Conversations with Albert Koyama
as shared with Sandra Lommasson in dialogue and letters 2005-2006
Albert Toshio Koyama (1919-2010), was born in Pasadena, California, the son of Japanese immigrants. While a young man in college he and his family were relocated to the Gila internment camp in Arizona. Making sense of his life experiences as "sacred story" first drew Al to Bread of Life where he became a foundational supporter donating nearly $50,000 to the mission over his lifetime. His niece, Laura Sugano continued the family legacy with a significant gift from his estate last year after Albert's death. It is with the family's permission we share these pieces of Albert's sacred story.
Some Family History
Both of my parents came from Japan, and my mother would tell me stories of life there. She was particularly close to her father and followed his ways. The city of Hirakata was the family home. My grandfather must have been quite a figure in his village – he was respected and whatever he wanted to do to improve the city others would join in, so he must have had some authority. He was very interested in social progress, construction, schools.
My grandfather had an older brother who liked to go hunting. He would disappear in the hills a week at a time, so grandfather had more or less taken over the family, which was unusual for a younger brother. A part of my grandfather’s legacy is assuming responsibility for the good of family and community.
My Mother and Father
My father, Mantaro, came to America about 1910 for agricultural research, having graduated from the Osaka Agricultural College and taught. Still he felt a need for more agricultural information and experience. He stopped in the Fresno area where he met and worked with some other young men. These friendships lasted a lifetime: Mr. Kazato, Mr. Obata, Mr. Ogawa, and my father were baptized by Rev. Fukushima at the Congregational Church in Fresno.
A few years later he decided to move to southern California where he got involved in raising celery in the Venice area. Unfortunately the celery was planted in a low area and when the rain came just at harvest, the field went underwater and he lost everything. Later he grew some citrus trees, but a cold spell wiped out all the trees that were nearly ready to start an orange grove. That was in Signal Hill, which is now producing oil.
My father decided to move on and to take up work in landscape maintenance. He was able to find a large estate job working for Howard Huntington who owed the Pacific Inter-Urban Railway. His were the large electric cars that reached as far as San Bernardino, Riverside, the coastal beach cities like Long Beach, around Los Angeles, Pasadena, and even to Mt. Lowe. He also owned a Chicago-Los Angeles railway.
He stayed with Howard Huntington for three years, and then decided to go to Japan to get a wife about 1917, a time when there were many wartime brides. He was given an excellent recommendation and promise of work when he returned. He married Misae Yamashita in Kyoto in February when it was winter. When Misae stopped at home all the women were cutting paper and pasting, making paper bags to cover each pear to prevent damage from insects and disease when the fruit started to develop in the spring. Besides the orchard the family raised fruit and other vegetables.
Mother and Father left and came to America and settled in Pasadena. My father found other estate work in Pasadena with R.A. Rowan, a developer in real estate who had a beautiful mansion and grounds just off of South Orange Grove. Dad was never a wealthy businessman, but did OK gardening. My parents settled on Palmetto drive where my sister was born. She grew up in the Palmetto neighborhood and had only a Japanese name, Yoshiko. As she was growing up my mother would call out, “Yoshi, Yoshi!” Her playmates began to call her Jessie, which is how I think she got her English name.
Albert's parents in later years, "Obachan & Ojichan"
My father started the Japanese Association and built the building by clearing a eucalyptus grove. Many of the single men had done some smoking, drinking and gambling, but some decided with their new wives to move to church and to live differently. The church in Pasadena started out as a mission but became a “Union Church” embracing all denominations. The church services were conducted in Japanese with a Japanese pastor. On Easter day in 1923 (April 1), my mom, my sister and I were all baptized at the same time.
While we were very small my parents would speak Japanese, but as we approached kindergarten and older, many English-speaking teachers volunteered to come to the church from different denominations like Brethren, Congregational and Methodist. The church school superintendent was from the Brethren as was my fifth-sixth grade teacher. One of the Bible verses that most stuck with me was II Timothy 2:15: “Study thyself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
I had a loving and caring mother as I was growing up. She spoke to me in Japanese about religious and serious things in life. We also communicated without words – we just understood one another. Mother was always open and we’d talk. While my Dad and I would talk, he wasn’t like my Mom. Neither parent was strict as in “You’ve gotta do this or that.”
Growing up in the depression years with no air conditioner or television, on hot summer nights we spread a mat on the ground and looked up into the sky. First we’d gaze at the moon and millions of stars. Later we’d identify constellations or during the daytime notice many colorful flowers. I guess that made me appreciate nature. Being more into natural things, I see God’s work everywhere from the design of the immense universe to the smallest cells. These were here and human beings are now seeing and discovering the orderly development.
left to right: Mantaro, Albert, Jessie, Misa
Pasadena school system was different in that a 6-4-4 plan was set up and used. Six years elementary school, four years junior high and four years high school/ junior college. During junior high seventh and eighth grades most girls were taught in Home Economic subjects. The boys had shops that included mechanical, drawing, wood shop, electric, sheet metal, print and machine. The courses were only introductory.
Later when I had an open period I took a year of print shop. Besides the different types and hand setting in the composing rack, we were exposed to linotype. The type was set up on a machine at the junior college print shop. We laid it out and ran a proof on the galley press. The copy was proofread by the editorial worker and sent back to correct any type error. Then we locked it up in the press and ran copies.
After graduating from junior high I went through high school. After finishing Pasadena Junior College in 1940 I attended Cal-Aggie (UCD).
The War Years and Evacuation
I was finishing the degree course in Horticulture in 1942 as the evacuation of the Japanese from the west coast was taking place. Pasadena was on the list.
Notice of the evacuation ranged from overnight for fisherman who had radios to a few days for folks like my parents who were in Pasadena. The Tulare Assembly Center was the entry point for masses of people who arrived by train before dissemination to other camps. The Assembly Center was in the farm division at the fairground where the processing began, and the fairgrounds themselves were surrounded by armed forces. There was a travel restriction for Japanese-Americans, and I wasn’t allowed to join my family until they were placed in the Assembly Center. It was a struggle to get to them with the curfew and travel restrictions. You could only go so many miles and needed a permit to move. All of that meant I had to wait in Davis to hear where the Pasadena group went.
I finally managed to get to the Tulare Fairground where the Pasadena group was in a certain section. In a short time they asked us to vacate that barracks because they wanted to set up a school. They herded the occupants to the horse barns. The superintendent found out that my sister and I were teachers, so they partitioned part of the room in the Guadalupe-Santa Maria section. I taught nature study to the fifth-sixth graders, biology to the tenth grade, and etymology (bugs) to some farmers. Not having books or a collection of specimens, I collected bugs in empty jars from the mess hall and talked about them from my studies.
One day the official called me to say many people were being bitten at a certain barrack at night while they slept. I crawled under the barrack and found the place loaded with ‘kissing bugs.’ I collected samples and handed them to him. With a positive identification they sprayed. No more bites.
I collected some flying ants and put them in a jar with soil. Soon they tunneled and you could see them. I took the jar to class and talked about it. The next day more children were carrying jars around the fairground.
I had my first aid certificate before attending Cal-Aggie. The Assembly Center was offering Red Cross First Aid courses, advanced and instructor courses, so I took them. I received my instructor certificate, but was unable to teach a class because of our moving around.
The Assembly Centers were just that – they ‘assembled’ different areas. Tulare was just one of them. Later, ten relocation centers were established and all of those in assembly centers were moved into relocation centers depending on their responses to the loyalty questions.
A family friend in the consulate had warned my parents to give up Japanese citizenship. All children born here were considered dual citizens. In the initial processing, questions 27 and 28 were the loyalty questions and if you were able to answer “Yes/ Yes” you were considered loyal to the US and if you answered No/No you were questionable and were sent to Tule Lake. It was really hard for families who had sons forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army while visiting family in Japan – they were caught between two countries.
Gila Relocation Center
The Tulare Assembly group was sent to Gila, Arizona. Gila had two camps – Camp I with 5000 people and camp II with 10,000 people. They were still putting up the barracks in Camp II and we were the group from Tulare that was set aside. We were sent up to the hospital section. We lived in that area for two months until the rest of the camp barracks were completed.
Our family shared a room with another family with only a curtain of sheets separating us. We were then moved to a block where we got a room in the barrack. After fixing up the barrack room it was possible to live in. There was a heater inside and a double roof, as Arizona got pretty hot. We encountered twisters also and occasionally a huge bank of a sandstorm would sweep through.
In Gila they had set up a camouflage where many young people worked although it was mainly set up for agricultural production. The ten living units were set up by fields totaling about 1200 acres for vegetable production for the year, plus 200 acres in the summer months for melons and seed production. My father worked in the seed farm. It was a large operation run by field foremen growing different crops.
All these crops needed insect control. This is where we came in mixing up the insecticide to apply to the crops. I’d gone in to apply for a teaching job hearing they needed instructors to teach education courses and we could work towards a teaching credential. When I got to the employment table they said I was already assigned to take over the etymology and insecticide area.
They installed large blowers at the end of the warehouse barrack, truckloads of insecticide chemicals, and a converted mixer. I was to mix up the insecticide to apply in the fields. I got a couple of students from Camp I to help. I outlined the procedure and had them help seal the mixtures in metal drums, ready to be applied in the fields.
There were mostly aphids, so NICO-Dust did the trick. Before I mixed, they bought some NICO-Dust #5 from a supplier, which didn’t do much to control the aphids. The power duster crew wanted me to make NICO Dust #10 which was twice as strong. I refused and quietly sent them some fresh mixed NICO Dust #5. That night the crew came home all groggy but luckily we had good control of the aphids. The power dusters were happy that they didn’t have to repeat the applications.
There was a creek alongside the camp and the relocation side had a beautiful crop of vegetables. On the other side of the creek were some American Indians but their fields were poor and their corn stunted. I talked with one man about raising vegetables and he said that his son would go to Tucson to learn how to grow things. They have enough water – I hope they learned what they need to do to produce their own food.
We also had dairy cows and poultry. A Cal-Aggie student like me operated the dairy. He had a very bad fly problem so I mixed up a fly spray and told him not to spray the cows but only the walls. Evidently it worked. He came over early one morning with a small bottle with milk in it.
My sister was the first of our family to leave Gila because she got a teaching job in Chicago. You had to have a job and a place to live to get out of the camp. When the war broke out Chicago was an area where many Japanese-Americans came because we heard there was some housing. It was hard to find a place, but once one family gets into a neighborhood then more and more come until it becomes like a Japanese Village. My sister found a place on Levin -- south of the 600 block was all black folks and north was all Italian.
I was the next one in the family to leave the relocation center for outside work. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out and it was winter. Then President Roosevelt gave a speech in February 1943 giving our original draft status back, and I was drafted and sent to an army training camp in Florida. We were trained for replacement of the 442nd combat team in Europe. I served a year before I was given an honorable discharge for my leg injury and sent back to where I was inducted.
About My Leg Injury
It was a natural occurrence. When I was smaller I had never been the fastest runner. I started to get tightness and some arthritis in the leg, but was still participating and kept trying to keep up with the class and physical activities.
After internment most Japanese-Americans who were in the army were being prepared for combat teams. I was pretty well conditioned but the way we were doing training with cold mornings and exposure to different conditions made my leg worse. We were in Florida and it was cold and wet and we were supposed to do a speed march.
We were lined up according to height and weight, and because I was a little smaller in size I was near the front. The two front people are ‘guards’ who had to run out to block side streets to let the rest of the troops go by on crossings, and then join the column at the rear. We had to be alert – as soon as they call it out, we have to run forward to block off the streets.
Near the end of one speed march we’d just left the target pit and were marching back and my leg starting cramping up. I was carrying a BAR and a couple other rifles of soldiers who were falling out. Ten fellows dropped out that day. I kept going as much as I could until I couldn’t move. I dropped out and the CO came by in a jeep:
“I’ve got a cramp in my leg and can’t move.”
“Get up soldier!”
I could barely move. I propped myself up with a rifle.
“You’re gonna go down that road and I’m going to follow you down that road!”
He was about two feet behind me in the jeep. If I stopped I think he’d have run over me.When we got to the range a non-com saw me being followed. He told me later he’d let me know if another speed march was coming: “You can’t do this. Go on sick leave.”
The next time we had a speed march coming, he came and while we were gathering in formation told me and two others to go into sick call.
It was the first time medical people realized that there was something wrong. He eventually convinced the other officers. I was assigned to the food truck for the noon meal. I was always willing to do what was necessary.
When they read a list of everybody to go overseas (most Japanese- Americans went to Italy), only three of us were excused – me, one man with really bad eyesight, and one who was going into ministry. We all received honorable discharges and it made me realize that God had plans for me to serve. I’ve learned that no matter what happens, if you learn something from it and do something useful, it’s OK.
Post War Years
I went to Illinois to be near my parents after I was released and felt responsible for helping them find a better place to settle. Even before the war the first generation of immigrants from Japan couldn’t buy a house, but it was possible to buy in a child’s name if the child was a citizen. I bought a home in Pasadena after the restriction was lifted so that our parents would have a place to go. Mom told me she was on her knees praying for this.
A little while later I returned to UC Davis and Davis Community Church where I took Bible classes, became involved in CA House and taught church school. Things opened up for me to serve in various ways – in the library, the audio-visual department, and landscape maintenance.
My job is to keep myself open. God guides the way. If and when I do a little planning, I think of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”