You have permission to edit this article.
'The story needs to be told': Survivor remembers life in Japanese internment camps during WWII

'The story needs to be told': Survivor remembers life in Japanese internment camps during WWII

  • Updated

At age 11, she was an active tomboy living on a farm in the Northern California town of Mountain View.

"I broke my leg kicking a football," said Margaret Nakamura Cooper during her talk as part of the Heart of the Valley series at the Santa Maria Public Library on Saturday.

At age 12, Margaret, her father Harry, mother Nelli and three siblings were among 120,000  men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, most of whom living on the West Coast, who were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

The order came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"I'm one of the few people who are willing to talk about this," Cooper told a capacity crowd in Shepard Hall. "Not many people are willing to talk about this, but it's important. The story needs to be told."

Her time in the camps began in April of 1942 and spanned 18 months and two camps -- six months behind barbed wire at the Santa Anita racetrack and the rest of the time behind more barbed wire at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, she said.

"When you're 11, 12 years old [in that situation], you don't really know what's going on. This is my country. I'd never spent one moment in Japan."

Cooper's father was a native of Japan.

"He came to Seattle with $40 in his pocket," and eventually joined the U.S. Armed Forces that fought in World War I, Cooper said.

Her mother was a San Jose native.

After six months, the Nakamura family went from brutally hot conditions at the Santa Anita camp to Heart Mountain, where the temperature once dropped to 36 below zero.

Heart Mountain was located on a desolate Indian reservation, but the size of the camp "made it the third-largest city in Wyoming at the time," she said.

All interred families were tagged. Cooper wore a replica of her family's tag -- family No. 32062 -- on Saturday.

At Heart Mountain, her family "lived in a 20-by-20 space with the beds crammed together [in Block 9-5B]," she said.

"The camp took 18 months of my life. For some people, it took four years. They had no place to go to. No job. No money. They wanted to stay in the camp."

When her father landed a job, Margaret with her family left the camp, except for one brother.

"He died of spinal meningitis at age 11," she recalled. "[It's] often contracted by living in cramped quarters, and it's very contagious."

Cooper doesn't dwell on her family's confinement, "but I am forever scarred by it. I think of myself as two people -- the person before World War II and the person after World War II," she said.

Margaret Nakamura eventually married Fred Cooper, and the two came to the Central Coast in 1963.

Both were longtime teachers before they retired.

Margaret taught special education at Righetti High School. Fred, who died last September at age 90, taught art at Santa Maria High School.

One audience member asked Cooper if she thought what happened to her and other internees was similar to anti-Semitism.

"It's like anti-Semitism, it's like anti-Mexican, it's like anti-anything," she said.

"This was racism. This was one single drop of blood (ancestry). They didn't put Germans behind barbed wire. They didn't put Italians behind barbed wire."

She added, "Especially these days, where some people believe constitutional rights are being abrogated, don't think it can't happen again."

At the end of the presentation, the audience watched a 15-minute documentary narrated by internees about their experiences at the Heart Mountain camp. The comments were striking.

"My God, it's a concentration camp!" one man said upon arrival.

"We lost everything," a woman said.

Another woman said she was 19 when she was first herded to a camp. Though at the time she was several years older than Cooper, she was no less bewildered by her circumstances.

"I loved my flag, I loved my country," she said. "But that wasn't the impression most of the general public had of us."

Cooper and others said many Caucasians were kind during the wrenching time, and many others were not.

"We had to draw the shades because people were throwing rocks and bottles at our windows," one documentary speaker said.

Like Cooper, many forged ahead with their lives.

"One of the things about the Japanese spirit is, you just endure," said one woman in the documentary.

"That's what we did."


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

  • Updated

The following is taken from the Santa Maria Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News