The Nishijima family was a part of the very diverse Pismo Beach community in the 1920s and 30s. Lillian, the second of twelve children in this hardworking farm family, attended Pismo School.
Although the Nishijimas were Buddhist, Lillian’s friends included Yotso Sakamoto and Rosita Phillips from Christian families. The girls in her class all ate lunch and played together at school.
Lillian was 14 in the ninth grade at Arroyo Grande High School when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Her father, Hiyoshi, wasn’t picked up by Sheriff Murray Hathaway or the FBI as some other heads of families were.
Lillian speculates that this may have been because he wasn’t a recognized community leader. He was only six months old when he came to Hawaii.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. The “War Relocation Order” required the West Coast military command to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” It was primarily aimed at the Japanese Americans.
The boundaries rapidly moved to the east. First it was Highway 1, then 101 and finally Highway 99 in the Central Valley.
The Nishijimas decided to move to Delano where farmland was available for leasing.
“We drove to Delano in three cars and our truck, along with the Sakamotos and their eight children, and the Tanouye family and their three kids. We were fortunate to live in town in a kind of warehouse owned by an Armenian.”
In Delano, Lillian discovered she no longer was a part of the town where she was living. The Mexicans, Filipinos and other immigrant groups lived on one side of town, the white people on the other. Delano stood in stark contrast to Pismo Beach.
The family didn’t stay in Delano for long.
On May 3, 1942, General John L. DeWitt issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34. All people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, living in “Military Area No. 1,” the entire Pacific coast to about 100 miles inland, must report to assembly centers, where they would live until being moved to permanent Relocation Centers.
The Nishijimas were sent to a camp at Poston, Arizona.
They were allowed to take only what they could carry aboard the train. Lillian recalls how “we had to leave Rex, our German shepherd, a really good pet and watchdog, with our landlord.”
The train was guarded and the window shades pulled down. After many hours of travel, they arrived at the Colorado River Indian Reservation, where the camp was being built.
The barracks were partitioned into units with bed space for six people. The Nishijimas occupied two adjoining units. Evaporative air coolers didn’t arrive for about a year. It got up to 118 degrees during the summer of 1942 at Poston.
Lillian had to stuff a mattress bag with straw for her bed. There were scorpions. Lillian’s friend noticed a red streak running up her leg. She hurried Lillian to the infirmary. Lillian was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
For twenty days, her leg was packed in hot towels as the insect bite was slowly drained of poison.
“I didn’t have time to go to her barracks and get her toothbrush.”
Liz Krieger was co-author of this week’s column.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.