The Nishijima family experienced a reversal of environmental fortunes in 1942. They were forced to move from the gentle climate of Pismo Beach to the fogs of the Central Valley. Then they had to leave Delano and travel in a guarded train with the window shades pulled down to a forlorn site in the Arizona desert.
The Poston War Relocation Camp was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The Tribal Council objected to the camp’s presence.
It wanted no part in the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the same way its own people had once been rounded up.
But the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarded the camp as a means to encourage and fund Indian farming operations.
The bureau also thought that the Nisei farmers (first-generation Japanese) could serve as mentors to the Chemehuevi, Mohavi, Hopi and Navajo peoples who had been relocated to the inhospitable lands beginning in 1865.
The War Relocation Authority was not permitted to spend funds to help the Native Americans, but some of the Nisei volunteered to teach modern farming methods to the tribe.
For 14-year-old Lillian Nishijima Sakurai, life at Poston was a matter of dealing with the heat, isolation and boredom.
“We used to join (another) family in the barracks for singing outside on hot nights. Two of their children played ukulele, and another played the steel guitar.
“We had our first classes in barracks scattered all over the camp. Eventually, a school was built. I remember Miss Wiseman, a teacher from New York, she was probably just out of teaching school.
“In the first year at the camp, there were no flowers or decorative plants. The mother of a Pismo family died at Poston. The children made paper flowers for their mother’s funeral.
“I played catcher on a girl’s baseball team. I was allowed to leave the camp for the first time. We traveled to Phoenix in 1944 for a softball game. There, I was mistaken for an Indian.
“My brother, Paul, discovered swimming at the nice pool at Camp II. We were in Camp I. A few years later, the San Jose State swimming coach saw him and urged him to join the team. But our father, who only went through the fourth grade and didn’t realize the importance of a college education, said no, because he needed him in the fields.
“My high school friend from Arroyo Grande, Barbara Gerber of Oceano, daughter of the Dr. Gerber who helped the Dunites, twice mailed me chocolate chip cookies while we were at Poston.
“My bother Victor was born in the camp at Poston. My father had a sense of humor. With two fingers, Pop made a V for victory when a neighbor asked about the baby.”
Lillian graduated from high school at Poston in June 1945.
“When it was time to leave camp the following September, I joined a group heading for Los Angeles. We stayed in a hostel for a few days while somebody could give us leads on obtaining domestic jobs.”
Most of her family returned to the Central Coast. They no longer had a home or leased land in Pismo, so they stayed at the Japanese School on Cherry Street in Arroyo Grande.
“Lloyd was a strapping 6-foot, 1-inch senior on the Arroyo Grande High 1946 basketball team, while Paul played football. Kaz Ikeda says, ‘In those days, before television for entertainment, it was so good to see all the town people come and start watching Lloyd at the games, and it seemed to make prejudice disappear.’ ”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.