Pat Takeshita says it’s likely her two sons don’t know the full story behind the four years she lived at internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Ken Jacobs says the details of the year and a half he served with the U.S. Army during the Korean War is not something he has revealed to his wife of 51 years.
But while the two longtime Westchester residents say their families may not fully be aware of their wartime experiences, they are hoping that will change.
Takeshita, 82, and Jacobs, 78, are two of the students enrolled in the Westchester-Emerson Community Adult School’s “life story writing” class, which is taught by Los Angeles Valley College professor Roger Graham and meets weekly at the Westchester YMCA.
The class provides its senior citizen students a means to write down their stories of true life events and pass them on to families and future generations. The latest endeavor for the writing class was to put together stories of wartime experiences, either personal or passed on through the family, for the recently-published book “War Years.”
The book, which tells stories of 22 students and their families — some dating back over 200 years to the Revolutionary War — has allowed pupils such as Takeshita and Jacobs to give readers an idea of what they went through.
“We were always kind of known as the silent generation,” said Takeshita, a 23-year Westchester resident who was a teenager at the height of World War II.
“I want to leave a little bit for my children and I don’t want it to be a lost generation,” she said, referring to why she chose to tell her story. “This class has opened up a whole new world for me.”
She says her daughter is familiar with her internment story but hopes that her sons can learn more through the book.
Jacobs, who has lived in Westchester for 47 years, says it’s also important that his family knows about his service in Korea and he is thankful that the class has given him the chance to pass on such stories.
“I’d like the family to know about it,” Jacobs said of his wartime service. “You get addicted to writing because it’s so much fun. Once you get the stories published, there’s a satisfaction to that and it inspires you to do more.”
The two classmates said that in addition to helping tell their stories, the class has improved their writing skills. Graham explained that instead of having his students write a comprehensive tale about their trying wartime experience, he teaches them to “zero in” on particular incidents.
Another skill Graham teaches the students to make the stories more effective is to have them write in the present tense.
“We live the experience as if it’s just happening at that moment,” Graham said, adding that the two types of stories covered by the class are about significant events and human interest.
Takeshita recalls the time when she was just 16 and living in San Diego in April 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order calling for all people of Japanese ancestry to be evacuated from the West Coast following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. She remembers how her father and most adult men were already sent away to internment camps and how the rest of her family had just one week to prepare for going to camps themselves.
The families were forced to sell off their belongings and each person was allowed only one suitcase to store personal items for the trip, she recalls. Takeshita refers to the uneasiness of the time, as thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry boarded trains bound for unknown destinations. When Takeshita, her mother and two younger siblings, got off the train, they were at Santa Anita Race Track, where they saw barbed-wire fences and armed guards.
The family slept in horse stables at Santa Anita, where they remained interned for five and a half months before being sent to another camp at Poston, Arizona for three and a half more years until the war ended.
“Our constitutional rights were taken away from us,” she said of the experience.
Takeshita noted how the time was particularly troubling because she never considered herself to be any different from her countrymen.
“I always felt that I was an American,” she said.
Takeshita attributes her ability to overcome the difficulties of the time to maintaining a positive mindset and learning to endure.
“We learned to endure and go forward, we never let it get us down,” she said. “We had to take it day-by-day because we didn’t know when it was going to end. You had to live with hope.”
When recounting his wartime story of serving as an Army GI in Korea, Jacobs chose to focus on events that seemed “comical.” He tells of a time he went for a walk with a fellow servicemen and they came across the remains of a North Korean soldier. The two men accidentally discovered a hand grenade near the soldier and Jacobs recalled how they were nervously indecisive about what to do with it before he finally threw it behind a ridge.
Aside from nerve-racking incidents such as that, Jacobs said he is proud to have been able to serve his country. It was an experience that taught him many things, including how to interact with people from different backgrounds, he said.
“It mostly felt like doing a job and it was something I had to do,” said Jacobs, who was 21 when he began serving. “It’s a matter of patriotism and doing what you have to do for your country. I grew up in the service.”
Takeshita said she also learned how to interact with others by living in such close quarters with people at the camps.
Jacobs’ and Takeshita’s stories are just two of the 22 distinct tales of the Westchester-Emerson writing class covered in “War Years.” The two students pointed out how they are both inspired by their classmates’ stories.
Westchester-Emerson principal Pat Colby commended the class members on their intriguing stories, saying that the writing is full of information and provides “lessons for future generations.”
“This is a wonderful group and their spirit influences us all,” Colby said.
“War Years” is the fifth group book published by the life story writing class in the last ten years. The class, which has also published six autobiographies, plans to celebrate its latest book with a signing ceremony Wednesday, June 18th, at the Westchester YMCA.
The class members are eager to hand the stories down to their families, but as Graham notes, the book will reach beyond the audience of today.
“There will be people reading these stories that aren’t born right now,” Graham said.