati to record her CD. He will be playing in the four-piece Vancouver Jazz All-Stars backing up Chickie on Sunday.

Today Minidoka War Relocation Center is the Minidoka National Historic Site, a National Park Service site. Not much remains of the internment camp. White had taken her husband to Minidoka 15 or 20 years ago when they were traveling nearby. Last month former internees took a pilgrimage to the site. White chose not to go.

Despite what she endured in the internment camp, Chickie is not bitter. She still swims half a mile three days a week.

And she smiles when she sings.

Susan Parrish: 360-735-4530; susan.parrish@columbian.com. Twitter: col_hoods.