SAN DIEGO (KGTV)—This May, 10News is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by featuring several stories of the Asian-Pacific-Islander experience in San Diego.
During World War II, nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to desolate incarceration camps.
One of those internment survivors lives in La Jolla today. She shared her story about a beloved city librarian who gave her hope, while she lived behind bars.
It was a different time. No computers. No internet. Just the Dewey Decimal System. The San Diego Public Library was not a downtown skyscraper. At its helm was Miss Clara Estelle Breed.
“She was here for 25 years,” Special Collections Librarian Rick Crawford said. “It’s the longest tenure for a librarian we’ve had here as a Head Librarian.”
Crawford remembers a woman with a lifelong love of literature. She was instrumental in modernizing the city’s multiple branch system, he said. But perhaps her greatest legacy was borne from conflict.
On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The bombings and suicide attacks destroyed hundreds of American military ships and aircraft and killed more than 2,400 people on Oahu Island.
“Life changed for not only me but everyone,” Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada remembered. She was a 12-year-old San Diegan when the attack took place in Hawaii.
Suddenly, everyone who looked like Elizabeth was deemed the enemy. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 forced anyone of Japanese ancestry, American citizens included, into incarceration camps. This was ordered in reaction to the Pearl Harbor attacks, with the intention of preventing espionage on American shores.
“I was fearful,” Kikuchi said.
The Kikuchi’s had one week to pack and report to Santa Fe Station in Downtown San Diego. There, the 12-year-old saw a familiar face.
“Clara had given everyone postcards saying, ‘write to me,’” Kikuchi remembered. Breed was passing out hundreds of pre-stamped postcards and letter sets to children at the station, pleading with them to stay in touch.
During this time, Breed was San Diego’s Children’s Librarian. Many of her visitors were Japanese American children; kids she cared for deeply.
“She really fought resistance from the local community and of course the national opinion,” Crawford said. “I think she was very concerned about their future.”
So the correspondence began, first from the converted horse stables at the Santa Anita Assembly Center. This was where more than 18,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were first sent while their more permanent internment camps were being built.
“Dear Miss Breed,” Kikuchi read her imperfect cursive. “How are you getting along? Now that school is started, I suppose you’re busy at the library.”
In return, Breed always sent books and little trinkets to the dozens of children who wrote to her. This continued, even after the San Diego group was transferred to Poston Internment Camp in Arizona. There, Clara became their lifeline to the outside world.
“I took the book “House for Elizabeth,” and it kept me from being lonesome,” Kikuchi said. Lonesome, staring at the desolate Arizona landscape. But that book gave Elizabeth a sense of belonging. “It’s like she read my mind. She knew I needed a house,” Kikuchi said, hugging the book. She never threw it away.
Three years later, the war ended, and the Japanese Americans were released from the incarceration camps. In the following decades, Elizabeth and Clara Breed remained close friends. Before her death in 1994, Clara gave Elizabeth all of her saved letters and trinkets. They have since been donated as artifacts to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA.
Clara Breed was a lifelong Miss, who had no children of her own. But she touched the lives of many. They were the innocent Japanese American children who remember the brave woman who met wartime hysteria and xenophobia with love. This legacy, Kikuchi said, would live on forever.
“Clara cared about helping young people know that there was freedom beyond imprisonment,” Kikuchi said. “Freedom of the mind to grow and freedom of the heart to deepen. She gave us all of that.”
Years later, the FBI concluded that there was not a single instance of disloyalty or espionage committed by the nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans imprisoned in the ten internment camps across mainland United States. In fact, around 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the American military during WWII, while their families remained imprisoned.
The Japanese internment camps are considered one of the most egregious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 to give a formal apology for the atrocities. This legislation offered each living internment survivor $20,000 in compensation.