WWII Japanese American inmates recall baseball as symbol of freedom

JAPANESE AMERICANS RECALL ‘INTER-CAMP’ BASEBALL LEAGUE — Former detainees at Japanese American concentration camps during World War II who were involved in the 1944 baseball games among teams from the camps — Ernie Inoue, Kenso Zenimura, Tetsuo Furukawa and George Iseri (from L) — are reunited in 2014.  Kyodo News photo

JAPANESE AMERICANS RECALL ‘INTER-CAMP’ BASEBALL LEAGUE — Former detainees at Japanese American concentration camps during World War II who were involved in the 1944 baseball games among teams from the camps — Ernie Inoue, Kenso Zenimura, Tetsuo Furukawa and George Iseri (from L) — are reunited in 2014.
Kyodo News photo

LOS ANGELES — A group of elderly Japanese Americans will always remember a baseball series they played 70 years ago because it was their symbol of freedom.

The octogenarians are among more than 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated to 10 concentration camps by the U.S. government following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Some of the camps allowed inmates to play baseball as their pastime. Players made makeshift diamonds and conducted league matches that attracted thousands of spectators per game.

In 1944, some 20 young players in the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona were allowed to play in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.

The 1,243-mile bus trip started at the end of August and was financed with pay saved by the players for their labor in the camp and small amounts pitched in by other inmates. It took several days as the decrepit bus they traveled in broke down from time to time.

First baseman and pitcher Tetsuo Furukawa, now 87, recalled the strange sensation he felt because the air outside the Gila River camp seemed fresh.

The players slept in the bus at night as part of efforts to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

When they were filling the bus with gasoline at a service station in a small town on the way to Heart Mountain, a Caucasian man approached and asked them what they were doing. They fell silent before one of them replied they were going to work for more food production for the United States — ostensibly, the trip had been authorized for the purpose of helping farming work.

To their relief, the man accepted the explanation and walked away.

The 1,243-mile trip by the inmates during wartime was an incredible adventure, Bill Staples Jr., a 45-year-old author familiar with the history of baseball, said during a recent event at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose to commemorate the 70-year-old baseball series.

The Gila River All-Stars and Heart Mountain All-Stars played 13 games during the former’s nearly monthlong stay. Pitcher Gorge Iseri, 86, who won two games for the Heart Mountain team, said the series was his “best” memory. He could forget anything unpleasant while playing baseball, he said.

“We did a long journey,” second baseman Kenso Zenimura, 87, of Gila River, said thoughtfully. “I was a teen at that time. (It’s been) 70 years since then.”

“Baseball was the ticket for freedom, symbol of freedom under suppression during the war,” Staples said. “The journey was in a way a declaration of independence, a celebration of freedom, and all made possible through the game of baseball.”

The goal of the commemorative event is to capture the Japanese Americans story so that “it can be shared with future generations in the world,” said Staples, who helped organized it.

“Most likely, this will be the last time for these ballplayers to reunite, and for some, the last time to share their story with the public,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

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