History and the people who make it: Howard K. Suzuki

Dr. Howard K. Suzuki [S], former UF Dean, anatomist/physiologist, wildlife sculptor and photographer, was interviewed by Don Obrist [O] in November 2011. 

This is the 66th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler; notations in [square brackets] by SPOHP. 

O: Your date of birth?

S: April 3, 1927.

O: Where were you born?

S: In Ketchikan, Alaska. My father was born in Tokyo in the late 1800s and came to the United States around 1910 to work for the Great Northern Railway Company. He stayed there until 1914 thereabouts, then he moved to Ketchikan. At that time, he saved enough money that he was able to send for his bride. He had started a laundry and dry cleaning business. They worked hard like many of the immigrants would and still do. 

He had two girls, my older sisters. They were born in 1915 and in 1917. Then I was born in 1927. But there was ten–twelve years’ difference. I never really got to know them that well. The younger sister decided to go to Japan to visit the relatives, my dad’s brother. Then when war broke out on December 7th, 1941, she was stuck in Japan. She was an American citizen. We were able to communicate with her occasionally because she was able to get a position with the International Red Cross. But immediately after December 7th, the U.S. Marshals came and picked up my dad.

O: Was your dad a citizen?

S: No. At that time, no Asians could become citizens. It was only after World War II that my folks were able to get their citizenship.

O: You were a citizen because you were born here.

S: Yes. But because of the events of Pearl Harbor and the invasions in the South Pacific, the Philippines and China and so forth, the United States was really traumatized. The General of the West Coast made an order to intern all men of Japanese ancestry. As long as they’re male and had any Japanese blood in them, they were to be put into this prison.

O: I believe the exact number was one-sixteenth Japanese blood. I did a little research on that.

S: So he was separated from us then. My parents had the business and that went to pot because he had several Japanese employees and one Caucasian. The Japanese men were also put in the same jail.

In February of [19]42 we were given orders to be removed from Alaska. We were only allowed a couple of suitcases and we had to sell a lot of things, like – my dad had a boat and had to practically give it away, car. The business was taken over by the military because we had contracts with the military to do laundry and dry cleaning because they had the military base on another island adjacent to Ketchikan. 

In early April we were put on a military ship. We were put into the hold. Men were separated from the women, men and boys. We went down on that ship to Seattle. We were treated like prisoners of war – allowed one hour out on deck with armed guards and so forth. It’s pretty traumatic when you’re fourteen.

There was no question about prejudice. In Ketchikan there were five families of Japanese ancestry. We lived more or less in one section of town, away from downtown, close to Ketchikan Creek, and my dad had his business facing the creek. Our house faced the creek and across the creek were a lot of houses. I was twelve or fourteen and I used to stand up there and see the houses with the red lights on them and I’d ask my dad what they were. 

Well, actually the houses along the boardwalk across the creek were the red light district. [Laughter] Because there were many military, it was used quite frequently. They had many, many, many saloons for a town of five thousand. I first learned about the so-called prophylactic stations where when people got venereal disease the treatment was horrible, injecting mercury or whatever into the genitalia. In spite of all that before the war we used to have a lot of fun, fishing, boating and hiking and things like that.

O: That’s where you get your love for the outdoors.

S: Yes. I used to try to catch salmon during the migration when I’d get in the middle of the creek and try to grab them. Occasionally I’d catch a salmon because, you know, there were thousands. I had some very, very close Caucasian friends and we just palled around together. We were not concerned about racial segregation. The only thing about segregation that I noticed was that they had tennis and that was restricted primarily to Caucasians. We were not included in that and so I have never played golf or played tennis. I never joined a country club although I had been invited to join.

I remember our neighbors of Japanese ancestry went to the University of Washington. They would get advanced degrees – chemistry, or pharmacy or what-have-you – and they couldn’t get a job. The guy with a bachelor’s degree like chemistry would come back and work in his dad’s grocery store or bakery store. 

Because I was interned that was a period that allowed me to become free and the people, my mentors, Caucasian and of Japanese ancestry, kind of pushed me and got me out of things. I was able to go on to get advanced degrees and positions. So I look at my personal experience being interred as a very positive one.

Anyway, once we got into Seattle, we were put into closed buses with shades on it and we were put into a racetrack, a Puyallup racetrack where they had crudely built barracks. Many families, had to live in the horse stalls. We stayed there from April until August of 1942.

O: How were you treated by the guards?

S: Fine. The War Relocation Authority [The War Relocation Authority was the part of the U.S. Army that oversaw Japanese internment camps in the Western states] hired a lot of Caucasian teachers. It was not until we were moved to Idaho, in Minidoka, near Pocatello that we started school. There was a rush to build these ten or fifteen relocation camps throughout the United States. Arkansas had two, Wyoming had one, Idaho had one, California had a couple. They had special ones in Texas for the Axis. That means German and Italian. Some Japanese were put in there.

Going back to April through August at the racetrack – I don’t know how many thousands were from Seattle and Portland and I came from Ketchikan and there were others from Juneau and Anchorage – you know few families and we were most used to dealing with and socializing with Caucasians and here, ninety-nine point five percent were of Japanese ancestry. 

We did not speak Japanese in our house. I knew a few words but it was very traumatizing for me, because I couldn’t speak Japanese to many of the first generation called Issei, and the second generation, Nisei. My children would be Sansei, or the third generation.

My dad had short-wave radio and they would listen to broadcasts from Japan. As soon as the war broke out the Government – I don’t know who, if it was the FBI or Immigration or what – they came in and took the short-wave radio portion out of the radio so the radio was essentially useless because it messed up the regular AM.

O: Now when you left the racetrack and went to Idaho…

S: We were put in a train again. The shades were drawn down so we couldn’t see anything. We arrived in August I think, in this desert, hot, sagebrush and so forth, with barbed wire with guard towers. They had all long barracks. We were assigned rooms. My dad was put in Los Alamos with a special camp.

O: So he was separated from the family.

S: Oh yeah. All men of Japanese ancestry and immigrants, because they were not citizens, were placed in that Los Alamos camp. And that included Hawaii Buddhist priests. The reason why the people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii were not interred –

O: There were so many of them, right?

S: Sixty percent or whatever. [Laughter] There would be nothing. Who would run the place? Who would do the work?

But let me digress again. My wife – she’s from Hawaii, born and raised there and her dad had to go help his brother in Honolulu on December 7th. He went out to the porch that early Sunday morning and saw unusual flight of airplanes and said that’s unusual to be doing military maneuvers and then he saw the big red ball underneath the wings, then he knew. he was then not allowed to return to the other island where the family was. He had to stay in Honolulu for another three months. That was another traumatic experience.

O: Your dad is in Los Alamos –

S: So we had to write letters. All the letters were censored because they were opened just like the military. If you were a soldier overseas you still had all that.

In the internment camp we went to school. I was what, ninth grade, eighth grade The books were all used. They didn’t have enough. The teachers were Caucasian in the main, who were excellent teachers but they had very little supplies.

We were living in a room that was probably no bigger than 12 by 15. There were three of us, my older sister, and my mother and myself. Families that had bigger rooms, there would be four or five children, mother and father all in the same room. Fathers from the West Coast, Seattle, Portland, so forth did not have to go to New Mexico. It was only the people from Alaska. We were isolated, separated from the rest.

O: How was the food?

S: My mother used to work in the mess hall. At first we had Spam three times a day. [Laughter] Very ingenious how they could make Spam so many different ways. [Laughter] It was many, many years after that I would even look at a can of Spam. They had a lot of truck farmers, doing vegetables and so forth, and then had to give up all their land or rent it out to Caucasians. But anyway, the vegetable gardens were excellent.

I forgot to mention too, that while we were in camp – right after the war started my dad’s insurance company canceled the insurance to his business and home so the place was uninsured – while we were in camp and my dad was down in New Mexico, the place burned down and killed several military men. My folks never got any remuneration from that even though we tried to hire lawyers, and even after the war couldn’t get anything. He had the insurance but they cancelled it because he was, quote, an enemy alien. I know that was hard on my folks.

I worked at the hospital as an orderly. They put me in a tuberculosis ward, too, and I knew nothing about tuberculosis and unfortunately I caught tuberculosis later on. I’m sure it was because of my –

O: Work?

S: – at the hospital. I used to go fishing. A friend of mine and I would sneak underneath the barbed wire with a guard watching us, going down to the river. We would take our rod, make a catch-carp and –

O: Why do you think the guard didn’t do anything?

S: I don’t know. We did sneaky things like that. I found out later on that a number of people were shot doing that. They were adults. But they had been doing the same thing I was.

Audio and full transcript of this interviews will be posted at https://ufdc.ufl.edu.

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