Five months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army posted this notice in the tightly knit Japanese American farming community here: "All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon, PWT, Saturday, May 30, 1942."
The 2,500 Japanese Americans who comprised 70 percent of the population of the Florin area were herded onto trains guarded by soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets attached. They were to be scattered first to converted race tracks serving as "assembly centers," then to "relocation camps" where they would spend most of World War II behind barbed wire in pine and tar paper barracks.
About 120,000 Japanese Americans, 70 percent of whom were U.S. citizens, were uprooted along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington and interned in 10 camps in remote areas of California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas.
President Roosevelt's administration said they posed a danger to strategic airfields, factories and shipyards on the West Coast. Yet not a single incident of a Japanese American attempting to aid the enemy was documented, and government claims of "military necessity" have since been demolished by a generation of scholars.
The U.S. government has never apologized for its actions nor made any redress to the victims, who lost homes, businesses, education and income. But now, after four decades, this may change.
In a report to be released soon, a commission established by Congress is expected to conclude that a grave injustice was done and to recommend a formal apology and payment of as much as $20,000 to each Japanese American internee or his heirs.
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, headed by Washington attorney Joan Z. Bernstein, has heard more than 700 witnesses and reviewed tens of thousands of documents during the last two years in the most complete recounting of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
This series of articles is drawn from those hearings and documents, plus interviews with survivors such as Mary Tsukamoto, 67, who has devoted much of her time to piecing together the story of what happened in one community: Florin, Calif.
"We got up early," she recently remembered about the day her family was taken away from Florin in 1942. "We ate our last breakfast, cleaned our house. Our 5-year-old daughter was hanging on to Uppy, the pet dog she had to leave behind. Grandpa was taking his last long look at the grapevines. Grandma was out in the garden.
"Never once did I say, 'Well, I'm an American citizen, and I protest,' " she added. "In those days, no American would protest to the government. We were at war. We were going to do our best to serve. To be loyal and serve."
Florin, then an area of hardpan farmland nine miles south of Sacramento, had long been something of a refuge from the racial hostility Japanese immigrants encountered elsewhere in America after they first fled economic dislocation in Japan around the turn of the century.
Tsukamoto's father, who had emigrated to San Francisco from Okinawa at age 17, was driven from more fertile areas in Turlock, Calif., by a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment that swept California, often violently, from 1905 onward. She said friends told her father "strawberries were a sure crop" in Florin.
Her husband's father came here in 1892, by way of Hawaii and Vancouver, British Columbia, after working in the tanning industry, coal mines and railroads. He had heard there were jobs for Japanese to help white farmers transform their grain fields around Florin into vineyards. Between the rows, the whites allowed the Japanese to grow strawberries.
Kiyo Sato's father bought land on the fringe of the Florin area in 1930. California law forbade land ownership by Japanese aliens at the time, so he, like others, joined a dummy corporation to buy 30 acres at Mayhew, Calif. By 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined a feature story on the progress here: "Industrious Nipponese Have Made Lower River Region, Once a Waving Tule Field, Into a Vast Garden Empire."
A government report later described "the typical life" of Florin's Japanese Americans before World War II as "one of contentment and peace. They had come in, simple, ambitious people, to try to reclaim a land which the Caucasians had thought worthless and not worth the trouble to keep. These people recognized, and still admit the land isn't so good, but to them, at that time, and even now, it was something which they could build, with hard work, into something lasting and which they could leave to their children as a heritage, to show that this was indeed 'a land of opportunity.' "
Whites had owned all five stores in Florin in 1915. By 1925, all but one of the stores were owned by Japanese Americans.
Resentful whites set up a dual school system in 1923. "Father registered us in the elementary school," Tsukamoto said. "We were shocked. Every child in that school had a Japanese face. It gave us an awful sinking feeling."
The Japanese American community built its own churches, civic associations, language schools and recreation clubs. But it made every effort to stamp them American. A panoramic photograph of the All-Florin Japanese American picnic in 1935 shows hundreds of Japanese faces gathered around a life-sized portrait of Abraham Lincoln borrowed from a school hallway.
Sato recalled winning a school essay competition on "What It Means to Be an American." She said she "wrote something about how this is my country and though it has its faults, we love it. Such idealism."
Just a few months later, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor arrived as Japanese Americans rehearsed a Christmas pageant in a church building in Florin. Al Tsukamoto, Mary's husband, heard it on the radio and ran to tell the rest.
"There was such a silence," his wife recalled. "Then foreboding. We felt as though our bodies were shrinking. We sensed something terrible was going to happen."
Over the next 48 hours, the FBI arrested and held incommunicado for weeks about a dozen leaders of Florin's Japanese-language schools, clubs and associations. "There was Mr. Tanigawa," Tsukamoto recalled. "He was a big shot in the community, a go-between for marriages. There was Mr. Akiyama. They took him because he was active in the kendo stylized swordplay . They use the bamboo stick. The government interpreted that as training for the military. And Mr. Sasaki. Fukuji Sasaki. He was secretary of the Japanese Association."
Life in Florin over the next few months came as close as it ever has in any American community to life in a police state. Homes were searched on the slightest pretext, and frightened families burned anything with Japanese script on it.
In her testimony before the wartime relocation commission, Nellie Seno Sakakihara said the 8 p.m. curfew imposed by the military on West Coast Japanese Americans forced her to drop out of college, which she had been attending in Sacramento at night. White neighbors periodically summoned the sheriff when crisis meetings of Japanese residents ran past the curfew.
Sacramento, where everyone in Florin did most of his shopping and where doctors had their offices, was outside the five-mile restriction on travel. Sato recalled feeling like a fugitive when she was out past curfew on a 14-mile trip to a Salvation Army store to buy old suitcases for the evacuation.
"I remember seeing a cop in the rear-view mirror one day," she said. "My heart was pounding. I made a turn, and he kept going. I had to stop the car to recover."
When the evacuation was ordered, U.S. military officials divided the Florin area into four sectors, assigning the Japanese American residents of each to a different "relocation camp." Late on the night before the evacuation, some hurried across the artificial lines so as to be taken to the same camp as relatives or friends.
They received only 10 days' notice todispose of farms and pets, pots and pans,cars and refrigerators, to harvest crops andsettle debts. Students dropped out ofcollege, and people worked nights in thefields, risking violation of the curfew to pick crops.
Whites went door to door, offering to buy personal belongings and land, which many of the Japanese Americans sold at a fraction of their value. Others, like the Tsukamotos, left their property to be managed by a neighbor. They were allowed to take only what they could carry.
"My father packed," Kiyo Sato remembered. "We had 10 bedrolls, one for each member of the family, according to the regulations. He packed in the bedrolls a hammer, a saw, a roll of wire, an augur, a planer, a bucket, tools for survival, a great big old canvas for shelter. My mother and father made me take my violin."
"The Issei the original immigrants from Japan brought seeds," Mary Tsukamoto said. "Imagine that, flower seeds. Who would have thought of something like seeds in those difficult times? But when we got to the assembly center [at Pinedale, Calif.], it was just barracks and dust, not one blade of grass in the whole place.
"They planted those seeds. And when the first green came out by the barracks, everyone came out to see. It was a blue morning glory. They passed out seeds to the other people, and in a couple of months, the place was just covered with flowers. Every day we'd go and walk by the barracks to see how much it had grown."
Mary Tsukamoto remembered with special pain the day when, as a leader of the community, she had to tell the Kurima family that their son, Toyoki, 32, would not be allowed to go with them. He was blind and retarded, ate only Japanese food, understood only the Japanese language and had never been away from his family.
Under the military rules, however, no one requiring institutional care could be sent to the internment camps. Toyoki was taken away instead by a social worker. Within a month, the Kurimas received word that he had died.
Most of those taken away during the war never resettled in the Florin area, now a strip of housing developments, warehouses, fast-food restaurants and shopping centers on land once largely owned by Japanese Americans. Many internees who had not sold their homes before the evacuation were forced to do so during their internment to pay debts or taxes.
Others returned to Florin only to find their houses burned by whites. Some of the Japanese community buildings, where personal possessions had been stored, also were burned shortly before the return.
"The Mayhew Church, which had all the evacuee belongings in it -- there must have been five pianos in there -- was just a wisp of smoke," Sato said. "I guess they heard we were coming back."
Sakakihara said her husband and his parents found that a family living in their home "had been raising chickens inside the house. They had to fumigate and renovate the whole place."
"I came home by bus and walked through the Japanese farms," Sato said. "I must have walked three miles until I came to our farm. It was such a shambles."
As she approached her front door, she heard the voices of squatters who had moved in after the house was abandoned by a family to which she had entrusted it. She stayed instead with a former schoolteacher, only to be petitioned later by anti-Japanese white women asking her to leave.
"My father had always admired Abraham Lincoln," Mary Tsukamoto said. "When he was in the fourth grade in Okinawa, he read about Lincoln in a book, that Lincoln was so great that from a log cabin he became president. So he had a dream that this was America. And often he used to sit us down -- brother George, sister Ruth; there were six of us -- and lecture to us after supper about life and about values and about Lincoln and how that's why he had so much faith in this country.
"After the evacuation, we visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington with him. Finally he made it there to pay his respects to Abraham Lincoln. He had tears in his eyes. I wish I had asked him what his thoughts were."