Gaye LeBaron: Sonoma County welcomed back Japanese residents after World War II

Gaye LeBaron collection Japanese men from Sonoma County stand on the bed of a truck to be sent to an internment camp in Colorado.


July 17, 1945

“Gosh, things are sure popping these days at Amache. Everyone seems excited as heck and those having a place to go home to are OK. But believe me, there are plenty who don’t know which way to turn.

“They’ve finally announced the official closing date … as October 15, 1945. Looks like Amache is the first in line to close.

“We’ve decided to return to Forestville. We figure it will be around the end of September. …”

“I’m sure grateful we have a place … I hear sentiment is improving in Calif. I certainly hope Sebastopol will follow. …”

“All in all, I think home is best — I know that there is bound to be discrimination to some degree wherever we relocate and, by golly, if we have to take it, we’d rather take it in our own hometown.”

-Kazuo Ito to Lea Perry

July 24, 1945

“Glad to get your letter and happy you have made up your mind to return here. Believe me it can’t come too soon to suit us. …"

“Understand there are some quite bitter about the Japanese returning. They have nothing to be bitter about as far as I can see. …”

“I believe I told you there is a movement on foot to form a group of sympathetic, understanding people who will try to foster good feeling (between) returning Japanese and those who are now bitterly opposing their return. I understand such sentiment is dying down to some extent. The only thing for you to do is come back and face it.

“We’ve had it for years and it isn’t anything new to a lot of us … only time will wear it out.

-Letter from Elizabeth (Lea) Perry

What we have here is the start of a positive end to a negative story.

These excerpts are from 120 or more letters exchanged by Lea Perry, who, with her husband, Joe, owned an apple orchard on Highway 116 north of Sebastopol and Kazuo Ito, whose family had been growing and processing apples in Sonoma County for several generations.

This remarkable collection of correspondence, known as the Perry Letters, tells the story of the Sonoma County Japanese, uprooted from their homes by Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s directive to the military to evacuate all Japanese from the Pacific coastal areas.

Some 800 Japanese were sent to camp from Sonoma County in May of 1942, loaded on a special train — with armed guards and blacked-out windows.

Most of them were American citizens. Some had sons and brothers serving in the armed forces. Several of their elders — born in Japan – had been taken by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor.

Kaz’s early letters to Lea, who had agreed to tend to the family’s business here, are a flurry of arrangements for their property — both land and chattels (a quirky old word which doesn’t express the feelings for the things left behind).

The Ito family owned more than one farm, and the letters point to the labyrinth of legal work necessary to oversee their orchards and their homes.

The first letters are from temporary (six months!) quarters at the Merced fairgrounds. After October 1942, the letters come from hastily constructed Camp Amache in the southeast high desert corner of Colorado — their home for the next three years.

Joe and Lea’s son, Tom Perry, found the letters — Kaz’s to her plus carbon copies of hers to him — in several drawers and cupboards in the family home after his mother’s death.

They are now part of the Japanese-American Citizens League’s collection at the Sonoma State University’s Schulz Library. They have been digitized by the library’s Special Collections staff and can be read by clicking here.

Until December, a video of Camp Amache photos — with excerpts from the Perry Letters are running on a loop in the second floor lobby of the Schulz Library as part of an exhibit in the library gallery curated by Dana Shew of the Anthropological Studies Center at SSU.

Called “Creativity Unconfined” it is a collection of items made at Camp Amache by internees who found some solace in creating beautiful objects from a bleak place.

The opening of the exhibit last month was the occasion for a gathering of survivors and descendants of the incarceration, including SSU’s President Judy Sakaki, whose family was interned at another Colorado camp.

Wearing a pin made from tiny shells her mother had gathered from the dry Colorado sand, Sakaki joined the Amache speakers in telling the “camp story.”

“There are so many barracks here I could not possibly count them all, “Kaz writes shortly after arrival at Amache. … and I haven’t seen half of the camp yet.”

What he had seen, along with others who have told their stories, were crowded quarters in the barracks, paper-thin walls, the breakdown of traditional family customs. One other camp resident, in an interview recalled his mother in tears at the first meal eaten by her family that she had not prepared. Another woman, longing for home, wept when served a meal in the mess hall containing apples shipped from Sebastopol.

The Japanese were bent but not broken, as the Sonoma State exhibit indicates, displaying the beauty they created in various ways from homemade furniture and jewelry to professional-quality silkscreen posters for the government.

Kaz’s accounts reflect the government’s best efforts to keep people busy. “I am working as a timekeeper for the Janitors and Stokers, covering about 6 blocks and taking care of about 40 persons. It sure is a cinch of a job.”

He writes about the farm being established on the edge of the camp, keeping count of cows and horses and tractors. He talks about the opportunity for “outside employment” on neighboring farms and he marvels at the Colorado thunderstorms — “thunders like the dickens, but hardly rains” — and the dust storms that follow.

Some of us are familiar with the “Amache stories,” having heard them told at National Day of Remembrance observances and panel discussions at Sebastopol’s Enmanji Buddhist Temple by those who were incarcerated.

And we have learned from a remarkable collection of oral histories, compiled in a book called “Giri,” a word that is difficult to translate but essentially means a gift given in return for a gift.

The interviews were assembled by the JACL as a gift to the people of Sonoma County, people like Lea and Joe Perry — and so many more — who cared for their land and their homes and even, in some cases, their pets; who welcomed them home with food in the ice box and flowers on the table.

This was not the case in other parts of California, where land was lost, forced to sale for half or a third of the value, where the executive order itself is still suspected of being a “land grab” by neighboring farmers. Those were the places that few if any of the Japanese residents returned to.

In almost unbelievable contrast, no Sonoma County Japanese lost land.

The obvious question is “Why?” and the answer may lie in the Perry letters — which is just one large family’s experience but seems to have been an example of many other kindnesses and concerns.

Certainly, there was despair, homesickness, fear, uncertainty and war — always war — for the people in camp. Three young men from Sebastopol died serving in the storied all-Japanese 442nd Division.

And, as both Kaz and Lea suggest, there was bitterness and prejudice at home. There was an arson attempt at Enmanji Temple. In the six months between Pearl Harbor and incarceration, some teens ostracized their Japanese schoolmates. Parents forbade their youngsters from writing to Japanese friends in camp. Too many people, admittedly fearful of invasion in the early years of the war, remained silent.

But the sterling proof of what happened here are in the letters and taped interviews and the collection called a gift.

There are enough good ones to balance this example of man’s inhumanity to man. Well, maybe not quite. But closer than most places. And it makes me proud of where I live — and I admit I always write about it through tears — to tell these stories.

There were many besides the Perrys who “looked after” the Japanese lands. There were bankers who held loans, feed stores that put the bills on hold, teachers who wrote dozens of letters to their students.

There were teenagers, with friends in camp, who stood watch at the temple on weekends, after the arson attempt. There was a 12-year-old who defied her parents by writing to a friend in camp, using another friend’s address to get her answers. So many stories to make us feel better about ourselves.

But it makes us want to shout it out to people who rage against immigrants. They should study these letters closely. And they should learn that Lea Perry was a Morelli from Occidental, a family of immigrants from Italy’s end of Switzerland. And that her husband, Joe Perry (Pereira, before an Ellis Island official simplified the spelling) was the son of a Portuguese immigrant from the island of Pico in the Azores (the same island, I am compelled to add, where my mother was born.)

Go back to the beginning and read what Lea wrote to Kaz about prejudice:

“We’ve had it for years and it isn’t anything new to a lot of us … only time will wear it out.”

They were a family of immigrants, as am I — and I suspect — most of you.

We need to remember that.