Woman born at Japanese Relocation Center revisits 7 decades later

Today (April 11) I had the unique privilege to personally meet and visit with a very special 70-year-old lady and her husband. Her name is Sharon Sanaye Osaki Wong. She was born at the Japanese Relocation Center at Jerome, Arkansas, on May 4, 1944, while her parents, Takaji and Oritsu Osaki were being held there by U.S. Military Authorities during World War II.

Cliff Gibson and Wongs II
Cliff Gibson, right, pictured with Sharon Sanaye Osaki Wong and her husband, Brad Wong

Mrs. Wong’s parents were citizens of Japan with Hiroshima being their home town. Her father, Takaji Osaki emigrated to California in 1903 with his brother. Later, through a family arranged marriage, Takaji returned to Hiroshima to collect his bride, Oritsu and bring her back to California. They had established an 80-acre fruit orchard near New Castle, California (about 30 miles north of Sacramento) and were raising their four daughters Toshiko, Sachiko, Natsuye and Michiko when in February, 1942, President Roosevelt, as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, entered Executive Order 9066 which forced the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the west coast of the United States to internment camps set up by the military in the interior of the country. One of those camps was located at Jerome, Arkansas.

Jerome Relocation Center
The Japanese relocation center at Jerome, Arkansas where Sharon Sanaye Osaki Wong was born.

So, in 1942 this Japanese family of six was uprooted from their home and farm, and were forcibly moved by train to the camp in Jerome where they lived for two years in hastily constructed 20-foot by 120-foot multi-family barracks with approximately 8,000 other persons of Japanese ancestry from various locations on the west coast of the United States and some from Hawaii.

The camp was located on about 500 acres surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers complete with machine guns. Her family, like the others, were able to save only what they were able to wear and carry.

About 14 percent of these people taken to Jerome were over the age of 60 years, and almost 2,500 of them were school age children. And, I have to add, these people and their children were moved to what can only be described (particularly at the time) as an impoverished area of Arkansas filled with swamps, snakes and mosquitoes – and a good number of them came down with malaria and typhoid fever. It is difficult for me to imagine the shock and sense of helplessness they felt.

Mrs. Wong told me that her parents never talked about their time at Jerome, and that she had to learn about it from her sisters later in life. Her sister, Toshiko was in her early twenties during the time at Jerome, and her teenage sister Sachiko graduated from the high school set up at the camp. Her sister Natsuye was also a teenager at that time, and her sister Michiko was an adolescent. And, as noted earlier, Mrs. Wong was born an inmate of the Jerome camp on May 4, 1944.

Mrs. Wong’s family returned to California after the war, and she went on to attend college and worked at Stanford University for a number of years. Her husband Brad Wong is of Chinese ancestry, but he is a 4th generation American whose family roots are in Hawaii. He is an engineer who worked for Lockheed-Martin for many years, and who worked on defense contracts including the Trident ballistic missile system used by American nuclear submarines. Mr. and Mrs. Wong are both now retired.

I must add there were a number of other Jerome camp inmates who went on to achieve great things, including Joe M. Nishimoto who volunteered for combat duty in the U.S. Army and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in the fight against the Nazi’s in Europe.

As she has gotten older, Mrs. Wong wanted to retrace her roots back to the place shown on her birth certificate, and that led her to search the internet where she found an article I had written about Jerome which included information about the Japanese camp at Jerome. She wrote me an e-mail, and from there we began to converse about how we were both from Jerome. She is now in southeast Arkansas with her husband to attend a reunion of camp inmates at the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee to be held this coming week.

Cliff Gibson is a Monticello attorney who grew up in Jerome.

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