People often come to StoryCorps to reflect on the experiences that have shaped their lives.
And sometimes looking back and talking about the past isn’t easy… it takes a lot of courage.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Jasmyn Morris. This week… we’ll hear from two men on surviving a dark chapter in U.S. history… and how decades later… they finally found the words to talk about it.
Our first story comes from Shig Yabu… who was just 10 years old in 1941 when the news broke that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. Ten weeks after the bombing… President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order leading to the forced relocation and incarceration of more than one hundred thousand people of Japanese descent.
At 87 years old… Shig came to StoryCorps with his grandson… to remember his experiences of being an internee at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
Shig Yabu (SY): At the very beginning, we were not allowed to go beyond the barbed wire fence. But it didn’t take long for the guards to figure out, if we were to escape where are we going to go? So we spread the barbed wire and we would all take turns crawling through. We found a little pond area; that became our private swimming pool and we became slingshot shooters.
One day, one of the boys said, ‘I bet no one could hit that magpie nest,’ which is very high up on a willow tree. But eventually, we hit the nest, it hit the ground, rolled and stopped. And when I peeked in, this little baby bird was begging for food. And I decided to adopt that magpie, which I called Maggie.
My stepfather made a cage and everytime I left or returned, I would say ‘Hello Maggie,’ and she repeated, ‘Hello Maggie.’ And if somebody would laugh, she could imitate the exact laughter. Which meant kids, seniors, teenagers–you name it–all came to see her.
That magpie loved people. I don’t think she realized she was a bird. During the summer, we allowed Maggie to go out and roam between the barracks and she was like a social worker; she was so compassionate with the internees.
August the 14th, 1945 the sirens went off, so we knew that the war was going to end but our family did not leave, not until the next-to-the-last train. Each week we would go to the train track and wave goodbye and good luck to those leaving. So Heart Mountain became a ghost town. It was the saddest feeling ‘cause there was nobody to play with. But I was fortunate; Maggie and I would talk for hours.
Well two weeks before we left, Maggie was on the bottom of the cage with just her eyes flickering and, early in the morning, Maggie…she died.
So I dug a hole; placed her favorite toys, put my old t-shirt on Maggie and buried her, made a dirt mound, made a cross.
Even to this day, her legacy still stands. That little bird kept the spirits up for all the internees and, when she was no longer needed, she went to heaven.
That was Shig Yabu with his grandson, Evan Yabu, at StoryCorps in California.
After the war… Shig returned home to San Francisco and started playing sports at the local YMCA. That’s where he met Willie Ito… who also liked sports but preferred to spend his time drawing cartoons… a passion he picked up after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a child…
Willie Ito (WI): I remember the seven little men walking across the screen, singing, ‘Heigh ho, heigh ho…’ and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to be.’ Not one of the seven dwarves, but an animated cartoonist.
But like Shig, Willie’s childhood had also been interrupted at the height of World War II… when he and his family were evacuated from their home and sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.
At StoryCorps, Willie told his son Vincent about that time.
WI: We were only allowed to take what we could carry—two little suitcases with our basic needs. And then, when we got to the area where we had to check in, we got nametags and, as we approached the camp, we could see rows of black buildings. The dust was whipping up like fine talcum powder and I remember looking at my grandfather, who had on his dark overcoat and fedora and it was all white with dust.
My grandfather, he emigrated from Japan. He had a nice little business and suddenly the
rug was pulled out from under him. And when he went to camp, he actually died of a broken heart.
That was the first time that I attended a funeral. Back then the makeup process–the embalming, and whatever–was crude, and it was done in camp, so my grandfather didn’t look like my grandfather. That gave me a image that I could never erase out of my mind. And doing, you know, cartoons that was really, I guess you might say, some form of escapism.
While we were in camp, I honed my interest in animation with the old Sears and Roebuck catalogs. I would spend meticulous hours drawing little figures in the margins.
And then I would flip it like a flip book and that was my very early foray into the art of animation.
So when we came back from camp, although I wanted to be a Walt Disney artist, I didn’t think that I would be going to work there because, from me being incarcerated for three years, what kind of chance am I going to have to work at a place like Disney?
Vincent Ito (VI): Can you tell me what it was like the day you went in for your first interview at Disney Studios?
WI: I’m nineteen years old. That particular day, I stepped into the elevator and as the door was closing, it suddenly swung open, and standing before me was Walt Disney himself. As Walt stepped in, he nodded and I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God.’ Literally. ‘Oh, my God.’ [Laughs.]
I always perceived Walt Disney as sort of a lily-white studio but a Japanese American, Iwao Takamoto, walked in and says, ‘We love your work. You’re hired.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be true!’
They said, ‘We’re going to start you in the Lady Unit.’ Back then, the studios had inking and painting department with nothing but ladies working in it. So I thought, Well, that must be the entry level. Then, when you cut the mustard, they’ll move you up into animation. But it was Lady of Lady and the Tramp, and the very first scene that they assigned me to work on was the iconic spaghetti kissing scene.
When I came to Los Angeles to seek my fame and fortune, it was quite intimidating. But if I’m in front of a blank sheet of paper with a pencil, I find such solace. I knew, by hook or crook, this is what I want to do and today I am very proud of what I did.
That was Willie Ito at StoryCorps in Los Angeles.
After Lady and the Tramp… Willie went on to animate shows like The Jetsons and The Flintstones.
Technically… Willie retired in 1999. But that same year… he got a call from his old friend Shig… and agreed to do one last job. More on that after this short break…
Willie Ito and Shig Yabu shared a unique bond having both survived being interned as children. But it would be decades before they would speak to each other about the history that linked them.
SY: We never talked about the camps. And it was later on in life that we talked to each other. I don’t know why. I guess, I thought that nobody really cared.
WI: Well, there’s that saying, Shikata ga nai, and it means: it happened, and we’ll just forget about it. And that’s what a lot of Japanese felt; What else can we do about it?
There was a certain amount of shame plastered on all Japanese Americans because it was the Japanese that bombed Pearl Harbor.
SY: Actually, when I went to school. The teacher said, ‘I want you guys to write an autobiography.’ Well, I thought, what else is there to talk about but the camp? But soon after that, our teacher asked me to come up to the desk and told me, ‘I do not ever want you to talk or write about camp.’ But guess what? Now I write about it. I talk about it without shame because I did not do anything wrong. [Laughs.]
WI: I never really gave it a second thought until you called me once. I was 65 at that point, just about ready to retire after a 45 year career and I was ready to hang up my pencil. You says, ‘Would you be interested in illustrating this book that I wrote?’ And I said, ‘Well, Shig, you know, God I’m..I’m tired. I just want to enjoy life, you know?’
WI: But then you sent me the manuscript and I’m reading it when I realized, Oh, my gosh. This is about our incarceration. It was a poignant story of your pet, Maggie.
I had kids by then. I would ask my kids, ‘Do they teach or mention anything about our incarceration?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, the would briefly say World War II, the Japanese were sent to camps’ and then that was about the extent of it.’ So I thought, ‘You know, if I could help Shig illustrate his book, so the books could be given to kids and grandkids, I think it would be worth it for me to sit down and do this. And, of course, the rest is history.
SY: I think the story has to be told over and over because there are a lot of people still that say, that actually happened? That existed? So you’re an inspiration and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.
WI: We’re the last of the survivors of that era and, to be able to talk about it, I feel very proud to pass on this experience.
That’s old friends Willie Ito and Shig Yabu… who… after writing the children’s book Hello Maggie… helped shed light on some of America’s darkest days during World War II.
That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast. It was produced by Mia Warren, Sylvie Lubow, and Jud Esty-Kendall. Our production assistant is Eleanor Vassili. Our intern is Zahra Crim. Jarrett Floyd is our engineer. Fact-checking by Natsumi Ajisaka. And special thanks to StoryCorps facilitators Rochelle Kwan and Kevin Oliver.
To see what music we used in this episode… and to see original artwork… go to our website, StoryCorps.org.
Join us next week, when we’ll bring you two stories that’ll be certain to get you in the holiday spirit.
For the StoryCorps podcast… I’m Jasmyn Morris. Thanks for listening.