Ed Ezaki, a Japanese American who spent his early childhood on the west coast, discusses how the events of December 7, 1941 shaped his life, that of his family, and all Japanese Americans in the U.S. after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Forced to leave the world he knew, his family was removed from their farm in California, his grandfather was sent away to a camp, and they began to run from the law. Ed then recalls how they were found, sent to a camp in Arizona, and how his time there was spent. Upon leaving the camp, he focuses his attention on his families move to Cleveland, Ohio and his life as an auto worker, his marriage to his wife, and how he now speaks about the hardships his family underwent during his youth.
Ezaki, Ed (interviewee)
Ziemnik, Sara (interviewer)
Japanese American Citizens League
"Ed Ezaki Interview, 31 July 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 906002.
Transcription sponsored by Cindy Reagan
Sara Ziemnik [00:00:00] So it is July 31st, 2006, and I'm here with Ed Ezaki, who's representing the Japanese American Citizens League. I guess I just have some questions, but, you know, I might stick with them, I might deviate from them a little bit depending on what you say so just about your experience. So we'll start with just why don't you give us a little background about the town that you grew up in as a child in California. Where was it? What was it like?
Ed Ezaki [00:00:28] I was born on a farm in San Jose, California. And this is the San Jose that's not what it is today. This is back in the '30s and '40s. And all my childhood memories of the farm in San Jose, California, are all very pleasant ones. I recall going out on the farm with my dad and he'd take me out on a plow horse and plow the fields. I'd attended regular English school during the day and in the evening. I because my parents and my grandparents still wanted me to maintain the Japanese culture. I attended Japanese school in the evenings just about every evening. My only regret is that my attending the Japanese school was short-lived. I didn't get to do it for, I don't know, maybe a year or two. And then December 7th came along. But growing up on a farm, I have nothing but pleasant memories. I enjoyed school, I enjoyed going to Japanese school and learning the language and the culture. I didn't retain as much as I wish I would have, but I used to surprise my parents by relating things that I recall from going to school and some of the language that I did retain. Even though I wasn't very proficient in it, I could understand it better than I could speak it today yet. Basically, it was just a good life. I don't recall any kind of prejudiced whatsoever up until December 7th after that. I can relate many things that happened to myself and to our family from that point on. But prior to that, I don't think I can give you any incidents of any kind of racial prejudice or anything of that nature. That's basically what I recall, my child. I know that my parents did go off the farm for a short period of time before the war and they worked at a dry cleaners in Oakland, California. And those are all just pleasant memories of my attending school. And we lived right there on the cleaner premises. And I made a couple of friends there that also lived there. In fact, I just visited one of them in California that I hadn't seen in about 50 years. Last year, she lives right near my relatives in San Mateo, California, but pleasant memories is all I can tell you. We had the best strawberries in the area and I recall taking a bowl out onto the field, filling it with strawberries. We had possibly the best strawberries in that area, but I do recall still filling the bowl strawberries, bringing them back, washing them, taking the stems off and squashing them up and just putting a little bit of cream on it and eating them. In fact, I could almost taste them today at almost 65 years later.
Sara Ziemnik [00:04:01] Did you have an extended family in the area or was it just your mom and your dad?
Ed Ezaki [00:04:06] Basically our family was there on the farm. Grandmother and grandfather, my parents, a couple of my uncles and a couple of my aunts were on that farm.
Sara Ziemnik [00:04:26] How do you remember December 7th? I know you said you were about eight and a half. What is your memory of that day and how it affected your family?
Ed Ezaki [00:04:35] I can tell you that prior to that, again, stating that my childhood memories are all pleasant ones. There's a lot of laughter and fun times. But from that day on, I recall the change in the attitude of our family, the laughter and the playfulness and things of that nature just stopped. And I remember that the adults became more serious. They talked more in whispers. And everything was more just serious. And the happiness and the joy and laughter was not there anymore. And now that I'm an adult, I can imagine, you know, the reason why this happened with everything that happened from that point on, because within three days of December 7th, 1941, two FBI agents descended upon our farm, identified my grandfather, didn't say why they were there or anything, but identified him and because he was not a citizen. And both he and my grandmother were not allowed to become citizens. At that time. And that didn't change until 1951 but they identified my grandfather. They went through our entire farmhouse. I know that the family was just frightened to death. And I could tell that from that point on, the fear was with them for quite a while. And I could understand today as an adult why that happened. But the FBI agents just went through everything in the house, didn't say what they were looking for, why they were doing it or anything like that. And once they were done, they took my grandfather without telling us why they were taking him and where they were taking him. And. Wouldn't let him finish getting dressed wouldn't let him finish eating, which he was doing when they arrived and they just took him. And from that point on, I think our family thought that we would never see my grandfather again. And. The fear just changed our lives completely from that day on that I remember, I still can think about that and remember just how everything just changed so drastically.
Sara Ziemnik [00:07:03] So where did they take your grandfather?
Ed Ezaki [00:07:05] Well, we found out later because eventually I don't know how long a period of time it was, but we were taken forced from our farm and our businesses and taken to Gila River, Arizona, which is one of ten internment camps that the government had constructed to house 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, and only those of us that lived on the West Coast. And we were taken to Gila River, Arizona. My grandfather was taken up to a I think, a camp in Montana where they had held all the aliens or those that weren't citizens. And I can't tell you how long it was, but I do know that eventually he did join us in our camp in Gila River, Arizona. But timewise, I don't know how long it took before he did join us, but he did end up there.
Sara Ziemnik [00:08:00] When FBI agents were at your house. What kinds of things were they looking for? Were they looking for things? What were they doing?
Ed Ezaki [00:08:07] It appears that they were looking through, you know, like photo albums or something to sort of connect my grandfather or our family, I suppose, to something in Japan, something to that effect. They were looking for some kind of connections. My mom told me that they looked out through our photo albums and things of that nature. But other than that, I can't really be specific about what it was. But the... Mom said they just ransacked the entire farmhouse.
Sara Ziemnik [00:08:38] How did you and your family deal with the paranoia that was in those days and just weeks following December 7th?
Ed Ezaki [00:08:47] I wish I could answer that. You know, it really is my parents who really went through it. I can only tell you that they did everything they could to protect me from whatever problems that they were faced with at that time. But I think about it many times now that I'm an adult since we've been here in Cleveland. And just what they went through from the time that we were forced from the farm with only that which we could carry and taken to a train where there were soldiers galore, I still remember the soldiers with their helmets and their rifles with the bayonets attached to the ends of the rifles and being put on that train, not being informed where they were taking us and how long we would be taken for. And the whole thing. So. I think back on what they must have packed, you know, what must be going through their mind in order to pack what they could and only that which they could carry so that had to be a tough situation for them. I remember the train ride that the soldiers, every place you'd look there were soldiers on the train with their rifles. I remember that every time they came near a majority of the trip, the blinds were drawn. But especially when we came near a town of some sort. They would draw the blinds. I don't know if that was because they didn't want us to see where we were going. They didn't want the townspeople to see who was coming through their town. I do recall that. It had to be horrific for adults and my parents and our family for what happened they're living everyday, normal, God-fearing lives and doing everything by the letter of the law. They were just plain hard working individuals and all of a sudden this happens and through no fault of their own. And our only crime was that we looked like the enemy and to be taken from our farm, forced from our farm and homes and businesses and put on a train. And some people were taken by bus and taken to an unknown destination. And then when we ended up in the place, you know, I spent three and a half years of my life in Gila Rivers, Arizona, in a little section of a barrack about 15 feet long and about 20 feet wide enough for three army cots and no closets, no bathroom. You could see the ceiling. There was no there was no ceiling cover. So you can see the roof from the inside. And the bathrooms are community bathrooms for the entire block. One men's room, one lady's latrine, a mess hall at the end for that particular block and. I really don't know how they maintained their composure of living through that, but I can say that they did make things as normal as possible for the kids and that's myself. They did everything to protect us and to make it as normal as possible. Meanwhile, when I think back on it now and I know that they had a lot of pressure for what they were going through.
Sara Ziemnik [00:12:21] What kinds of things did they do to try to normalize it?
Ed Ezaki [00:12:26] Well, I feel that if I'm successful in any facet of my life today, it's because of what they did then. I do know that they started up leagues and baseball and football and basketball and I learned all my sports while I was in this camp because of my age at that time. And because of that, I feel that we just had a lot of fun. We attended school they had school. I don't know the quality of the teachers because I don't know where they really got the teachers from. They had to get them on short notice and they were probably more substitute teachers than regular teachers. But today, when I, my wife was a stickler on the English language and everything, and when I mess up on my prepositions and verb tense and things of that nature, she always corrects me. And I tell her it's because of my primary years were spent in that camp and I didn't have good teachers. I have an excuse from it. But overall, I'm sure that they did the best they could. In fact, a lot of the Japanese people that were incarcerated in these camps were teachers at the time the war started. So they helped out where they could in the different camps and with the school system. So that helped out quite a bit.
Sara Ziemnik [00:13:51] How about trying to get ready to leave for the camp? Do you remember what that was like because you mentioned could only take what you carry. What about pets? What about family heirlooms? You know what happened to your farm? I mean where did all that go?
Ed Ezaki [00:14:05] We were fortunate that we didn't lose our farm because we had individuals, Filipino families that were working for us and they helped maintain the farm through the critical period of the war hysteria and the racial prejudice that we faced at that time. So we didn't have to sell it. But many, many, many families in the short period of time had to get what they could for their properties and businesses and things of that nature in a very, very short time. And they were really taken over the coals because the people knew that they had them over a barrel and they couldn't do anything, you know, to help protect themselves or even bargain for a better price or anything of that nature. So they lost quite a bit. I think it's they had a study not too long ago on how much the families lost from the West Coast. And today, with the property values are what they are in the West Coast. And individuals who had to sell it probably on pennies, on a thousand dollars. They lost quite a bit. I think it was in the billions. I think it was like two to four billion dollars that they lost. Not counting earning power that they lost during that period of time. But I can tell you, horror stories that I've found, just speaking to individuals who I talked to here in Cleveland, about what happened to them at that time. One particular individual that I know of, one of the finest people I've ever met in my life. He happened to tell me about how he had just purchased a car prior to the war starting and it happened. So his family was ordered to move out and so he attempted to sell the car. He came to an agreement with the individual who was interested in it. And the only stipulation was he wanted to use it to take his family down to the train the next day. And then he could have it when that happened the next day, the agreed upon a price that they had come to the individual said he didn't have it. So he figured he couldn't do anything. But that's just one small example of property losses and personal item losses that people had to endure during that time. You're going to speak to Sadie. I'd like you to ask her about her aunt Haruko. She tells a story about that. And she was a well-to-do aunt and she had many of the things that just just came out like a refrigerator and things of that nature. But I'd like you to ask her about that, because it's... every time I hear it, I say, that's my type of woman she is. But please ask her about that. But the losses were just horrendous for the people because they were taken advantage of, because the people knew they had them over a barrel.
Sara Ziemnik [00:16:59] Did you go back to primary school after December 7th and what was that like? How did the other kids being that young how did they handle the situation?
Ed Ezaki [00:17:07] You know. I don't remember. I think the reason being after they took my grandfather, my dad was the oldest of six children. So he took over control of the family. And we had heard from individual other members of our family who lived in San Jose and San Francisco. And they were being taken from their homes and businesses and taken to the nearest racetrack or fairgrounds that became their home until these camps were constructed. But he had heard that there was a line, imaginary line that was set up by the Western Defense Commander, General John DeWitt, and everyone of Japanese ancestry within that imaginary line was being taken from their homes and taken. So I recall my dad, my uncles. Packing a couple of the trucks that we use for our fruit farming business, and I still remember them. Waterproofing pieces of canvas and putting however much furniture that we could get onto the trucks and we took off. We left the farm. And what he had heard is that, you know, if you get west-east of that line, we would not be taken into custody, as our other members of our families who were in the cities were being taken to. So we fled. And I remember that I didn't have to go to school. We ended up, I think, near Fresno at some kind of wine vineyard. And my mother and dad and my uncles started working for this vineyard owner and I remember I took my dog with me, and when you mentioned pets and he was sick and everyone kept kidding me, his nose would plug up all the time and I would clean it out and I just wouldn't let anybody do anything to him. He was with me. But he got sick. And one day my dad I happened to wake up and my dad just pulled in with a state trooper and they took my dog out to the yard and they put him to sleep. So I still recall that. And he was all white and I saw the bullet holes and the red thing in there. I'll never forget that. So I lost my pet. I wasn't able to take my pet with me, but we had fled. I within the last 20 years, I asked my parents and I said, I remember we went through this thing and we were like in a little cottage, you know, before they came up with the Holiday Inn Express and the Motel 6s. We had a little cottages that they had and that was like your motels. And we lived in this cottage, I don't know, for probably a couple months. And I asked my parents, I said, I remember we lived there because I learned how to swim in a little irrigation ditch right next to that. And my mother and dad were surprised that I remembered that. And I said, who paid for us, you know, when we. And they told me that we paid, you know, because I thought maybe the government was gonna pay for it something. No, they didn't. And then the government finally caught up to us anyway. My dad, in a conversation I had with him maybe 15, 20 years ago, I always felt that the vineyard owner called the government on us because he said that they never got paid for the work that they put in for him there. And that's just, you know, a few items of how my parents and the adults and I'm sure thousands of other persons of Japanese ancestry were taken advantage of. And finally, the government caught up to us there. And so whatever furniture and everything that we had fled with, we lost that all because we were taken from there to the train and taken to the camp.
Sara Ziemnik [00:21:07] Was there anyone in your family or maybe friends that you knew of that said, no, I'm not going and just refused to go to the camp?
Ed Ezaki [00:21:15] Not not within our family. Because I guess we were all just basically farm people, you know? In fact, if the war hadn't started, I would probably have ended up as a farmer there, along with my dad and the whole thing. So everything bad, you know, some good came out of what happened, and I could, if I get a chance, I'll tell you about that... what we've done since we've come here to Cleveland. No, but there were a number of individuals who knew more about the Constitution and our rights and how our rights were violated and how we were denied our constitutional rights. And they took a stand. And there's a number of Supreme Court decisions that came out of that because of Minoru Yasui was one, Korematsu and Haribayashi... I don't remember the names. I should but I know there was three and then a woman by the name of Endo (Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi), they took a stand with their constitutional rights. In fact. The one gentleman he had, a Caucasian wife, and he knew that our constitutional rights were being violated. And he took the local police on saying, hey, you know, because the curfew was put on all of us in that time and we weren't supposed to be out past 8 o'clock in the evening. But he would go out past 8 o'clock and finally he got arrested and whole thing and he took them on. He fought the Supreme Court for many, many years, but it was fine. He lost every appeal that he had up until. I don't know. I can't tell you the year. But finally it was overturned and they won. So, in fact, I believe. President Clinton gave him a Medal of Freedom as something for him. Because of the fight that he put on. But there were a number of people and also. When we were in the camps, the ten camps, within a very short time, the government realized that they had made a mistake because within seven, seven months, I'd say maybe eight at the most. The government came up with the War Department, came up with the idea of forming an all volunteer group for the service and to think that they would come into the ten camps and ask the individuals whose rights were violated and who had not committed a crime. But here they were all incarcerated to put on the same uniform as the soldiers who were guarding us that had to take something. And for the young men and I'm very happy that they did to say, OK, even though this happened to us, we want to show our loyalty was with the United States of America. And they came out of the ten camps and they did join the army. And the reason I want to bring that up is I'm very proud of that fact. There were some dissidents in these ten camps that felt that, no, we're not going to do this until you release us. And we are able to go back to our properties in the West Coast because you've denied our constitutional rights and they put up a strong battle. Grateful. It was only a couple of hundred of those in these camps. The majority the people still felt that we had to prove our loyalty. And the best way to do it was to join the group that they were forming. And many of them in the camps, when it was found out that they were going to join these little groups that felt that we shouldn't would form goon squads and they would go and find out who was trying to talk them out of it if they couldn't talk them out, they would beat them. And that happened regularly. But still, the young men did come out. They went to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. They were part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They were joined by the 100 Battalion from Hawaii. Here's where it started, all in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We had the 100 Battalion made up of all Japanese Americans. And the Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not incarcerated as we were. Those of us who lived on the West Coast were only a few were taken. They were joined by 100 Battalion the 442nd they went over to Europe and formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team with 100 Battalion. They became the most decorated unit in history of United States Army for its size and duration. And I'm very proud of that. And. I wish I could take the time to go into all the different things that I know of what they did over there, but they they ran into even discrimination there. When a field commander, because of their exploits and their heroism in combat, would put him in for the Medal of Honor as it went up the chain of command because of the name of something like Inouye or Tanaka or Yamamoto or Furukawa or something like that, prejudice would play a role in it. And as it went up the ladder, the other commanders would downgrade the Medal of Honor request and bring it down to the Distinguished Service Cross or something of that. But they would downplay it. Fortunately, in the late 90s, a committee was formed and they went over all of the recommendations and 22 Medals of Honor were given to the individual. I think 21 were Japanese Americans and I think there was one Chinese American something in that. But 22 Medals of Honor were awarded from the investigation by this committee. So people were given their just dues on that. Okay.
Sara Ziemnik [00:27:45] How about, what was a typical day in the camp like for you? Being a young boy? What was it like? You said there was school. But what else?
Ed Ezaki [00:27:55] Well, I'm ashamed to say it, and I really don't like to, but I figure I should be honest in everything I do. I was somewhat of a juvenile delinquent. And that's unheard of in the Japanese community. But I've always sort of been a black sheep. Even in our community today. But I am a retired blue collar worker from General Motors. Majority of Japanese community, they're either professional or semiprofessional people. So I'm sort of from the ghetto type from the Japanese community is concerned. But I formed a little gang while I was in the thing because I had no parental control. My mother worked in our block mess hall. So I very seldom saw her. Within a short period of time, besides having the individuals join up for the service, they start letting the adults out because there was such a manpower shortage out in the United States. They would not let them go back to the West Coast. That was the only off limits area. But anything east of that, they let the individuals out. And my dad took advantage of that and he went up to Idaho first to pick potatoes. But he was sort of held prisoner there also because the farm that he worked on was the only place he could stay if he went into town. They wouldn't serve him in the restaurants. And he tried to get a haircut. They wouldn't cut his hair there or anything else. So he was regulated to the farm. So I think he learned how to cut hair there because of the fact that they wouldn't cut it in town. Fortunately, my Uncle Min, he came out to Cleveland and he contacted my dad and told him that there was a lot of opportunities here. It was a very industrialized area. And my dad came up and joined him here. So I had no parental control in the camp because my mother was always working. So I had kept busy that way. I went to school. And I think what really saved me was what the adults and my parents, my mother especially did by forming these athletic groups. And I learned how to play baseball and football basketball while I was in camp. And fortunately for me, there was someone in our block who had electrical ability and they put up a basketball court in our camp and someone who had electrical abilities set up lights so I could play at night and I'm sort of a male chauvinist. But a girl showed me how to play basketball. But I came even with that kind of a start, I still did okay with it. But I think that's what really helped me out is the sports thing, because when I came out to Cleveland here, I was able to fit in at the local YMCA, which is right here on 22nd and Prospect where I grew up as a kid when I first came to Cleveland and I had that athletic ability. So I was able to fit in with the kids. And to this day, I have friends that I made right down the street here at the Downtown Boys YMCA on 22nd and Prospect. They helped me out. So it was sports doing a little minor in juvenile delinquent things. I'd like to share one with you. When we first came into camp, it was so hot there and how I'd like to tell the story because it shows the ingenuity and the drive and determination of Japanese people. Here we are being held prisoner for no apparent reason other than our race, and they would get scavenge up pieces of lumber wherever they could. And it was so hot there that we didn't want to spend as much time as we had to in the barracks, that we were all out there and they would make up little like. It's like oversized bench about a foot and a half off the ground, about maybe eight by eight in size. And they would sit out there rather than go into their hot barracks at night and try to figure out and solve all the world's problems by spending time on there in many instances because it was so hot. The individuals would end up sleeping outside because it was a little bit cooler than the barracks. And when I did with my little group of juvenile delinquencies, I'd get them together and we'd come back out after everyone went to sleep and we get around the little bench and we'd pick him up and we'd take him and put him between two other barracks. And the reason I like to tell this is because in the very beginning, all the barracks were the same and that they didn't have locks on their doors. We just had a little latch that you had. And when they get up in the morning that they would go walking into the barraks because they thought it was their barracks, but it wouldn't be. They'd walk into someone else's area. And the reason I like to say that is because by the time we left there, they are so motivated and determined to make things as homey as possible. You couldn't do that late because people start planting flowers. Others would build little fish ponds and things of that nature, but they would do something to spruce up their little section of the barracks. And. But at first, they didn't have that going for them. But in the end, there were just so many different things. You couldn't do that because they'd know that it wasn't their barracks that they were going into. So I liked that about their determination and what they did to make life as normal as possible under the situation that they were faced with.
Sara Ziemnik [00:34:15] When were your mother and you allowed to leave the camp was it when the war was totally over or almost over?
Ed Ezaki [00:34:25] No. They start letting the people out earlier, just like I said, that they needed individuals to help with the manpower shortage because a lot of crops were in the fields and they had no one to pick them and things. So they started letting them out earlier. We had to sign a form of allegiance and loyalty and things of that nature. They also let the individuals who were attending colleges and universities at the time of the war. They allowed them to come out to finish their education. But again, the West Coast was off limits. So they came out to the Midwest and to the East Coast to do that, but they were allowing the people out. So eventually my dad, who had come out here to Cleveland, got a place. I guess there was some sort of a housing shortage too at that time. But he did finally get a place, from a family before the end of the war. So my mom and I came out here and we joined him before the end of the war. And I suppose in a sense, with what I've done with my life to this point, it was good because had we waited till stayed in the camp and the war would've ended. There's a good possibility that my dad would have just left Cleveland and he would probably come back and we'd have gone back to California. And I probably would have ended up as a farmer. But fortunately, I feel that what I accomplished and what my mom and dad did when. Since we've been in Cleveland, there's nothing to really be ashamed of. I'm pretty happy because I married a native Clevelander and I never would've met her. And a remind her about it all the time. Telling her you're lucky that World War II came up because I would never been here. And that's my humorous side that I like to keep because I think life isn't worth living if you don't have humor.
Sara Ziemnik [00:36:26] Can you tell me a little bit about your life once you got here in Cleveland as a young boy? Where did you go to school? Where did you live?
Ed Ezaki [00:36:32] I attended Willson Junior High School first. When I first I moved to 57th and Euclid and I attended Willson Junior High School. And then they found out that I was on the south side of Euclid Avenue and that was in the Central Junior High School area. So they made me transfer to Central Junior High School. I hung out right here at the 22nd YMCA I have friends to this day that I made when I first came down here. I went into the service in 1953 during the Korean conflict and. By hanging out down here in this downtown area, most of the kids that frequented the YMCA were from the projects. The Cedar Central Project's not too far from here. And so that all, my childhood friends were from that. And that's where my wife was at the time. And when I came back out of the service, we started going out together and finally we got married in 1959. So we're going on, what, 47, 48 years of marriage? Soon I have two children. We lost our first one. I have five grandchildren. And I got a job with General Motors, I started out at a tank plant making M-51 tanks. From there, I wanted Terex Corporation making heavy off the road equipment. And I became a union official with Terex and spent almost 25 years of my time there. As a union official, so I did a lot of traveling and. I could tell you a whole that, that'll be an all new interview of being a Japanese American union official with the United Auto Workers. And with all the Japanese cars being sold here in the United States and what effect it had on us and every convention and seminar I went to how they would bash Japan and their cars and everything like that. Here I am, the official sitting down there. I enjoyed it. I told all of them who would come up to me. I had made a lot of friends and they would come up to me and apologize because of all the Japan bashing that went on. And I told them that don't worry about it I had made in USA stamp on my backside. So we did all right. And I enjoyed my time with them. And UAW gave me a very, very good life style for my family. So
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