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News / Clark County News

Tsugawa brings history to life

Woodland man tells students of life in internment camp

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter
Published: February 22, 2015, 12:00am
10 Photos
George Tsugawa filps through the pages of &quot;Whistling in the Dark,&quot; a book that tells the story of his family's history, including Tsugawa's time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
George Tsugawa filps through the pages of "Whistling in the Dark," a book that tells the story of his family's history, including Tsugawa's time in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Tsugawa, who's lived in Woodland for decades, has shared his experience with high school students in recent years. Photo Gallery

Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, George Tsugawa and his family were herded into livestock quarters in Portland along with thousands of other Japanese Americans on their way to internment camps.

It was February 1942, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just issued Executive Order 9066, a plan that paved the way for nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to wait out the rest of the war under the watch of armed guards in camps throughout the country. Tsugawa, his mother and two younger siblings were sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in south-central Idaho, while his older brother, Henry, enlisted in the U.S. Army and worked in military intelligence overseas.

More than half a century later, vivid memories of the experience stick with Tsugawa, a 93-year-old Woodland resident whose family has owned and operated Tsugawa Nursery since 1981. And in recent years, he’s given a group of Woodland High School students a chance to come face to face with history.

Shari Conditt, a history and government teacher at the school, has taught four of Tsugawa’s grandchildren over the years. As Conditt capped off a unit on Japanese internment camps a couple years ago, she invited Tsugawa to share his story with the class, and she hopes to bring him in again in March.

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Many of Conditt’s students leave the classroom describing Tsugawa’s visit as one of the defining moments of their high school education, she said.

“Students oftentimes are shocked and surprised, because it’s a part of our history we don’t often talk about,” she said. “But he teaches us about more than history. He teaches us about life.”

Shipped to Idaho

Each family was allowed to bring only a single duffle bag or suitcase on their way to Minidoka. All other belongings had to be left behind.

“At the time they told us to move, they took everything,” Tsugawa said. “We didn’t get a thing back.”

Tsugawa remembers the misery of waiting for the train to take him and his family away. The stench of cattle and manure lingered in the air, and they had no choice but to cooperate and bide their time.

Then, they boarded, not knowing where they were going or what to expect.

“In that darn thing, packed in there liked sardines, we had no idea,” Tsugawa said. “Finally, the train came to a stop and they pulled up the blinds, and as far as we could see it was just sagebrush, nothing but sagebrush.”

It was an alienating ordeal for Tsugawa and his family. Tsugawa’s parents, born in Japan, had moved to the U.S., where they started their family, decades before.

Tsugawa was born near Everett, and when he was a toddler, the family moved to Hillsboro, Ore., where his father worked with strawberry growers before his death in the mid-1930s. They’d never stirred up any trouble, yet there they were being carted off without their belongings to a tense new life of captivity.

The first thing Tsugawa remembers seeing when he approached the camp was a perimeter surrounded with a barbed wire fence and four watchtowers occupied by guards with machine guns.

“It really scared the heck out of you,” he said. “They watched us pretty darn close.”

When he arrived, Minidoka was cold and dirty. Tsugawa trudged along paths covered in several inches of mud on his way into his strange new home.

Life at Minidoka

Everyone lived in tight quarters at Minidoka, with about six families packed into each of the barracks, Tsugawa said. The family squeezed into a space roughly the size of the kitchen in the house where Tsugawa lives today.

In the daytime, the Tsugawas stayed busy working — collecting empty food cans to be reused again in some fashion. At night, they had a curfew.

“Everybody had to have something to do,” he said.

The first months inside the camp were particularly uncomfortable, living under constant watch from armed guards in the towers. Later on, as the guards gained more trust, they allowed people inside the camp to have more freedom.

Eventually, they even let the Tsugawas and others hop in the back of their trucks and head into Twin Falls, Idaho, one of the nearest towns about 20 miles away.

“In time, they got to know us, and we got to know them, and they realized we weren’t going to blow up the camp,” he said.

Today, Tsugawa says he never felt threatened by the guards. He and his fellow Japanese Americans fell in line and did what they were told, and things stayed relatively calm in a situation that could have easily spun out of control.

The family was finally allowed to leave the camp in 1944 when Tsugawa’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. They moved to Boise, where she could be treated, but she died shortly after.

Later, Tsugawa moved to the Beaverton, Ore., area to start a new life in farming. Then, he uprooted again to Woodland, where he’s lived for nearly 60 years.

In the classroom

Tsugawa’s story hits close to home for Conditt, who grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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Strangely, none of the locals told her about the camp while she was a child. Conditt finally learned about Minidoka years later in college.

Since then, she has returned to the camp — now a designated national historic site — and taken photos to show Tsugawa how the place looks today.

Japanese internment camps are an important part of Pacific Northwest history, Conditt said. In class, Conditt’s students read through Executive Order 9066 as she spends time going over some of the basics before Tsugawa comes by to share his story.

The students have much to learn from the lectures, Tsugawa said.

“Most of them are in disbelief that things like that happened,” he said.

Conditt’s students usually also leave feeling impressed with Tsugawa’s attitude about losing everything he had and being shipped off to a strange place.

One year, Conditt asked Tsugawa to talk about how Japanese families had to register their ethnic background in downtown Portland before heading to the camp. She asked if Tsugawa had ever considered lying about his descent — for instance, telling the government he was of Chinese heritage.

“They were so shocked that it would have never occurred to him to deny who he was because he had so much pride in who he was,” Conditt said. “Those are the kind of moments where the students’ eyes are really opened.”

Conditt also asked Tsugawa if he was ever angry that his country forced him to stay in a camp under the supervision of armed guards. And to her surprise, he wasn’t.

“He said, ‘When your country asks you to do something, you do it,’ ” she recalls. “You would expect him to be angry. I just think it speaks volumes about his character.”

Columbian Small Cities Reporter