76 years ago this week, a fleet of buses transported Japanese-Americans from Venice to Manzanar. Mae Kakehashi was one of them.
By Joe Piasecki
On April 25, 1942, the newly created federal War Relocation Agency ordered Japanese-American residents of West Los Angeles to board buses at the corner of Lincoln and Venice boulevards. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry.
Eight hours later the buses arrived at Manzanar, a World War II internment camp in the rustic Owens Valley where those forcibly displaced by presidential executive order — including many American-born citizens — would live in Army barracks behind barbed wire until the end of World War II.
Mae Kakehashi, a 94-year-old resident of Mar Vista, was 18 years old when she and her siblings arrived at Manzanar. She was a recent graduate of Venice High School who was born in Los Angeles and couldn’t speak much Japanese. She was furious with Japan over the attack on Pearl Harbor. But none of that mattered to Uncle Sam.
Last April, Kakehashi was among a team of grassroots organizers who erected the Venice Japanese Memorial Monument at Lincoln and Venice on the 75th anniversary of the bus departures to Manzanar.
It’s one thing to imagine experiencing this historical injustice. It’s another to have lived it.
Kakehashi’s memories of internment convey the feelings of violation that came with the forced removal and imprisonment, harsh living conditions and degrading lack of privacy endured by Japanese-Americans at Manzanar. But Manzanar is also where Kakehashi (born Mae Kageyama) found a career and married her late husband, Hideo.
Her recollections and sense of humor demonstrate a remarkable ability to carry on with the business of normal life as far from normal as one could possibly imagine: cooking, shopping, working, playing — even falling in love and getting married.
What was it like growing up here in the 1930s and early ’40s?
Venice was a mixed-race area: Caucasian, Jewish, Mexican, Japanese and black. We all got along fine. There were many Japanese at Venice High School. We were accepted, and many took student leadership offices.
The area was surrounded by Japanese farmers growing vegetables, especially celery. There were a few Japanese who worked as gardeners. A lot worked at Robert’s Market, which was a big chain store before the war. I worked there, at the corner of Washington and Lincoln. It was like a grocery store today, but it wasn’t self-service. We had to wait on the customer. Bag it, weigh it, receive cash and put it in the register.
How did you meet Hideo?
He went to Uni High, and we used to have socials between West L.A. and Venice. He loved to dance and so did I. Mostly the jitterbug. He used to come to visit me in Venice. … There were other guys, too. [laughs].
Why did you pick him?
We got stuck together at Manzanar camp. He couldn’t get away because of the barbed wire! [laughs]
How did you find out you had to go to Manzanar?
My brother. My father died when I was 7, and I was 10 when my mother passed away. My brother, he was 14 or 15 years old and quit school to support us. He was a gardener and a nice lady he worked for let him keep his car in her garage for the duration of the war. It was a pink two-door sedan, 1939 or 1940. He was real proud of his car.
What did it feel like to board the bus?
The people who had businesses or homes, they were sad. Being young, it was sort of an adventure for me. Of course, I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. I thought maybe they would send us to Japan. But would Japan accept us? That went through my mind. Because we were at war with Japan, and I was very mad at Japan for doing this to us. But I also thought it was unfair for America to put us in a camp. So I was really mixed up. … [On the drive] I was afraid to get out of the bus. The people out there, the white people, I worried they’d do something to us Japanese. I didn’t know how they felt. I thought they were angry at us.
The people here didn’t show it if they were against Japanese people. The people who did show [their feelings] were real sympathetic. A few of them came to the bus stop the day that we left, to say goodbye to us. There was an Italian family across the street from where my sister lived who made us a spaghetti dinner. When I was in camp I wrote to them, asking them to send size four-and-a-half white shoes for my wedding. We were at war with Italy and Germany too, but they weren’t taken to a camp — just the Japanese.
What did you take with you?
We had to quickly pack. My older sister Fumi sewed duffel bags to put all our clothes in, because we didn’t have a suitcase or anything. We had to bring boots because they said there were going to be scorpions and rattlesnakes — they never bothered us though — so we went to Santa Monica and bought cowboy boots.
We were able to store other things at the old Japanese school on Jefferson near Centinela, by the bean fields [across from Hughes Aircraft Co., now Playa Vista]. Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker [and former missionary to Japan] hired a truck to take our belongings there. He visited Manzanar. A few people from Venice High School visited Manzanar.
What were the living conditions in the camp?
The barrack was bare. A potbelly stove with wood to keep ourselves warm. The beds were just a hard mattress on top of a cot. We had to stuff it with straw and pound the mattress to make it flat. They gave us olive drab Army blankets. We had to order our sheets and pillows from a catalogue.
The whole barrack was really long, with three families in three partitions, but there were no partitions for privacy [among] our family, my brother and sister. Three or four beds in one room — one married couple, my older sister Fumi [and her husband]. I felt sorry for them because they had no privacy. [laughs] A friend of mine had to live the same way, with a family, and she said they’d end up on the floor for sex! The cot was not very comfortable for two. You could put two together, but there was a big aluminum bar between you.
When did you get married?
Hideo was in Block 23 and I was in Block 29, so he had to come across a fire break to see me. Everybody used to tease him: “I know where you’re going!” [laughs] Between Block 23 and Block 29 there was a pear orchard. We had an orphanage right across from our building — infants and children and teenagers. It was a nicer building than our barracks, but even babies were sent to Manzanar because they were Japanese.
We were married at Manzanar camp on Feb. 19, 1944, because Hideo got drafted by the U.S. Army. We were American citizens, but we were behind barbed wire. It didn’t make sense. The Army sent us to Minneapolis, where they had a Japanese Language Interpreters School. He was a translator during the occupation.
The ceremony was in one of the barracks that were churches. They had Maryknoll Catholic, Methodist Christian and Buddhist. He was Methodist but we got married in the Buddhist church. I guess I was the boss! [laughs]. Ladies decorated the altar with artificial flowers made of crepe paper. Some of my girlfriends were wealthy enough to have elaborate weddings with mail-order gowns and tuxedos — Montgomery Ward had a catalogue, and so did Sears. I got married in a pink suit that was made in Manzanar by one of the tailors there.
I ordered my wedding cake from a Japanese chef. I asked for a three-tier cake, but when I got to the wedding there were three sheet cakes instead. I said, ‘Oh my God’ [laughs]. With my broken Japanese, he didn’t understand, I guess. … My parents were from Japan but it was all English at home after my mother died. … I worked at the hospital in Manzanar and got trained for medical stenography … so when I came back to L.A. after the war I learned to speak Japanese working at a doctor’s office.
Why was it important for you to help create the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument?
I want everybody to remember what happened to us. That there was prejudice. Against American citizens. It’s a good idea for people to learn about this history because a thing like this shouldn’t happen to any other race.
You were taken to Manzanar against your will. Why do you still visit?
That’s where we were married! My picture’s on the wall there [at the interpretive center]. It brings back memories. Some of them good memories.
How do you feel about the travel ban against Muslim countries and tough rhetoric about Mexican immigration and having a border wall?
I went to the hairdresser recently and we talked about this [internment] camp thing. And this one lady says, “But we were at war with you people!” [Laughs] “That’s why you had to go to the camps.” I said, “No, I’m an American. I was born in L.A.” People like that need to be educated. She said you people, to mean people like me.
America’s a big country, and usually very generous. But there’s always some crazy guy that will make trouble [laughs] … so we have to teach people.
Kakehashi and others will gather at Lincoln and Venice boulevards at 10 a.m. Thursday (April 19) for a commemoration ceremony at the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument. Visit venicejamm.org for more information.