Saturday, August 2, 2008

Part II: Clara Breed's "Children" and Letters

In l994, the year of my retirement, I returned to Japan with my wife, respecting my wife's preference to live in Japan. Our children and their families live in the U.S., so we have made it a point to visit the U.S. every year. On one such trip, I came across Clara Breed's obituary in the paper and discovered who she was (besides being a wonderful stenographer) and what she did during the war - her constant commitment to the Japanese American children during their internment through letters which she kept. Clara worked for the San Diego Library her entire life. She became Chief Librarian and at retirement was honored with various awards from the city. To my great surprise, the paper reported that many Japanese Americans attended her funeral service.

The story of Clara Breed and her students dates back to 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and the beginning of World War II. Clara had met many Japanese American children at the library. She was in charge of handling books at the time. She noted that these Japanese Americans were diligent children with good manners. She liked them very much.

When these children were sent to the concentration camps, she asked them to write to her and she would send them books. The children thanked her for the books, adding notes about their lives in the camp and their hardships, problems, and anxieties about their future. Their letters were rather like an American version of the Diary of Anne Frank.

Clara answered every letter she received and tried to coordinate between the libraries close to the camp sites. She wrote to the State Department to reconsider the treatment of Japanese Americans in the camps. She tried hard to get visitation to the camp site to see "her" children. She was a person with an iron will who turned her ideas into action!

It occurred to me one of Clara's children was most likely among the Officers of the Japanese Friendship Garden. It turned out that Liz Yamada, who was eight years old when World War II broke out, and her sister corresponded with Clara. Liz's family lived in the Santa Ana Horse Racing stables until they were relocated to Poston, Arizona. I called Liz Yamada to ask her about these letters and Liz said she had donated all of them to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

I also met Tetsuzo "Ted" Hirasaki, who was close to Clara through Liz. Ted, the eldest boy among the interned children, was 16 years old at the start of the War. Ted enlisted with the Nisei Troops directly from camp. Despite the bitter experience of internment, almost all Japanese living in America expressed a strong desire to prove their loyalty. Many Nisei - children born in the U.S. of Japanese parentage - enlisted in the armed forces, such as the infantry of the much decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In all, 8,000 Japanese joined the armed forces despite the loss of their civil liberties at home. The 442nd Combat Team received many citations for bravery in l944.

I visited Ted at his home right away. Ted was working at General Dynamics. He was a man of knowledge and quite a speaker. He had an extensive vocabulary. He was saddened at Clara's death. He said he owed her a great debt of gratitude for the many things she did and wanted to preserve her legacy. Ted and others helped collect and organize the Clara Breed letters and sent them to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

In the summer of 2002, I visited the newly built Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo located in downtown Los Angeles. I found Clara's photo in the Who' s Who information, together with sample of letters to Clara from the children in the camps. Visitors have access to typewritten letter files upon request. It probably took me more than an hour to review them all. It was a pretty thick file. I would like to share am excerpt.

"Dear Miss Breed,
Thank you for sending William Saroyan's Human Comedy. I'm glad you liked the doll I handmade for you......Two things I can't take in Poston. The sand storms and the heat! Many people here have rashes to treat....The other night I had a dream. I had permission to go back to San Diego. The moment I gout out at the station, I was in a candy store... You are standing behind me. I bought 5 pounds of chocolate... and U was asking you... Would it melt before I could go back to my house?"

The letters were in the process of being sorted and digitized. The librarian assured me that by my next return visit, I should see them online. It was probably around this time that Joanne Oppenheim found the letters and decided to write a book.

1 comment:

Trisha said...

A wonderful story, which I have shared on my facebook page. Thank you.