‘They had lost everything’: Nebraska museum tells stories of Japanese-Americans during dark chapter

The U.S. government incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII. When the war ended, they were left to rebuild their lives.

GERING – Chadron rancher Sharon Hagihara Bartlett walked the nearly empty, grass-covered grounds of the Amache National Historic Site in southeast Colorado and thought about her mother, her aunt, her grandmother.

“I’d never been there,” she said about Amache, one of 10 “relocation centers” where the U.S. government imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. “They had torn down or sold all the buildings because it was an embarrassment to the U.S. government and what they had done.”

As Bartlett wandered by concrete foundations and a few reconstructed structures last May, her thoughts flowed like a conversation with her ancestors.

“Oh my God, here were all these people in this one building with one potbelly stove. And going outside in the cold to the dining hall and showers,” she said. “It hurts to think you put up with so much. You had to leave your home and all your stuff in California. And there was nothing to go back to.”

Her’s is one of many family stories told in the Japanese Hall building, formerly in Scottsbluff, that’s opening soon at Gering’s Legacy of the Plains Museum campus.

Most of these stories start with bachelor grandfathers coming to America in the early 1900s for railroad and farm jobs. They married, had children and formed community ties at work and in places like Japanese Hall. They built relationships with their neighbors.

Living in the High Plains with such ties made a big difference after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. 

President Franklin Roosevelt signed a February 1942 order to incarcerate more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Nearly 75,000 were second-generation American-born citizens and 45,000 were Japanese nationals living in the U.S., mostly first-generation immigrants forbidden by state laws from owning land or applying for citizenship.

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Many Nebraska families who farmed or had other local jobs were permitted to stay home, although some boys joined the military. 

Their relatives on the West Coast – where the federal government was especially concerned about the security risk despite a lack of evidence – were less fortunate. Many ended up at relocation centers. Some were separated from family members in the process. When the government ended their imprisonment, all of these Japanese-Americans were left to rebuild their lives. 

Sharon Hagihara Bartlett, Chadron

Bartlett’s paternal grandpa came to the U.S. in 1902 for a railroad job. He farmed in several Nebraska Panhandle communities before settling near Alliance in 1944. 

Her maternal grandpa, a California fruit grower, died in 1931, leaving his wife to raise their children: Annie (Bartlett’s mother), Grace, Ben and Erlene.

As ordered in early 1942, the family went to an assembly center where people were sorted into groups of 50 for transport to relocation centers. Bartlett said the process separated her family. Annie, Erlene and their mother were taken to Amache, while Grace, Ben, his wife and toddler went to Tule Lake, California.

Sharon Bartlett’s paternal grandfather Tomesaku Hagihara, with horses at right, came to America in 1902 as a railroad worker and then became a Nebraska Panhandle farmer. Also pictured in 1924 are his wife Mitsugi and children Haig (Bartlett’s father) and Tomiko. Photo courtesy of Sharon Bartlett

During the final months of the war, Annie and her sister received permission to work at the Sioux Army Depot near Sidney, Nebraska, where they moved military ammunitions and general supplies onto railcars. Their mother went along.

After the war ended, the trio moved to Denver. Annie’s mother repaired carpets and returned to her pre-war activities: teaching the Japanese language, flower arranging and cultural ceremonies.

Annie, while working at a dentist’s office, met an Alliance farmer who would become her husband. Bartlett grew up in Alliance.

“I don’t think Mom ever held a grudge about her time at Amache, but she knew it wasn’t right or fair,” Bartlett said. Her parents attended reunions there. 

This four-generation photo of Sharon Bartlett’s maternal family was taken in February 1981. She’s at right with her son Morton. Her mother Annie Takamatsu Hagihara (center) and grandmother Takino Takamatsu, were incarcerated at Colorado’s Amache Relocation Center during World War II. Photo courtesy of Sharon Bartlett

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 signed by President Ronald Reagan included an apology to incarcerated Japanese-Americans and reparation offers of up to $20,000. 

“I remember Mom saying the money was nice, but it doesn’t take away the humiliation and having to leave everything behind,” Bartlett said. 

Sakurada family 

Nick Sakurada remembers Pearl Harbor attack day as the 11-year-old son of Japanese immigrants in Scottsbluff.

“The sheriff and two deputies came and picked up my dad … He was gone overnight,” said Sakurada, now 93. “I don’t recall him ever saying anything about it.”

His dad was a railroad worker and then a farmer who moved to Scottsbluff in the early 1920s. His role as a local Japanese Americanization Society officer may have drawn the sheriff’s visit.

“We weren’t really treated badly,” Sakurada said. “For me, nothing really changed. Nobody ever said anything to us in school.”

Nick Sakurada, 93, of Scottsbluff and his wife of 65 years, Katy, donated their “Sakurada Nisei (second-generation) Veterans” album to the new museum. It has photos of his older brothers, Shogi and Shizuo, who served in the Japanese-American 442nd Army regiment in Italy during World War II. Photo by Lori Potter for the Flatwater Free Press

Most of the 11 second-generation siblings farmed or had related careers, including Sakurada. No third-generation Sakurada continued the tradition.

The first land purchased by the Sakuradas and other Japanese farmers was registered with names of U.S.-born sons. Laws in several states, including Nebraska, prevented Japanese immigrants from seeking citizenship or buying land. 

Court rulings and the federal Immigration and Nationality Act changed that in 1952. Sakurada’s father died before he could seek citizenship, but his mother became a U.S. citizen in 1953.

Mom was a “picture bride” – a term that grew from a 1907 agreement that limited Japanese immigrants to wives, children and parents of men already in the U.S. 

Picture brides had “proxy” weddings in Japan, with the groom’s picture, to qualify for passports. There were traditional Japanese weddings after the brides arrived in the U.S. Sakurada’s parents knew each other, but other couples were strangers.

Sakurada’s older brothers Shogi and Shizuo served with the U.S. Army’s 442nd regimental combat team of all Japanese-Americans in Italy during World War II. 

“We felt the same as any of our friends (after Pearl Harbor). We were attacked and felt we should do something about it,” Shizuo told the Kearney Hub newspaper in 1989.

Shogi was drafted in 1941 and was aboard a transport ship headed to the Pacific on Dec. 7. Japanese-American servicemen were dropped off in Hawaii. They joined the Hawaiian Provisional Guard and eventually the 442nd.

Shizuo Sakurada, father of Vickie Schaepler of Kearney, was surrounded by family while home on leave. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. His living siblings are Hisaya of Gering (middle back), Fred of Morrill (lower left) and Nick (second row, far right). Photo courtesy of Vickie Schaepler

Shizuo farmed after WWII, before using his Army training as a cook to work at and eventually co-own Scottbluff’s Eagle Cafe. After it closed in 1967, he owned Kearney’s Corral Cafe until retiring in 1984.

He remained hopeful that the U.S. government had learned a lesson from its fear-based incarceration of Japanese-Americans. 

“I don’t think they’ll ever pinpoint a racial group to be in a detention camp anymore,” he said in 1989.

Cindy Yamamoto, Scottsbluff

Railroad jobs were simply a starting point for many Japanese immigrants. Harry Ono turned working for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in Wyoming into a 37-year career.

His family’s life didn’t change much during WWII, said granddaughter Cindy Yamamoto.  

Life was harder for her Yamamoto ancestors. Grandfather Shigeichi, seen standing next to a locomotive in a floor-to-ceiling photo at Japanese Hall, struggled at short-term railroad, restaurant and farm jobs. After starting a small Colorado farm, he sent for his Japanese picture bride, Moto.

They started a family and moved to Nebraska’s North Platte Valley. After Moto died in a 1936 farm fire, Shigeichi sold the farm, and took his wife’s ashes and their nine children to Japan to start a new life.

He and three children went to California after a few months; four more children arrived a year later. Two young daughters stayed with a grandmother in Japan throughout the war.

When notices were posted requiring California’s Japanese-Americans to report for relocation, most members of the “dirt poor” Yamamoto family moved to Lyman, Nebraska. One daughter chose to stay with her Japanese husband, whose family was sent to a California internment camp.

Cindy’s dad became a western Nebraska farmer and cattle feeder. Her mom graduated from Army cadet nurses training soon after the war ended.

“I have the utmost respect for my ancestors,” Yamamoto said. “They are the strongest people.”

Gayle Hashimoto Rojas, Scottsbluff

All of Gayle Rojas’ grandparents immigrated to Honolulu in the early 1900s.

Paternal grandpa Manzuchi Hashimoto managed a store and was Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu president until the Pearl Harbor attack.

“He was a leader in the Japanese community so they thought his ties were too close,” Rojas said. Hashimoto was incarcerated in at least two of the four high security U.S. Justice Department “internment camps.” His family didn’t know where he was.

His wife and children stayed in Honolulu. Son Akira joined the 442nd regiment.

Rojas’ maternal Hidaka family of fishermen were considered a security risk “because they knew the waters around Hawaii.”

When her grandpa and his two sons were being relocated to the Tule Lake camp, her grandma insisted on going. Three young daughters, including Rojas’ mother, remained in Honolulu.

One of Rojas’ uncles, Eiji, was allowed  to join the 442nd regiment in Italy. He was killed in action.

Gayle Rojas’ grandmother Fuku Hidaka crafted tiny shells into flower-like corsages to sell to tourists at a noodle stand she started after her WWII-incarcerated family returned to Honolulu to rebuild their lives. Rojas donated this corsage to the Japanese Hall exhibit. Photo by Lori Potter for the Flatwater Free Press

“They had lost everything,” Rojas said. 

When the Hidakas returned to Honolulu after the war, the men had to rebuild the fishing business. Grandma opened a noodle stand, where she also sold corsages made of tiny shells, a craft learned at Tule Lake. 

Grandpa Hashimoto returned to store management for 20 years and then started a company that imported Japanese language newspapers and magazines. 

Rojas’ journey to Nebraska began when she met and married the late Richard Rojas, a Creighton University Medical School grad who came to Honolulu for more education. In 1983, they moved to Scottsbluff, where he was the hospital’s emergency medicine specialist. 

Dennis Morimoto, Scottsbluff

Dennis Morimoto, a retired University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center agronomy technician, followed his ancestors into agriculture.

His Morimoto grandparents farmed in Colorado and Wyoming before settling near Mitchell, Nebraska. They continued farming throughout WWII.

His Shiotani grandparents farmed in California. Most family members, including Dennis’ mom, were sent to the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona.

Dennis Morimoto donated a photo of his grandparents, Ken and Hana Shiotani, to the Japanese Hall museum. Another Japanese-American man gave Ken the bird painting while both were imprisoned at a U.S. Justice Department camp at Crystal City, Texas. Photo by Lori Potter for the Flatwater Free Press

His grandfather was at a Justice Department internment camp in Texas. “They arrested all older men who were in the (Japanese community) clubs,” Dennis said.

An uncle joined the 442nd regiment; some family members worked at Sidney’s Sioux Army Depot; and others left Poston to work for a Colorado farmer.

Morimoto said the Shiotanis moved to Mitchell after the war, “maybe for moral support.” They soon returned to California, where a landlady had kept some of their possessions and helped them rebuild their lives.

Morimoto, a Vietnam veteran, said he isn’t so sure that this sad chapter of American history won’t repeat itself. 

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some talked about rounding up Arab-Americans, he noted.

“The Japanese American Citizens League took a stand against that,” he said. “They didn’t want what had happened to the Japanese to happen to others.”

By Lori Potter

Lori Potter spent most of her nearly 46-year Nebraska newspaper career reporting on agriculture, natural resources and rural issues for the Kearney Hub. She’s also a veteran of the York News-Times and Alliance Times-Herald. Potter is president of the Nebraska Press Women and past president of the National Federation of Press Women.


Lori, Thank you for the for the article and personal stories that are close to my heart. My grandparents were part of the 28 families that settled and raised families in the Hershey/North Platte area. It is sad how few of the third generation have remained in the area. Six years into retirement one of my volunteer passions is being the construction manager for the Japanese Hall Project in Gering, a long way from Wahoo where my wife Carol and still reside.
Keep the great articles coming,

One of the deep flaws of FDR that prevent him from being considered one of our great presidents, in my opinion.



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