Masaye Nagao Nakamura, ’45: Park Revisited
Masaye Nagao Nakamura, ’45 presented the following speech on September 25, 2002 in commemoration of the 60th
Anniversary of the Nisei
(pronounced knee-say) program at Park University.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 put into
motion the removal and uprooting of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans and
resident aliens of Japanese descent from their homes and communities in
Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona. Two thirds of them
were American citizens. They were first sent to Assembly Centers (race
tracks and fairgrounds) until the permanent camps were built in 10 desolate
areas of the country.
There are 120,000 stories that can be told about the experiences of the
evacuees: some tragic, some heroic, some inspiring, some incredibly sad,
some bitter and angry, some showing great resolve and courage —all running
the gamut of human experiences. We learned of a few of these stories when we
viewed the powerful and informative films, “Rabbit in the Moon” and
“Children of the Detention Camps”. Mine is just one story among these
Masaye Nagao Nakamura, '45, with fellow Nisei students and friends,
Masaye is the second from the right in the light-colored coat.
Our family was sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center, a racetrack outside
of Los Angeles. There were almost 20,000 internees there. The first arrivals
had to live in horse stalls and no matter how hard they worked to whitewash
and clean the stalls, they could not erase the smell or evidence of the
former occupants. We were fortunate to be able to live in a unit in a
hastily-built black tar papered barrack, a space barely large enough to
house my parents and four children. We were also fortunate that we were not
split up as many families were.
My story is of the period after I left the Assembly Center.
Before the family was moved to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming,
I was able to leave the Assembly Center for Park College. Several schools in
the Midwest had offered to admit students out of the camps so they could
continue their college education. Dr. William Lindsay Young was among the
first to open his college for these students. Dr. Young had been in Los
Angeles when the evacuation was taking place. He was aghast when he
discovered that students had to drop out of the colleges and universities to
be evacuated. He decided then and there that he would do everything possible
to admit some of these students to Park College.
My friends and others in the camp had come by all morning to wish me luck
and to give me encouragement. I had mixed emotions about leaving the family.
I knew that this was going to be a new and challenging experience and I was
feeling a little apprehensive, yet very excited at the prospect of leaving
the confines of the camp to go to college.
An army truck rolled up to our barrack with three armed soldiers. I was
told to get up in the back of the truck with my suitcase. Two of the
soldiers hopped up, one on either side of me, with their rifles propped up
next to them. The third drove the truck and we went out through the gate,
out into the world outside of the barbed wire and watchtowers, through the
streets of Los Angeles to Union Station. As we were going through the
streets, I could see people pointing and staring. When we arrived at the
station, I was handed over to the stationmaster who took me to the train,
which had apparently been waiting and held up for my arrival. When he
directed me into the car I noticed that all the seats were taken. When I
mentioned this to him he said that I should sit on my suitcase in the front
of the car where there was a little room and wait until a seat opened up.
I think the passengers had been informed as to why the train had been
held up and that I was to be aboard. I could hear the whispers of “Jap, Jap”
and everyone watched as I walked through the car. The air was tense with
hate and for the first time I realized the extent of how propaganda and war
hysteria had fostered this negative feeling against us. I wondered if I had
made a terrible mistake leaving the camp.
Shortly after the train began to move I saw the conductor enter the car.
I was the first to be approached and as I held up my ticket he snatched it
out of my hand and spit on me. There were gasps from some of the others on
the car but there was complete silence as he moved on. I was so stunned and
shocked that when the spit began to trickle down my cheek I couldn’t even
move my hand to wipe it away. I felt so humiliated, ashamed, frightened,
dirty and alone to think that someone would hate me so much as to spit on
me. I wanted a hole to open up and swallow me but all I could do was to sit
there, stiff, hurt, and bewildered. Then, I began to make excuses for him.
Perhaps he had lost a son or a loved one in the war. Perhaps he really
thought that I was an enemy.
Seats opened up but I did not move, I couldn’t. After what felt like an
eternity, a young couple boarded a few stops from Kansas City where I was to
get off. They glanced at me but I hardly noticed them. After a few minutes I
felt a hand on my shoulder and as I looked up I saw the kindest look on the
face of this young woman. She said, “Why don’t you come and sit with us?
There’s room on the seat facing us.’’ It was the first sign of kindness that
I had experienced on the train and it was like a gift from heaven. I almost
missed the stop at Kansas City. I sat with the couple and we began to talk
about my reason for being on the train and how I was going to continue my
college education. When the train had been in the Kansas City station for a
while, they reminded me that I should get off.
President Young and Art Kamitsuka, an earlier Nisei student arrival, were
craning their necks, looking very relieved when they saw me coming up the
ramp. They greeted me warmly and were so sincere and genuine in their
welcome that I almost forgot the ugly incident on the train.
However, President Young said, “The students and faculty at Park are so
happy that you are going to be at Park. We will try very hard to make you
feel welcome. But the townspeople of Parkville do not feel the same way.
Ever since our decision to accept Japanese American students from the camps
the townspeople have waged war against our decision. The newspapers are
calling it the Park College/Parkville War. Park has been steadfast in
refusing to succumb to their threats. We believe that the evacuation order
was wrong and that your civil rights were denied and as Americans you are
entitled to a college education. Promise me one thing. When and if you go
into town, please have other students escort you. Some of the townspeople
have made threats to lynch you and harm you if you go into town but they
will not harm you if you are with others.” So I promised and thus started my
life at Park College.
Being at Park College was wonderful. After having to sleep on a hard cot
at camp I was to share a room with a real bed with a great roommate. The
campus and surrounding area were so beautiful. I was able to participate in
all the usual college activities and the academic program was excellent.
Everyone made me feel so welcome.
After more than a month into the semester I found that I had to go to the
post office for some stamps. I had been writing to my mother almost every
other day to tell her about my activities and the wonderful time I was
having at Park. I never told her about the incident on the train for it
would have added to her anxieties and the family had enough to cope with in
My roommate was in class. There was no one else on the floor at that
time. Prior to this I had always asked my roommate and several other dorm
students to accompany me and to purchase items for me. Whenever I had to do
this I felt that there were still barriers and that I was not completely
free. Without thinking of the consequences of my actions, I decided to go
down to the post office without an escort.
As I walked down and neared the bridge, I noticed two young men sitting
on the bridge wall. They were looking up and I knew that they had seen me.
My heart began to pound and I thought of turning around but my pride
wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want them to know that I was afraid. But I was. I
felt that I could hardly move my feet but I kept on going, picturing myself
with a noose around my neck and swinging from a tree limb. On the other hand
I thought, No, they wouldn’t harm me. I’ll pass them, say “hi” and walk on.
I don’t know whether I spoke or not because by the time I passed them my
heart was pounding so hard and my knees felt so weak and I was so scared
that I could hardly breathe. I passed them and then heard footsteps behind
me as I walked to the post office. I heard them follow me in. By then there
were quite a few others who had joined them. I walked up to the window and
to my amazement I heard myself say, “May I have some stamps please. I want
to send a letter to my mother and I ran out of stamps.” The lady behind the
window looked at me with her mouth open. She said, “You speak English.?”
“Of course. That’s the only language I know. I’m an American just like
you. Just because I look like our enemy doesn’t make me less of an American.
All Americans, except Native Americans, have their roots in other lands. My
roots are with a land that happens to be our enemy now. But America is my
country and my country’s enemies are my enemies.”
She was speechless for a while but when I paid for my stamps and turned
to leave I believe I heard her say in a very soft voice, “Thank you. Come