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‘Nothing but good memories,’ Former internee comes back to Heart Mountain Interpretive Center this week

Eva Nakamura Kuwata will speak of her memories of life in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center at 2 p.m. today (Thursday). Eva Nakamura Kuwata will speak of her memories of life in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center at 2 p.m. today (Thursday). Tribune photo by Tom Lawrence

It seems like a nightmare, an all-too-real one.

Eva Nakamura Kuwata’s family was uprooted from their California home in 1942 and taken to a remote, cold camp in northwest Wyoming. They were forced to live behind barbed wire and under the watch of armed guards, three of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps following America’s entry into World War II.

They lost their freedom, their homes and most of their belongings, but they did not surrender their belief that conditions would improve. So, they made the best of it, Kuwata said Tuesday.

She spoke at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center between Powell and Cody. Now 80, Kuwata was 8 when her family was shipped to the camp in 1942.

“My parents said, ‘It can’t be helped,’” she said.

That is an attitude many Japanese Americans had at the time, Kuwata said. They were aware of what was happening but felt they had no choice but to endure and enjoy their lives.

“It was a very pleasant time,” she said. “I had a good time. I was not bitter.”

Kuwata was born in El Centro, Calif., May 29, 1934, and was the only child of Toshichi and Chiyo Nakamura. Her parents, who owned a hotel in Obispo, Calif., had just leased a new hotel property in Los Angeles right before the United States entered World War II. They lived in the hotel and catered to Japanese boarders traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Kuwata was in the second grade when she arrived at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center after spending time in the Santa Anita Assembly Center, a racetrack located in Arcadia, Calif. 

“I don’t have many memories of Santa Anita,” said Kuwata. “I remember we had to fill our mattresses with straw to sleep on when we arrived there and that we ate in a ‘green’ mess hall.  I also remember being in the stands during the day, which comprised our schooling.”

Despite the injustice of confinement, Kuwata’s Heart Mountain experiences were mostly pleasant ones. She was a Brownie Girl Scout with many friends, several of which she still keeps in touch with today.

“I feel that, since I was so young during the time I spent in camp, that I did not have the anguish or hatred that others might have felt or endured,” Kuwata said. “My memories are nothing but good memories.”

One such memory is of grocery shopping in Powell. Kuwata went to buy butter for her mother, thinking it would make a nice gift. She did not know that it was rationed and she needed a special ration stamp to purchase it.

However, a “very nice gentleman” who was standing behind her in the market line, kindly gave her his stamp. That simple gesture left a tremendous impression on Kuwata.

Her return to Southern California was mostly uneventful, she said. Typically, she puts a positive spin on everything.

Her parents had stored many items when they were forced to depart, and when they returned they learned the thieves had broken in and taken many things. But they moved ahead and resumed their lives and work.

Kuwata said she has had little problem with racism. However, once when she was a girl, some friends organized a “swimming party.” She said when she went to join them, she and a black boy were not allowed to swim.

But she smiled as she told this story and said she didn’t let it bother her.

“I’ve had a pretty good life,” Kuwata said in her soft voice.

In 1988, thanks in part to then-Sen. Al Simpson, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to apologize to internment camp residents. By 1990, they began to receive $20,000 apiece and a letter of apology.

Kuwata said she got the money and the letter, but she noted that like thousands of other internees, her parents had died by then and did not receive anything for the shabby way they were treated.

This was her second time back. She returned with a grandson about a decade ago. 

Kuwata, a grandmother of two, still takes Japanese folk dancing classes once a week. She is a cancer survivor who retired in 2010 after working as an administrative assistant and development officer.

She volunteers for the Belmont High School Alumni Association and at the Gardena Japanese Pioneer Project. She participates in many Japanese folk dancing festivals during the year and dances and teaches public lessons.

The small woman, who joked she hasn’t grown since she was a girl in Wyoming, was quick with a smile on Tuesday as she answered questions and posed for photos.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said during a question-and-answer session with about 20 people at the center Tuesday afternoon.

Kuwata’s second public presentations will be held at 2 p.m. today (Thursday). It is free to the public but admission is required to tour the center prior to and after the Advisor in Residence presentation.

“We’re so happy she’s here and wants to tell her story,” said Bethany Sandvik, the center’s operations manager.

Brian Liesinger, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation executive director, said Kuwata has brought a unique perspective to the center, its staff and visitors.

Sandi Gledhill and her mother, Deanna Aiken, both of Cody, attended the presentation as they sought to learn more about the camp and that dark chapter of American history. They were amazed by Kuwata’s ability to endure, survive and forgive.

“She has a marvelous attitude,” Aiken said.

— The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation & Interpretive Center contributed to this report.

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