Cyndie Zikmund

© Copyright 2022 by Cyndie Zikmund

Photo by Edoardo Fezet at Unsplash.
Photo by Edoardo Fezet at Unsplash.

Tsugio Ikeda, my uncle, and his family were part of the 120,000 Japanese Americans held prisoner in concentration camps during WWII. His story is unique in that he later served in the US Army and after that, he became an educator and the first Asian-American to be elected as County Superintendent of Schools in Montana. This story is about resilience and how one person’s journey inspired generations to grow and prosper in a land that once rejected them.

Seated at an Italian restaurant in San Jose’s trendy Santana Row with busboys scurrying from one side of the room to the other and servers taking food orders faster than I can spell spaghetti, my Uncle Tug leaned toward me and started talking about his internment during WWII. Tsugio Ikeda, Tug for short, is my aunt’s second husband who I had known only through group gatherings. That evening I had the chance to speak with him one-on-one and I couldn’t have been more surprised at his family’s history.

I grew up on a lettuce farm near Salinas, but when I was a teenager, they took my family from California to Poston Camp in Arizona. They locked us up,” Tug spoke in hushed tones as if sharing government secrets. He lightly clapped his hands, signaling the finality of the situation.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order, forcing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. They took all our possessions,” Tug shrugged his shoulders in submission. His parents had immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s and worked growing lettuce in Salinas, an agricultural town an hour’s drive from where we ate dinner that night. Contrary to the impression given in history books, most interned Japanese Americans were law-abiding citizens.

Poston Internment Camp was located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, too harsh of a climate for the delicate lettuces the Ikedas grew in the Salinas Valley’s fertile soil. The local Tribal Council opposed the use of their land for the prison because it mirrored the fate of their culture, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs overruled the Tribal Council, allowing the government to take control and build out the area to support 17,000 internees and improve the lacking facilities for future use by the Reservation.


Two years after our dinner in San Jose, I visited my aunt and uncle at their home in Great Falls, Montana, I learned more about Tug’s war time life, which was in stark contrast to how he presently lived.

In their backyard, across from the Great Falls High School, Ikeda built an outdoor seating area next to his craft workshop, in the style of a Japanese garden. An arching bridge rests over a bed of river rock, forming a path to a wooden hexagon gazebo, peaceful in a Zen sort of way. Inside of their house, Ikeda’s hand-built kitchen cabinets, intricately carved wooden clocks, and handmade ceramic candle holders provide a catalog of his many years of craft making. 

His peaceful surroundings of today, reflect the wisdom Ikeda had acquired through the years, learning to endure difficult times by finding small nugget of goodness even in the dry desert.  

You know, I used to love to read. So much so that my friend and I stole books from the library at Poston. We couldn’t check them out, only white Americans running the camp could do that. The librarian saw my friend and I leave with half-hidden books in our shirts. Many times, I saw her look right at me, then look away with a smile. I always brought them back,” he said with a chuckle.   

He sometimes wonders about his friend who refused to sign an agreement to enlist in the war effort. Interned boys over seventeen years of age were required to complete a lengthy survey that contained two fate-determining questions designed to assess the loyalty of the teenager. If the boy answered both questions with a “No,” he was branded as a “No-no” boy.

Question twenty-seven asked if you were willing to serve in the armed forces. Question twenty-eight asked if you would swear your allegiance to the United States and defend the country under all circumstances. Twenty-eight also asked if you would drop any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government. The boys who answered either or both questions with a "No" were sent to a separate concentration camp and not allowed to join any of the armed forces. Enlistment was the only way to get out of the camps. That’s what I did,” he said.  It was often a sense of pride or duty to parents that kept many young men from disavowing any allegiance to Japan.

As expected, when Ikeda turned eighteen, he was drafted into the Army. He scored high enough on the exam to be selected for Military Intelligence and was sent to Japan. On his way there, the war ended. His ship continued to the island with a changed mission as the first occupational forces in Hokkaido. Ikeda’s new assignment was to interview Russians trying to immigrate to America, fleeing religious persecution. 

Upon returning home, Japanese American soldiers didn’t receive a veteran’s honorable welcome like their white counterparts. It took decades for the United States to recognize their contributions. In 1988, over forty years after the war ended, the Civil Liberties Act served as an official apology. The Act included a financial settlement of $20,000 per person for their losses in WWII. It wasn’t inheritable, a person had to be alive to be given the allocated money. 

It wasn’t really very much, and my parents had already passed away, so they didn’t get anything,” he said.  

Ikeda’s parents were among the thousands who migrated to Seabrook Farms in New Jersey after release from incarceration. Their previous home in California had been seized by the government and was no longer available to them. Desperate to free themselves from the stigma of prison, they followed the group and relocated to the cold Northeast where the conditions were difficult in a different way. Even so, the Ikedas remained loyal to the United States. They had raised their family, made close friends, and eventually lived a better life. Ikeda didn’t follow his parents to New Jersey. Instead, he attended a university in Minnesota after the war and later accepted a teaching position in Montana where he still lives today.

Ikeda’s love for books inspired him to become a teacher at Great Falls Elementary School. Later, he was promoted to principal, and later still he was the first Asian-American to be elected as County Superintendent of Schools in Montana. Ikeda still talks about the kind librarian who chose to look the other way so that two young boys could continue their education while under confinement. 

When Ikeda turned eighty-nine, he and his youngest daughter boarded a chartered plane in Billings, Montana for Washington D.C. as guests of the Big Sky Honor Flight. The nonprofit offered him two seats on an all-expenses-paid tour to the war memorials. An honor reserved only for veterans. Ikeda donned the commemorative baseball cap with pride and a bit of boast as he embarked on the flight to his nation’s capital. Almost seventy years had passed since the war had ended and he was finally a recognized veteran. He had lived to see the day.

On Ikeda and his daughter’s return flight from Washington, letters of appreciation written by family members were given to the veterans. They read their letters in silence, during the reenactment of Mail Call, a cherished ritual established during the war. I had written Uncle Tug a letter, thanking him for his service and commending his perseverance. I told him I was grateful that he had become my role model and the person I have looked up to since our first deep talk over Italian food so many years ago.

With this simple short, but significant trip, it was as if an invisible weight had been lifted from Ikeda’s shoulders. I could see in the way he spoke about his war time experiences. He didn’t shrug or slump his shoulders. He stood tall and wore his baseball cap. When former enlisted personnel see him wearing this cap, they greet him, “Thank you for your service, sir.” He smiles, nods, and acts as if this has been happening all his life.

Today, when driving through the Salinas Valley, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like when the Ikedas grew their lettuce at the southern edge of Silicon Valley. How determined they must have been to build a better future by having their children attend two schools, learn two languages, and serve this country in wartime. The landscape currently dominated by garlic, mushrooms, and vineyards was once home to my uncle and his family. The crops have changed as have the faces and ethnicity of the people - Asians now comprise only a small percentage of the total population. The injustices of wartime hysteria are buried deep in the soil here, but the victims have moved on with their lives and their descendants have flourished elsewhere. Tsugio Ikeda, a farmer’s son, an internee, and a war veteran, became an educator, community leader, and mentor, emerging triumphant despite being unjustly incarcerated. Proof that, like the seeds of future crops, the human spirit can continue to grow, even when abruptly transplanted.  

Cyndie Zikmund’s essays have appeared in Cutleaf, Under the Gum Tree, Pink Panther Magazine, Magnolia Review, and The Literary Traveler. Her book reviews have been published by River Teeth, and Southern Review of Books, her poems by North Dakota Quarterly Review and In a Woman’s Voice, and guest blog at Women Writing the West. Cyndie has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, MBA from Santa Clara University, and BS EECS from UC Berkeley.

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