Memoirs of Seiichi Higashide

[These excerpts from Higashide's memoirs begin in Peru about a year after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. After a tip from an acquaintance on February 22, 1943, Higashide eluded arrest. He remained at home but in hiding. Under the floorboards, he dug an underground hideout about six feet square. He furnished it with a bed, small desk, food and water, and radio. Whenever the police came to get him, he went underground.]

For several months our lives continued without incident. The war was still on, so some uneasiness remained in the back of my mind. In general, however, I did not pay particular heed and began to conduct myself in a more open manner, not much different than the time before the war. But, one day, I was suddenly reminded of the fact that Japan was still at war. I can never forget … it was January 6, 1944.

It was a Sunday, and we had taken the family out for a picnic at Lake Huacachina. Lake Huacachina was a small expanse of water located at the lowest point of a basin that looked like an ancient volcanic crater. It was known for its cold, green waters that had some salt and sulfur content. Above its waters rose exquisite sand dunes, where people enjoyed a form of sand skiing. It was a wonderful, peaceful Sunday. We had leisurely spent the entire day there and returned home late that evening.

We had just sat down at the table for a late supper when it began. There was a knock on the front door. Previously, if it was not a special pattern of knocks, we would not have opened the door until I entered the underground cubicle. But we had enjoyed many months of an open and peaceful life, so we had forgotten those precautions. One of our employees, Victor, opened the door without hesitation. It was a fatal mistake.

Instantly, five men entered our home and one said, “We are from Lima Police Headquarters. Seiichi Higashide is under arrest.” There was no opportunity to feign ignorance. Among the five was a detective from the Ica police office who

knew me well. As I had been concerned about earlier, the central police headquarters in Lima had requested the cooperation of the Ica provincial police.

All the avenues had been cut off. I was to be taken immediately to the Ica police headquarters. It is said that even rats in desperate circumstances fight back; I also needed to put up some resistance. “I will not hide or try to escape, so please wait outside,” I said calmly. “We are having our supper.” We finished our meal in a proper way and, after a change of clothing, I went out.

[The next day, after tearful farewells to his family and his pregnant wife, Higashide was taken to Lima, the capital, where he was held in a jail.]

My cell was a concrete box about six feet wide and about 10 feet deep. The entry, facing a walkway, had a movable framework of iron bars. During the day, the gate-like framework of iron bars was raised and we could go out onto the walkway and into other cells. At night, however, the bars were lowered and locked. If we had to eliminate bodily wastes we were told to do it “wherever you want” in our cells.

It was completely disgusting. The wastes that accumulated during the night were hosed out with water every morning, but because this had been repeated over many years the stench had permeated the concrete and remained permanently. When I was pushed into the cell my first reaction was to that powerful smell.

[On January 18, 1944, Higashide was put on board a ship at the port city of Callao.]

Surrounded by American soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, we were lined up four abreast and marched over to the gangway to board. M.P.'s were on all sides of us and it was clear that elaborate precautions had been taken. It was then that I truly came to understand that I was a “prisoner of war.” The ship was a small freighter that had been hastily militarized with the placement of a number of cannons on it.

When we were all on board the ship, we were made to strip naked and everything that we had brought on board was examined. Then, an officer appeared and began a long and detailed explanation in Spanish of the rules and regulations we were to follow. He ordered complete compliance and repeated that any infractions would be met with severe punishment. It was quite a long presentation but no one made a sound; not even a cough or a shuffle came through the intent silence. Eventually, his speech ended. As ordered, we went down into the hold of the ship and were locked in.

[The ship sailed with the men in the hold below deck.]

We were not allowed to even step out of the hold of the ship. We had no way even to confirm the position of the sun or stars, so we had no way of determining where the ship was heading. We assumed that it was heading northward toward

the United States, but we had no way of confirming it. Then, three days after we began our journey, the ship suddenly slowed and eventually stopped.

It was too soon, even on a direct route, to have reached the United States. Had something happened? In the hold of the ship speculation ran rampant. The ship did not move for a long time. Then, from somewhere, a touch of raw, warm air began entering the hold. In two or three hours the hold became unbearably warm. It must be Panama! I felt sure we were in Panama.

Later, the steel door was opened and we were ordered to disembark. Holding our hands up to shade our eyes, we climbed onto the deck. I took in a deep breath of fresh air. The air was warm but was nevertheless a refreshing respite from the stale air breathed by so many people in the hold of the ship. It was truly delicious, I thought. I looked out in all directions. Our surroundings were clearly in a tropical area. I was sure it was Panama.

[The ship carried some Germans and 29 Japanese Peruvians. They were confined in a military camp in Panama where they were treated like soldiers, following their daily routine. Besides forced assemblies and roll calls, the men were directed to clear bushes with armed soldiers standing guard. It was “truly hard and painful labor,” Higashide testified, especially for elderly men who spent their lives in offices. “Everyone was physically and spiritually exhausted.” After several weeks in the military camp in Panama, on March 6, 1944, the men were loaded onto another ship for the passage to New Orleans. From New Orleans, Higashide and others boarded a train to Texas.]

Those of us who were removed from the train at that small depot were taken to Camp Kenedy, a camp for single men in southern Texas. Of the 27 detention camps that had been built in the United States, it was one of the smallest. Yet, basically, it was no different from the other detention camps.

It was fenced in on four sides with barbed-wire and within it were jerry-built barracks where detainees lived. The camp was, literally, for men who were alone. Married men such as I, who had not been able to be reunited with their families, were assigned to it. From what I heard, those who had been reunited with their families were almost all sent to Crystal City. Earlier, unmarried men and those who had left their families behind in Peru had been sent in random manner to camps built for U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry. After some time had passed, however, such “single men” were placed in specific camps, most notably that at Santa Fe, New Mexico and Camp Kenedy.

Here, there were a number of others like myself who were waiting to be reunited with their families, but the great majority were young, high-spirited, unmarried males. It was in such an environment that I began my “second term” as a detainee. Here, everyone called the facility “the camp.” The U.S. government agencies formally called it a “relocation camp,” but we simply perceived it as no more than a “concentration camp.”

Source: Higashide, Seiichi. Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps. Honolulu: E&E Kudo, 1993, pp. 7, 135, 136, 139, 141, 142,

143, 145, 157, 158. Used by permission of the University of Washington Press.