My Life as a Crusader

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MOMENT OF REMEMBRANCE — Jimi Yamaichi leads a candlelighting ceremony for a memorial service. Ruth Ishizaki, a longtime Tule Lake Pilgrimage participant, lights the candle for Rohwer, the camp where she was incarcerated during World War II. Photo by Will Kaku

I am Ruth Shigeko Ishizaki (formerly Hirose) and I was born and raised on our family’s 80 acres of orange groves in Richgrove, California in the southern San Joaquin Valley, northeast of Delano, at the base of the Sierra Mountains.

Since our orange grove was east of the California Highway 99 dividing line, called the “Free Zone” for Japanese Americans at that time, my married oldest sister and her family voluntarily moved in with us from Palo Alto, Calif. We all had the understanding from the U.S. government that we were all considered to be far enough inland and away from the West Coast Defense Line, thus we felt that we did not need to move further east for the duration of the war.

Without decent notice, on May 12, 1942, our entire family, which included my parents, myself, five siblings, and my oldest sister’s family from Palo Alto, were uprooted from Richgrove and bused to the Fresno County Fairgrounds (Fresno Assembly Center). Some of us were housed in cobwebbed horse stables that were whitewashed over without being cleaned. During the hot Fresno summer, the smell of horse shi-shi (urine) came up from the stable floor. It was hard to get used to it.

Approximately 500 of us, mostly California-born Japanese Americans, left the Fresno County Fairgrounds in late October for a five-day train trip to Jerome, Arkansas. Being prisoners during the war, we had the lowest priority on the railroad tracks and thus we were sidetracked in desolate places, sometimes for hours. Since the train cars were so old, the cars didn’t have toilet-holding tanks so the railroad company locked all of the toilets during stops. The military police guards with bayoneted rifles didn’t let the kids wander away from the train, but it didn’t bother the younger boys because they did their business directly onto the railroad tracks between railroad cars.
The Crusaders and Mary Nakahara

The Crusaders, a group of high school Nikkei girls, was a brainchild of Mary Nakahara (later known as Yuri Kochiyama, a 2005 Nobel Prize nominee) while she was interned in the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Santa Anita, Calif. The camp was transformed from the renowned Santa Anita Horse Race Track.

Mary Nakahara taught Sunday school at Santa Anita. While her twin brother was serving in the United States Army Military Intelligence Language School, Mary wanted to do something to help the Nisei servicemen who were in the U.S. Army at that time. Some of the teenage girls in Mary’s Sunday school class had brothers in the service also. Mary thought it would be a good school project for all of her teenage Sunday school students if they were to write to these lonely Nisei serving our country.

From the Santa Anita Assembly Center, Mary and her mother were shipped to Jerome, Arkansas. I was also sent to Jerome from the Fresno Fairgrounds and that is where I met Mary. She continued the work of the Crusaders in Jerome.

The high school girls in camp had very little funds so the correspondence to the Nisei servicemen started out with postcards to the known Nisei servicemen. As the people in the camp caught on to what the Crusaders were doing; many of the incarcerated started to donate their scarce tiny sums of money for postage stamps and postcards to help out.

In time, the Crusaders’ correspondence rose into the hundreds (credit must be given to the nameless church secretaries and stenographers who cut the stencils and ran them off on monograph machine). At its height, the number of Crusaders increased by many folds and many participants were not necessarily Sunday school students. We were encouraged to use very thin onion sheet papers to keep the so-called “Victory Mail” to the servicemen as light as possible. We are grateful to the hundreds of benefactors who supported us by giving us various holiday greeting cards that were sent to the Nisei servicemen.

Countless letters from the GIs were particularly memorable. One said that he wanted to be buried where he may fall because he didn’t want to be returned to a land where he wasn’t wanted.


The Jerome USO

Mary Nakahara also started the Jerome Camp USO for the visiting Nisei GIs with the help of the Crusaders. Both of the Hawai‘i and Mainland Nisei who took their basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, would take weekend bus trips into the Arkansas imprisonment camps to be with Japanese to remind them of their family whom they greatly missed. A majority of the infantry trainees were still not 21 years old and it was their first time away from loved ones.

Dancing was something new to some of the boys who grew up on a plantation and they enjoyed dancing with us teenage Sunday school Nisei girls. The Camp Shelby Nisei warned each other that most of the girls were of high school “jail-bait” age — by that time the older Nisei girls that already finished high school had left the camp for college or employment in distant cities outside of the camp — so they should not ruin it by bringing shame to their parents back home in the Islands.


Mary Nakahara Leaves Jerome

In due time Mary Nakahara left the Jerome camp to operate the Aloha USO in Hattiesburg, Mississippi nearby Camp Shelby. The Hattiesburg USO was in the center of the block on Main Street. No blacks were allowed to be seen on Main Street in Arkansas in those days — even if they were a serviceman — thus, the black servicemen didn’t have a USO Canteen to go to for entertainment.

Although Mary was in Hattiesburg, she continued to write original holiday greetings. Mary was quite a writer; in fact she wrote right along a column for the camp news. Skilled in communication, Mary’s briefs added touching warmth to the Crusaders’ out-going birthday cards, Mother’s Day cards to sons, thank you notes and many other sad or joyous occasions. The Crusaders who were still in camp did the printing, addressing of the cards and the thousands of letters to Nisei servicemen overseas.


Closing Jerome

The U.S. government needed to empty the Jerome camp to house German POWs. Upon inspection by the Swiss government, Jerome was declared unfit for war prisoners according to the Geneva Convention. It cost the United States twice as much to bring the camp to Geneva Convention standards than it was to build the original camp for holding Japanese Americans. The Geneva Convention did not apply to the United States holding its own American citizens.

The Crusader’s Scrapbook

Mary Nakahara’s mother moved to the Rohwer Camp, Block 38 and so did what was left of our family. Upon finishing high school in 1945, I left for a college in Chicago where my older brother found employment. Mrs. Nakahara and I traveled to Chicago together with she was responsible for me since I was still considered a minor at the age of 17. Each of us traveled with only two suitcases, creating a large problem with what to do with all the Crusaders’ correspondence.

Not wanting to throw out all the Crusader material, my pal Rinko (Shimasaki) Enosaki and I put everything into two scrapbooks purchased at the Rower Camp canteen. Rinko took one scrapbook with her when she left camp and I wound up with the other scrapbook and everything else that didn’t fit into either scrapbook.

After the war, I was able to return some of the photographs and correspondence to the families of those who were killed during the war. I also kept in touch with many of these pen pals long after the war. There were about a dozen Nisei GIs that became my lifelong friends and I have kept in constant touch with them and their new families throughout these many years. Unfortunately too many of them have now passed on.

It is important that future generations know that there were many of us in the camps that were very actively concerned for the lives of the youngsters who were in danger of losing their life. We were just trying our best to give what little comfort that we could.

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Crusader’s Scrapbook

Ruth and Hisashi Ishizaki donated an original Crusader’s Scrapbook, among other artifacts, to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. The Crusaders were a group of young Nisei girls who corresponded with Nisei soldiers fighting overseas. The Crusaders were formed by Mary Nakahara, who was later known as Yuri Kochiyama, a famous civil rights activist and a personal friend of Malcom X. Ruth and Kochiyama formed a close bond that continues today. Ruth wrote this piece, originally published on the museum’s Website, that includes her personal reflections on the Crusaders and Kochiyama.

2 responses to “My Life as a Crusader”

  1. Barbara Ishizaki Avatar
    Barbara Ishizaki

    My Mother-in-law was a true gem of a woman!

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Marlan Warren Avatar

    I was deeply saddened to learn of Ruth’s passing. Could someone please tell me how to get in touch with her family (I see Barbara Ishizaki posted here) so that I may extend my condolences? I’m still working on the film about The Crusaders to which Ruth so generously donated her time and energy. We now have fiscal sponsorship making all donations tax deductible. Please check out our page with all the info and watch our trailer that features Ruth (we still need a better voice over — our editor simply read Ruth’s testimonial) at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/99993.

    We need more people to be involved as interviewees and volunteers, although we logged 40 hrs. of shooting time. Ruth Ishizaki was such a strong, vibrant and intelligent woman. During our brief time together on camera looking at the Crusaders Scrapbook at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, she was articulate, honest with a generous spirit that came through in her words and warmth. I wish we could have finished the movie earlier so she could enjoy it, but we will dedicate this film to her along with the other amazing women of the Internment.

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