Topaz High School class reunites for third last hurrah

The Topaz High School class of 1945’s 67th year reunion took place in San Francisco on Aug. 25 and 26. The meeting marks the 67th year since the former students graduated from school in Topaz, Utah while incarcerated in an American concentration camp.

A total of 27 former classmates and a dozen more relatives shared their stories and reminisced with one another at the all-day event on Aug. 25 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which Diane Matsuda hosted. The reunion continued the next day with a no-host breakfast at Sweet Maple Restaurant, three blocks away from the center in Japantown.

Patrick Hayashi, former associate president of University of California, attended the day’s events, and following dinner, gave a speech on the class’ experiences. Hayashi was born at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp in 1944.

"CLASSMATES

Patrick Hayashi. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Patrick Hayashi. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

“You’re probably the only class in Japanese American history that has stayed together so long,” said Matsuda, who is the niece of classmate Yae Yoshifuji Tondo. The group has been dedicated to using their experience to tell stories of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The class published a book, “Blossoms in the Desert — Topaz High School Class of 1945,” about a decade ago that includes the experiences of what some 50 members of the class endured during their incarceration, Matsuda said. The book has since crossed the world, including to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama.

An Unbreakable Bond
Daisy Satoda has helped plan the reunions since their first gathering in 1970 for their 25th reunion. Satoda continued to plan reunions, which were held every five years, until their 50th gathering, at which point most of the class had retired. The classmates, now octogenarians, have met almost annually since 1995. The reunions mostly take place in the San Francisco Bay Area, but have also occurred in Hawai’i, Washington, D.C. and New York, among other locales.

Satoda said being incarcerated together at Topaz helped the classmates to forge strong bonds. “We were dependent on each other for entertainment,” she said.

Most of the Nikkei imprisoned at Topaz were from the San Francisco Bay Area, and most attendees still reside in California. But some, such as Ryozo “Rosie” Kumekawa, came from Rhode Island to attend the event.

Kumekawa, who traveled east after camp, went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Then, he attended Brown University in Providence, R.I., and then University of Rhode Island, to do his doctoral thesis at the college’s graduate department of city planning. He stayed in Rhode Island following college and eventually became executive assistant to the governor in the 1970s.

An Accomplished Group
The students in the class of 1945 are an accomplished group. Aside from Kumekawa, the class boasts a NASA scientist; the late Hajime James Akiyama (of Yu-Ai-Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service’s Akiyama Wellness Center in San Jose); an architect for world famous Skidmore, Owings and Merrill firm, which designed the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago and 555 California Street (formerly the Bank of America Center) in San Francisco; and the first non-white teacher in San Mateo, Calif.

Kumiko Ishida, this year’s reunion’s chair and, according to Hayashi, the first non-white teacher in San Mateo’s schools, attributed her former students’ success to where they came from. “All the brainiest kids from San Mateo, Lowell in S.F., and Berkeley High School got sent to our school,” she said. “If you were an average kid, you didn’t stand a chance.”

Fellow Topaz class members include Ronald Yutaka “Tubby” Yoshida, a former NASA jet propulsion scientist. Yoshida, who got his nickname from a Caucasian neighbor when he was 5, graduated from high school in Topaz. Following the war, he enrolled as a freshman at University of California, Berkeley. He was promptly drafted after one year and spent two years in Japan as a member of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).

After his service, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the GI Bill to become a mechanical engineer. He worked for the Marquardt Corporation in Southern California, making jet engines, and then went to California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work on spacecrafts for NASA.

Yoshida now serves as the class of 1945’s unofficial historian and provides the school’s green and yellow reunion banner and pennants along with his collection of yearbooks, newspapers and photographs.

Then there’s Makoto Takahashi. He had graduated earlier in the class and left for Madison, Wis., to go to college. “I chose Madison because all my classmates said they were going to Ann Arbor, Mich.,” said Takahashi. “I wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t going to be a lot of Japanese people.”

He initially studied to become an engineer, but a chance meeting with architecture while working for a Japanese architecture firm led him to seek a new career. Takahashi said the freedom allowed in architecture compared to engineering made the field attractive. Following two years in the Counterintelligence Corps (he had flunked out of the MIS), he returned to Berkeley, where his friends were. He attended UC Berkeley to study architecture and joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. He said he traveled around the world to help design buildings, notably the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He considers Berkeley his home, and has not left it for any extended period of time since returning from the military.

Joe Kimura, another former student, moved to Southern California after the war. His father-in-law purchased a nursery in Southern California, prompting his move down south. Kimura helped run the business and eventually took it over. He later became a wholesale orchid supplier for the Los Angeles area. Kimura has since retired and left the business to his kids.

Sakae Horita said his life was not very exciting. Before retiring, he worked as a Simmons mattress salesman. Horita, who loves his family and San Francisco, now enjoys going to San Mateo to see his son and shop at Takahashi Market or Suruki Supermarket. He also enjoys hanging out with his grandkids.

A Class of Memories
The reunion featured a number of highlights, including a lunch of “Japanese style” hot dogs and a group photo of all the attendees. A round of social games, led by Matsuda, followed lunch. The game involved reunion members talking to each other to learn a new fact about their conversation partner. Matsuda split the class of 1945 reunion attendees from their guests and led two separate games. After a few rounds, Matsuda asked all the attendees to sit in a line around the room. Those who were not incarcerated at the wartime camps were asked to give a fact they know about the wartime incarceration, while the rest were asked to share a memory of that experience.

Matsuda called the group “a class of memories” and stressed the need for their stories to be passed on. The comments ranged from memories of being taken to the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, Calif. or the long train ride to Topaz in Central Utah. One attendee recalled seeing his brother joining the army and going off to fight, wishing he was old enough to do the same. Many recalled the sense of camaraderie the class created.

Matsuda then asked the seniors, if they could go to any point in time, past or future, when and why would attendees go to that time. Matsuda said she would go back to get to know her Issei grandparents in the 1900s. Many agreed, wishing they could go back to see their parents or to relive their happy childhood days. Many of the former Topaz inmates remarked that their parents were the ones who truly suffered from the incarceration, and wished to go back to have a heart-to-heart talk or to thank them. Still others, such as Masaru Charles “Wacky” Sumimoto, proclaimed, “I’m enjoying what’s going on right now fine.”

The Harsh Realities
Sumimoto said the reunion was more than just a gathering for old friends. Addressing his classmates, he spoke of the responsibilities to tell their stories so that they are “not thrown under a rug.” Sumimoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he recalled one cold winter afternoon in particular from the wartime incarceration. A woman wearing a black fur jacket was walking outside with several soldiers. Sumimoto thought it was odd, as soldiers were generally not seen within the camp, yet the woman was led by the soldiers bearing flags. The soldiers stopped in a clearing and handed the woman a folded American flag and then marched on. At the time, Sumimoto did not realize what had happened, but he later understood that the woman had lost a son in the war and the soldiers were there to present her with his Purple Heart.

“Later, I started to think, that ain’t right,” said Sumimoto. “Take her to Salt Lake City or Washington, D.C. — don’t present it to her in the middle of a concentration camp. The woman’s lost her son, chances are her eldest son, what’s the medal going to mean to her?”

Sumimoto’s memory was just one of many painful ones that the group shared during the reunion.

Hayashi’s speech highlighted the stories of many classmates, based on interviews he conducted prior to the gathering.

Hayashi said his father had remained silent about their experiences, especially after his mother passed away when Hayashi was 12. Hayashi attributed his mother’s passing to the stress she endured while incarcerated having complicated her rheumatic heart disease. Hayashi thanked the class for their stories, which allowed a better understanding of camp life.

He said Yas Utsumi’s father died shortly after being arrested by the FBI following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her family never learned anything more than that. Utsumi was 13 years old at the time.

Similarly, the FBI also visited Satoda’s family. Hayashi recounted how FBI agents literally tore apart the home, before they took her father away.

Hayashi shared a story of Kumekawa boarding a train headed for Boston alongside a Nikkei war vet who had lost his arm in Europe. The train’s passengers snapped their fingers and whistled at them like they were dogs, Hayashi said.

Amid the hardship, though, some people also showed the Japanese Americans kindness. Church leaders and strangers offered strength, and small acts of kindness.

One story involved Sumimoto meeting a black Pullman porter at his bar. When Sumimoto said he had ridden on a Pullman coach from San Francisco to Delta, Utah when he was sent to camp, the man replied, “I was on that train. And an amazing thing happened. After we got there, you folks gave us a tip. We took you to a concentration camp, and you tipped us,” Hayashi relayed.

Hayashi said the tip, however, wasn’t all that amazing. “We were all brought up to be polite, especially with those who treated us with respect.”

Hayashi also spoke about Paul “Shorty” Bell, the 6-foot-3 Caucasian, who didn’t live in the camp, but attended Topaz high. According to Hayashi, he was at first hesitant to attend the reunions, but had grown to enjoy them after being warmly welcomed at one. Bell, however, did not attend this reunion.

Hayashi concluded that Topaz had been a dark part of the students’ lives, but it did not destroy them. “I think Topaz did not destroy you because you were young, and because you had each other,” said Hayashi. The bonds have strengthened with age and, according to Hayashi, they have deepened in affection and respect.

“You explain your strength and resilience … by referring to three Japanese precepts — shikataganai, gaman, gambare,” Hayashi said.

“Shikataganai — we must accept what we cannot change. Gaman — we must persevere with dignity. Gambare — we must always try to do our best. … They can only be understood by living them. And you have lived them with grace and dignity.”

Hayashi said that the class of former wartime inmates has a legacy. Unlike many of the Issei who never spoke about their experiences, the Nisei, such as the class of 1945, have passed down their experiences to the next generation.

He spoke of his friend, Dale Shimasaki, the former executive director of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, who, like his parents, has worked to educate others about the lessons from the wartime incarceration of Nikkei.

In closing, Hayashi spoke about the ability of the class to take the worst and make the best of their individual situations.

Following Hayashi’s speech, the day’s events ended with closing remarks from Ishida, this year’s reunion chairperson. While the reunion has been a longtime, tradition, Ishida said this might be the “final reunion.” The same has been said so two times before, however.

“We’re finished unless someone else take it over,” she said. She remained upbeat about the class’ vibrancy, however. “We’re growing smaller in number, but our enthusiasm does not wane.”

Sumimoto closed the night by stressing the need to keep meeting. “Our reunion is important because you can talk and recollect. We get together … to make sure the United States does not forget.”

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