Times Past

‘Go and serve your country’: Eto family member recalls going from internment camp to war

Tameji Eto gives his blessing to his son-in-law, Leo Kikuchi, and his son, Ronnie, at a high security relocation camp in Louisiana, February 1944.
Tameji Eto gives his blessing to his son-in-law, Leo Kikuchi, and his son, Ronnie, at a high security relocation camp in Louisiana, February 1944.

“I could not believe what I heard — so I asked him if I was hearing correctly.”

Leo Kikuchi had just told his wife that he was going to enlist in the U.S. Army. Susy Eto Kikuchi, who was born in Los Osos, was pregnant with their second child.

Leo’s decision was made while the Kikuchis were literally imprisoned in a war relocation camp in Colorado.

Susy continues her story:

‟Leo returned from work and told me that he had signed up to serve along with many other buddies from our camp. They were going to join the 442nd regiment consisting of Japanese American citizens. Hawaii had already formed a 100th Battalion, consisting of Hawaiian Japanese Americans.

‟I could not believe what I heard — so I asked him if I was hearing correctly. Surely, he must be kidding! When he said he was serious, I said, ‛What! After all that we were put through — uprooted from our homes and farms that took a lifetime for our parents to acquire! After all the racial discrimination and ill treatment we went through before coming into camp!

“Forced into camps when we are American citizens! There’s no guarantee you’ll return — and if that should happen, what will I do with two small children? How will I support us?’

‟With a serious and troubled look, Leo said, ‛Susy, those are the very reasons I must prove we’re not traitors, but true loyal American citizens who are willing to go fight for our country in time of need! Then, our children and future generations of Japanese Americans will be treated like other Americans. Of course, it won’t be easy for you — or for me — but I feel it’s my duty.’

‟I thought quietly for a while. Then I said, ‛Leo, if you’re willing to lay down your life to pave the way for all of us, I’m being selfish in wanting to keep you here. I’ll support you all the way.’

‟Leo was overjoyed that I understood. But my heart ached.

‟We were transferred to Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, so we could be near Leo, who would soon be training in Mississippi.

‟After we were in Arkansas, we learned my father was in a relocation camp in Louisiana.”

Los Osos rancher Tameji Eto was arrested by county sheriffs on Dec. 7, 1941. Hundreds of “leading” Japanese-Americans along the Pacific Coast had been seized.

“Leo and I received special permission to see him. We took a train to the camp. After a two-hour wait, he was finally brought to us.

‟I was overjoyed to see him, as we did not know his whereabouts ever since he was taken to a Santa Barbara jail cell. We embraced and sat down next to him, but how sad to see him looking so thin and frail!

“He was surrounded with a much higher barbed wire fence than our camp, with guards in the four tall towers, ready to shoot if anyone tried to escape.”

Tameji Eto said that one man in camp became hysterical and started to climb the jagged barbed wire fence. The guards shot him down right before the eyes of the other prisoners.

‟My father had gone through so much, but after Leo explained his reasons for enlisting, he said, ‛Leo, you’re an American citizen. You have a duty to perform for your country. Go and serve your country — our country, the best way you know how.’”

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series honoring Susie Eto Kukuchi Bauman, who will be 100 years old this month.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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