SEPARATED BY AMERICA’S WWII CONCENTRATION CAMPS: Japanese dolls reunite friends after 70 years

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REUNITED — After 70 years, childhood friends Marianne Rikimaru Breakfield and Beverly Pond Thornton (seated left to right) were reunited. Ruth Palmer Mayfield, Martin Palmer and Patt Ladd are pictured standing, from left to right. The Palmers lived next door to the Rikimarus in Sacramento during World War II. At the long-awaited reunion, Ladd (left) shared old photos with Breakfield.

REUNITED — After 70 years, childhood friends Marianne Rikimaru Breakfield and Beverly Pond Thornton (seated left to right) were reunited.  Ruth Palmer Mayfield, Martin Palmer and Patt Ladd are pictured standing, from left to right. The Palmers lived next door to the Rikimarus in Sacramento during World War II. At the long-awaited reunion, Ladd (left) shared old photos with Breakfield.
REUNITED — After 70 years, childhood friends Marianne Rikimaru Breakfield and Beverly Pond Thornton (seated left to right) were reunited.
Ruth Palmer Mayfield, Martin Palmer and Patt Ladd are pictured standing, from left to right. The Palmers lived next door to the Rikimarus in Sacramento during World War II. At the long-awaited reunion, Ladd (left) shared old photos with Breakfield.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The childhood friendship of 10-year-old Beverly Pond and Marianne Rikimaru, coupled with Pond’s kindness and perseverance, triumphed over a 70-year separation when the two finally reunited in Sacramento on Dec. 1 after decades of searching. Pond, whose married name is Thornton, could finally return the three sets of Japanese dolls her family held for safekeeping when the Rikimarus were forcibly removed from their home and sent to Tule Lake, Calif., one of the camps imprisoning some 120,000 innocent persons of Japanese descent in 1942.

Through a fierce down-pouring storm, daughter Angela Roland and granddaughter Nicole drove 80-year-old Marianne Rikimaru, whose married name is Breakfield, to the much-anticipated reunion with her childhood friend, now also 80.

Eighty-six year old Martin Palmer and 79-year-old Ruth Palmer Mayfield, brother and sister who had lived next door to the Rikimarus, also joined with the former neighbors of 44th Street at Fruitridge Road in Sacramento. Neither had seen their old friend in more than 70 years.

Beverly described at the reunion how Emiko “Daisy” Rikimaru, Marianne’s mother, gave the three sets of porcelain Japanese display dolls to the Pond family as they packed up their belongings for the concentration camp.

Twila Tomita, Florin Japanese American Citizens League chapter historian, shared the meaning of the dolls often given to daughters for Japanese Girl’s Day, and how they’re passed down from generation to generation. They’re a key link in family history and Japanese American culture. Marianne said she now could pass the dolls (a farm couple, an oxen-drawn cart and a noble couple) to her daughter and granddaughter.

Beverly fondly recalled how she and Marianne walked to Fruitridge Elementary School together. Marianne remembered eating at the school cafeteria, where Beverly’s mother worked.

They got along fine in their little neighborhood of a few homes amid the abundant Japanese American strawberry fields. When asked why they connected, especially in those troubled times of prejudice and fear, Martin Palmer replied simply, “We were friends.”

Beverly told Marianne that she learned from her parents, “My mom, your mom too, respected everybody.”

She remembered that they went to the Rikimaru home to celebrate the birthday of Marianne’s baby brother, Carroll. They ate Japanese food on long tables in the front yard.

Martin Palmer added, “When we ate at their (Rikimaru) house, we used chopsticks. When they ate at our house, we used silverware.”

Ruth Palmer Mayfield shared at the Dec. 1 reunion, “They (the Rikimarus) were the sweetest family.” She passed around an old photo of the Rikimaru, Palmer and Pond families, together in the 1940s.

When the Rikimarus needed to report to the train station in Elk Grove to leave for Tule Lake, the Palmers drove them. Martin Palmer recalled his parents driving three Japanese American families there to be imprisoned, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066.

According to historian and author Wayne Maeda, the government expelled from Sacramento County 6,700 Japanese Americans, aliens and citizens alike, solely on the basis of their race. They could take only what they could carry to the concentration camps.

When meeting a few days earlier with Beverly and her daughter Patt Ladd, Tomita explained how touching Beverly’s friendship and kindness were in returning Marianne’s dolls. “After Pearl Harbor, many people turned their backs on Japanese Americans. You didn’t.”

During the reunion, Beverly and Marianne talked about how Japanese Americans faced the curfew and other mistreatment. “I’m sorry that we Americans did that to you.” said Beverly.
“It happened,” Marianne acknowledged. “We just hope that it never happens again.”

Ladd recalled how her mother had searched for decades to find her old friend by asking, without luck, every Asian American she met if they knew the Rikimaru family. Ladd admitted that her “mom used to drive me crazy doing this.”

In recent years, Ladd shared that she and her mother had grown stressed over the urgency of returning the dolls, and after 70 years, they weren’t even sure whether Marianne was still alive.

A big break in Beverly’s long search occurred in November. Two women came to their door to tell them about their mail they had found on a neighborhood walkway. They happened to be Asian American, so Beverly again asked the well-worn question, “Do you know the Rikimaru family?”

The women didn’t, but one woman suggested that she contact the Florin JACL. That woman was Midori Janie Lai, Tomita’s cousin.

Next, Ladd searched on Google for the Florin chapter of the JACL, and e-mailed the group on Nov. 9. Andy Noguchi, Florin JACL civil rights co-chair and a retired federal labor investigator, started searching for Marianne.

Based on a description of the Rikimaru family, a search led to World War II concentration camp records, then to Ontario, Ore. When Noguchi called Carroll Rikimaru and explained the doll story, he said, “That’s my sister! She lives in Manteca, Calif. now.” He related that the Rikimarus had moved to Oregon after being incarcerated at Tule Lake. Ontario is about 500 miles from their Sacramento home; Manteca is approximately 50 miles away.

When contacted with the good news about finding Marianne, Ladd and her mother, Beverly, were overwhelmed after the long years of searching. “We’ve been crying all day since getting the message,” she said. They were so happy that the entrusted dolls were going back to the rightful owner and a huge responsibility was now lifted off their shoulders.

The California Museum in Sacramento plans to show the three dolls and tell its story in the “Uprooted — Japanese American Experience” exhibit next year, from January through March. It is a fitting lesson for the expected 4,000 Northern Californian students to visit on school tours. Beverly and Marianne agree.

Andy Noguchi may be contacted at FlorinJACL@hotmail.com.

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