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Japanese Americans give students first-person account of life during WW II

John and Betty Ochi tell U.S. history students at Rocky River High School about their experiences during World War II. (West Life photo by Sue Botos)

Rocky River

By Sue Botos

Although it has been more than 70 years, Betty Ochi vividly remembers the three years her family spent in Japanese American internment camps during World War II as a kind of adventure.

“It seemed as though we were on vacation. As a kid, it was kind of fun. We were just farmers, and we never got to go on vacation. Through my eyes as a kid, I didn’t suffer, but if you talked to older people, it was probably the worst time of their lives,” Ochi told Sara Ziemnik’s AP United States history class recently at Rocky River High School. Betty Ochi and her husband, John, spoke to the students as part of the World War II unit. The previous day, Ziemnik’s classes heard a first-person account from Maynard “Doc” Unger, a former Lakewood teacher, who spent 22 months as a prisoner of war in Germany.

John Ochi told the class that 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens living near the West Coast, were shipped off to internment camps soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. entry into World War II. “There were no crimes committed, no laws broken, no offenses. The only crime was being of Japanese descent,” he noted.

Ochi said he was 13 years old at the time, sharing a Southern California house with his parents, two sisters and brother. “One evening, the sheriff and deputy walked right into our house without knocking,” he recalled, adding that the officers confiscated a shotgun that the family used to scare birds from their farm fields, radios, a camera and even Ochi’s trombone case.

“They told my father to grab a few things and come with them,” Ochi said. After about 10 days, the family discovered that his father had been taken to a detention center in Bismarck, N.D.

Being “law-abiding citizens,” Ochi said, the rest of his family complied with notices that were posted throughout the town, stating that anyone of Japanese heritage should report to a certain point, bringing only what they could carry. Ochi recalled that his family buried many of their other possession, including martial arts equipment. “To this day, I always wondered if anyone found those things,” he mused.

The family was transported by a bus with covered windows to a detention center, where their quarters consisted of a 20- by 25-foot room with communal washing and dining facilities. When asked about the armed guards in towers, they were told this was for their own protection. “But somebody noticed that the guns were pointed at us,” he remembered.

Betty Ochi recalled that she heard about Pearl Harbor when she went to Sacramento, Calif., to be fitted for a flower girl dress for a neighbor’s wedding. The youngest of seven, her parents had died before the start of the war, and the family was headed by her oldest brother. “The police stopped my brother and told him about a curfew,” she remembered.

They were required to get rid of most of their possessions, including books from the Japanese school all of the children attended. “My brother said we had to burn all of those,” she recalled. Even pets had to be left behind when the family moved to the first of three internment camps in which they spent the next three years. Betty Ochi remembered that she was especially saddened to find out the family dog had been shot because it had belonged to her family.

Like her husband’s family, she, her sister and five brothers shared one room. She remembered that in Utah, she saw snow for the first time, and that the schoolteachers let the children have a snowball fight. “The teachers were always compassionate people,” Ochi said, adding that they were mostly retired or new graduates.

While the experience in the camps was exciting for Ochi, she said it cost one of her brothers a scholarship at the University of California at Berkley. “He lost six years (three in the camps and three in the Army), and by the time he came out, he felt he was too old to be a doctor, so he became a pharmacist,” she said.

Betty Ochi added that after coming to Cleveland in 1945, the family suffered some prejudice. “For the most part we were accepted, and everyone was very kind,” she said, but added that is was not unusual to be refused service in restaurants.

Ziemnik stated that because each day there are fewer people with first-hand experience of the war, it was a privilege for her classes to hear these speakers. “I have been so blessed to have Doc, John and Betty come to my classes, as they provide a unique perspective that neither I nor a textbook can really touch. Hearing history through someone who has lived it makes it more real, personal and memorable, and I hope that my students take away their inspiring lessons for years to come.”



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