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People of Distinction

Resident Recalls Growing Up in Internment Camp

On February 19, 1942, two months after Congress declared war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Order 9066 authorizing certain areas of the United States be prescribed as military zones and clearing the way for the deportation of Japanese Americans.

As a result, roughly 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were evicted from the West Coast and held in camps across the country, including Vi at The Glen resident, Helen Kimura. 

From age four to seven, Kimura lived with her family in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, which housed 11,212 internees during its three years in operation.

Her story begins with the emigration of her father from Japan to California, who worked as a contract laborer on a vegetable farm. He married her mother in 1917. They had two boys and two girls and built a two-bedroom house in what is now Fremont. 

Then came Pearl Harbor and Order 9066.

“We were given 48 hours to pack. We could only take one bag,” said Kimura. 

The barracks were sectioned into six apartments where she, her teenaged sister and parents lived in a 15 by 20-foot room.  Her two older brothers joined the U.S. Army.  Three schools and a “very meager” health facility comprised the 42-block camp. Each housing block had 12 barracks, a mess hall, latrines, and showers. 

Over the course of the next three years, Kimura’s mother worked in the mess halls, her father dug ditches before he had a stroke, and her sister was in school before being sponsored to work for a family in Michigan.

“All semblance of the family unit was gone,” said Kimura. From age four to seven, Kimura was left more or less to her own devices. “I was a latchkey kid like all of my peers were – we knew we could take care of ourselves.”

When the war ended, the family was required to state their allegiance to the United States. They also had to have employment prospects ready. The family chose Chicago since one of Kimura’s brothers was recruited by a nearby manufacturing company, and her mother was able to find employment in a dress factory. 

The family of six moved into a one-bedroom, one bath apartment with no air conditioning in a neighborhood comprised of other Japanese Americans. “That was good because we had some support,” said Kimura. 

By the early 1950s, the neighborhood had begun to change. Her family pooled their money and bought a three-flat on the North Side.

Kimura attended Lake View High School, where there were no other Asian-Americans. “It was an epiphany. It forced me to join a lot of things, to get to know people. I gained a lot of recognition and because of the recognition, scholarships.”

From high school, Kimura worked her way through the University of Illinois and became an occupational therapist. She married her husband Paul in 1964. The couple, who lived in Park Ridge for many years, has six grandchildren. Paul died in 2012.

Reflecting on her years at Topaz, Kimura said: “Although it was very hard on my parents, it gave me a new set of values for starting from scratch. When we left Topaz, we had nothing.  I will always remember the courage and sacrifices of my parents and their daily example of ‘Gaman,’ which means in Japanese, “’perseverance with dignity in the face of adversity.’” 
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