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For Japanese-Americans, new roots in a farm town

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MARENGO, Ill. -- On a brisk fall day, months before the Pacific War ended, Sakaye Kometani arrived at her new home to find a ramshackle farmhouse overgrown with 5-foot ragweed, an outhouse in the yard, no running water. The four Kometani children never forgot that day -- it was the first time they saw their mother cry.

"Dad," they remember her tearfully saying, "how can you bring us to a place like this?"

Freed from the barbed wire confinement of an internment camp, Mrs. Kometani and the children traveled from Wyoming to Chicago, then northwest to Marengo and a reunion with her husband. In the flatlands of Illinois, they would begin again, would try to reclaim the life they knew before the attack on Pearl Harbor, before Americans of Japanese descent became foreigners in their own country.

Today, the roots of the Kometani family are still in this Illinois farm town.

In this, the 50th anniversary of the end of the World War II, countries the world over are celebrating with parades and somber memorials. Victories are being heralded as former enemies extend a hand of respect. Veterans recount the great battles of the war, while speechmakers recall the maimed and mourn the dead. Among those who served honorably were more than 33,000 nisei, persons of Japanese descent born and educated in the United States.

But for many Japanese-Americans, this year marks a different occasion: the end of their imprisonment in U.S. detention camps. Eight of the 10 so-called "relocation centers" -- desolate, dusty compounds with barracks and guard towers -- closed in 1945.

The camp closures ended a stark period of injustice in U.S. history -- 120,000 Japanese-Americans, the majority of them American citizens, were interned during the war. The closures also ushered in a wave of resettlement as Japanese-Americans, stripped of their possessions at the time of internment, left the camps with little more than what they could carry.

"Our only sins were [that] we were the descendants of the same race that we were at war with, the Japanese," recalled Shigeo Wakamatsu, 80, a former president of the Chicago office of the Japanese American Citizens League who arrived in the Midwest in April 1943.

For some Japanese-Americans, the prospect of a job and a security clearance brought freedom from the camps. But they were barred from strategic defense areas such as the West Coast and warned against congregating with other Japanese-Americans.

Eastern migration

In the slow exodus from the United States' World War II concentration camps, Japanese-Americans headed east, to cities as different as Mankato, Minn., and St. Louis, to jobs as diverse as department store clerks and chicken sexers. Thousands got no further than Chicago.

During 1945, more Japanese-Americans resettled in Chicago than in any other city in the country, although they represented less than 1 percent of the city's population. (Their numbers would eventually grow to 26,000 in 1946, up from 25 in 1943.)

Chicago "seemed to have magnetic qualities almost from the very beginning," an official with the U.S. government's War Relocation Authority wrote in a 1946 report.

One of the first Chicago companies to offer employment to issei (native Japanese who emigrated to the United States after 1907) and nisei, their American-born children, was Otto Schnering's Curtiss Candy Co., creator of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger.

More than 100 Japanese-Americans accepted jobs from Mr. Schnering, then the largest candy maker in the world. They packed Butterfingers in Curtiss plants on Chicago's South Side. They grew potatoes, tended dairy cows and raised prized bulls on Curtiss farms in Marengo and Cary. Some even worked at the Schnering estate on the Fox River, north of Chicago.

Curtiss factory workers earned 50 cents to 75 cents an hour, with bonuses and overtime. They received a bounty in benefits: vacation pay, health insurance, profit-sharing, a pension plan. Farm hands earned $25 a week, with housing.

Kizo Kometani was among the early Curtiss workers.

The 38-year-old father of four accepted a position as a mechanic on the Curtiss farm in Marengo. After a few months, he decided that his family would make a new start here, 60 miles from Chicago. He sent for them in October 1944.

In time, the candy company remodeled the big white house as promised and the Kometanis lived there happily until they moved into town.

Mrs. Kometani, now 85 and widowed, lives there still.

"We didn't look back," Mrs. Kometani said recently, recalling her family's wartime odyssey that began with removal from their home in Auburn, Wash., detention in three camps and, finally, the move to Marengo. "My husband, he always said, 'Look ahead, not in the past. Live every day as if it were your last, and think of others who are [more] unfortunate than yourself."

As many as 44 Japanese-Americans came to live in Marengo during the war years. The first were to arrive at the 2,200-acre Curtiss farm in the spring of 1943.

Town debate

With the war still raging, Curtiss discussed the plan with town leaders -- the police chief, newspaper editor, American Legion post commander, school superintendent and "town gossip" included. A story in the Marengo Republican-News described the Japanese-American farmhands as "good, honest, hard-working Christian people" whose "background and character has been carefully examined by federal authorities and all are known to be loyal American citizens."

Then this headline appeared in the Chicago Tribune: "Object to Jap Farmer Group Near Marengo." The town mayor told the newspaper: "These may be good people and entitled to respect as American citizens but I don't think they should be allowed to come to town. Too many people here have boys in the service, and they just don't like having Japs around."

The publicity -- and assertion that Marengo citizens feared trouble if the Japanese-Americans arrived -- caused an outcry in Marengo. Ministers in the town of 2,000 objected publicly to the Tribune's misrepresentation of the community's views and defended the rights of the Japanese-Americans to work and live in Marengo.

The Kiwanis Club roundly endorsed the hiring plan. A high school journalism class polled students and found all but one in support of the workers.

Finally, the mayor of Marengo invited Curtiss officials to appear before the City Council to discuss the "Japanese-American problem." The debate in the town hall that May evening was impassioned.

"Remember, this was a town that had no Orientals, no blacks, no Mexicans," recalled longtime resident Mary Weaver. "It was Swedish, German, Irish and, my grandfather said,'damn Yankees.' Some of them had probably never seen a Japanese if they hadn't been into Chicago."

But when the talk subsided, the people voted 62-21 in favor of the Curtiss workers.

Sixteen Japanese-Americans arrived at the Curtiss farm soon after. Except for a restaurant owner who had lost a son in the Pacific, the town was polite and cordial.

"They were all very surprised that we could speak English," recalled Toshiko Dogen, 77, one of the first who left Marengo to return to Washington state with her family in the fall of 1947. "I guess they thought we would only talk Japanese."

The Rev. Norman L. Godbey, a retired minister now living in Indiana, remembered a Sunday morning when five Japanese-Americans walked into his First Baptist Church of Marengo.

"Things were a little tense for a moment," the 80-year-old pastor recalled. "When the service was over, I was never so proud of the church in all my life. They nearly fell over to reach out to them and make them welcome."

A new beginning

By the time the Kometanis arrived in Marengo in late October 1944, several Japanese families had been living on the Curtiss farm for about a year. Within six months, the ramshackle house was remodeled into the beautiful new home that Mrs. Kometani and her children had thought they would find. No more wood stove. No more baths in a hollowed-out barrel. No more outhouse. The family shared the house with another Japanese family, who lived upstairs.

Mrs. Kometani got a job making mousetraps at a factory in town. In the early days, the children -- Ted, Tom, George and Dorothy -- attended a one-room schoolhouse. A neighboring farmer picked them up in his 1941 Dodge sedan and drove them to school.

The family ate chickens, eggs and milk provided by the Curtiss farms. In summer, the boys worked on the farm, sometimes alongside their father in the machine shop. They fished in Coon Creek, shared the family's lone bicycle and learned to drive on the gravel roads that crisscrossed the farm. Each week, a parishioner from Mr. Godbey's Baptist church picked up the Kometani kids for Sunday services. The farm families picnicked and partied together, sometimes in the yard of the big white house beside a row of pine trees.

Rarely, though, did they travel as a group to town, mindful of the resettlement officials' admonishment "to make yourself inconspicuous."

"As a kid, I kind of remember hating going out in public because of being so self-conscious," said Thomas Y. Kometani, 60, an engineer for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. "But once we got out into the community, we were accepted. We became part of the town."

After the war ended and anti-Japanese feelings on the West Coast softened, most of the Japanese-Americans who came to Marengo left. Only three families remained. The Kometanis moved into town in 1950 after Curtiss shut down the farm operation. Mr. Kometani got a job as a welder in the local metals factory and remained there until his death at age 57 in 1962.

Behavior burden

Although Marengo was "home" to the Kometani children, they always had to be on their best behavior.

"I was always told by my parents to set a good example. Be a good citizen. Don't do anything bad, it will cast a bad reflection on the family and also on the Japanese people," said George Kometani, 57, a massage therapist in California. "That's quite a burden to put on a little kid."

Burden or not, the Kometani children headed off to Marengo Community High School. And one by one, they involved themselves in class activities just like their Caucasian classmates and the Japanese-American students before them.

Ted served as vice president of his senior class -- the yearbook predicted that he would work someday as an interpreter for the United Nations. Tom played football and was elected president of his junior class. George also played football, sang in the choir, served as president of the student body and was named salutatorian of his graduating class.

Dorothy played oboe in the school band and sang in the choir.

"My first inkling I wasn't an ugly duckling was when they voted me class queen in my freshman year of high school," recalled Dorothy Kometani Kittaka, an accomplished operatic singer and music teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind.

If the Kometani children felt that their behavior would affect the town's view of Japanese-Americans, they said they never experienced any prejudice because of their heritage.

"I never felt discrimination in Marengo because they treated us so well," George said. "The first time I felt real discrimination was when I came out here [California]. There are so many Japanese out here, we're a visible group, an economic threat to the community. When they spoke about the Japanese community, they spoke about 'you people.' In Marengo, we were only three families. We posed no threat at all."

Ted explained it this way: People in Marengo "accepted us as people, not Japanese people."

Staying at home

While her children eventually left Marengo, Sakaye Kometani remained in the white cottage on Locust Street that the family bought with a $2,000 down payment, money they received from the sale of her husband's auto body shop in Washington state.

Two other Japanese-American families who arrived during the war still reside in Marengo. Rose Uyeda lives with her 93-year-old mother on West Grant Highway and runs a beauty shop in nearby Belvedere. Her brother Jesse and his wife live up the street. Carol and Al Yamaoka winter in Florida, but return for the summers to be with their children.

At 85, Mrs. Kometani is still selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, a career she began in 1973 after retiring from the local mousetrap factory. On a good day, she can put 75 miles on her Ford Escort station wagon. Recently, her son-in-law asked her to move to Indiana to be near her grandchildren. She politely declined.

Marengo, she said, "it's home."

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