I was born in 1929 in Winslow, Arizona, in the concrete apartment house built by the Santa Fe Railroad for the Japanese workers and their families, about 30 to 40 families, who worked for Santa Fe Railroad from the 1920s to the beginning of World War II on Dec. 7, 1941.

My father, Genkichi Joe Matsuda, and mother, Terumi, with my oldest sister, Emi, who was born in San Jose in 1921, came to Winslow in 1922. My older brother, Matt Yutaka, deceased in 2005, older sister, Lily, and I were born in the aforementioned apartment in Winslow. My father and other Japanese, primarily from Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku, Japan, worked diligently for 20 years or more in the Santa Fe Railroad’s roundhouse located across the railroad tracks from our apartment.

No sabotage, goofing off or taking sick leave for minor reasons were ever committed by the hard-working Japanese machinists. Santa Fe Railroad acknowledged the conscientious work by the Japanese Issei (first generation) and even built a large “ofuro” or Japanese bathtub with ample washing space similar to an “onsen” or hot spring in Japan where one washed himself/herself before entering the tub.

After our mother died in October 1938 and after Emi graduated from Winslow High School in 1939, our father took the four children to Japan and placed us in elementary and high schools in Kochi and Kyoto. Father returned to Winslow to continue working for Santa Fe Railroad. The four Matsuda children, Emi Hazama, Yutaka, Lily Okamura and John, returned to America in 1948 and 1949.

Winslow, a small town of about 9,600 people today, is located in the northern part of Arizona, 55 miles east of Flagstaff and 128 miles northeast of Mesa on Route 66, which is now famous for the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy” (“I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”). Winslow was not in the war zone area like the Pacific Coast states were when the war broke out. Why, then, were the Japanese and their U.S. citizen Nisei children sent to internment camps like Poston, Arizona and other camps in the U.S.?

Winslow Mail newspapers of Dec. 12, 1941, Jan. 16, 1942 and April 3, 1942 (copies kindly sent to me by Mrs. Tazuko Nomoto Akagi, former resident of Winslow) attribute the removal of the Japanese out of Santa Fe Railroad and the apartment house due to “possible risk that the Japanese were dangerous to have them work for the railroad company.”

But in talking to people older than I, like my sister Emi, before she suffered a stroke in the last two years and can no longer talk or write, and other second-generation Nisei who are in their late 80s, I get a different reason that probably caused the federal government to intern the Winslow Santa Fe Railroad Japanese workers and their families, primarily to Poston. The reason is as follows:

In the early 1920s, the Caucasian workers at Winslow Santa Fe Railroad went on a strike. Japanese workers contacted their relatives and friends to come to work at Winslow for the vacancies created by the strike. Since then, the Caucasian workers in Winslow harbored a grudge against the Japanese “strike-breakers.” The townspeople appealed to the federal authorities to remove the Japanese from Santa Fe Railroad.

We were not permitted to swim in the city pool except on the day before the dirty water was changed. Instead, we went to the nearby Clear Creek, which was not so clear with the clay soil, to swim in the summer. There was an attempt to segregate the Nisei students at the elementary school until my father and Emi (as interpreter for my father) went to school to protest and prevent the proposal for segregation from going into effect.

It is unfortunate that I can no longer talk to the deceased older Nisei men, Tatehiko and Mitsugi Nomoto, Ed Yamamoto, Namio Kitaoka, and brothers Bill, Jim and Joe Kawasaki and Toshiye Nomachi, who would have known much more in detail about the forced internment of Japanese from Winslow. None of the former Japanese workers were permitted to return to their Santa Fe Railroad jobs after the war.

I often think of Reiko Nomoto, who was a few years younger than I, and her father, Shigeji Nomoto, who with Mr. Tamanosuke Nomachi was taken to Department of Justice jails immediately after the war started. Reiko, who lived right across from our apartment unit in Winslow, was a cute little girl that I was fond of. Sadly, she suffered a great deal during the absence of her father who was in jail, far removed from Poston  and away from Mrs. Nomoto and Reiko until the end of the war.

Reiko Nomoto Akiyama died in her early 60s. I also lost my good friends in my age bracket, i.e., Takako Nomoto Kaneko, Shoko Nomoto Fukuda and Eugene Yamamoto.

I still remember going to the American Indian village, located next to the Japanese apartment compound, in the mid-1930s, with Toshiko Kawasaki Tamura to watch the Native American young men and women do ballroom dances in their recreation hall.

Toshiko Kawasaki, probably the oldest Nisei girl in Winslow, was in high school then; I met Toshiko Tamura 50 years later at ballroom dances in Los Angeles and Gardena. We both enjoyed dancing the waltz, tango, slow fox trot, quick step, swing and other Latin dances. Today, Toshiko Tamura is in the Keiro Nursing Home, and I wish her well and speedy recovery so she can dance again.

My father was interned in Poston with other bachelors. After the war he worked in the hot sun in Delano, picking grapes; became senile and passed away in September 1963 at age 76, a lonely man who worked all his life and never received the apology or $20,000 reparation from the U.S. government, because he died before Aug. 10, 1988 when the Civil Liberties Act was signed by President Reagan.

He is buried in Green Hills Memorial Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where he can see his beloved “furusato” hometown, Takaoka in Kochi, Japan.

May my father and all the other first-generation Issei and deceased Nisei of Winslow rest in peace.

Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences from your early years in Winslow. The descriptive narrative from John Matsuda was interesting from the standpoint that Grace and I visited Winslow several times during our drives on Route 66. What I found unique was the link that Winslow played in the railroads expansion of East to West. I recall that Asians worked on the railroads often at the expense of being massacred like at the famous Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
    I can only imagine the difficult times that railroad employees encountered. Now that John has shared his story, I hope to stop and study the early history of Winslow, Arizona, further, to see if the town historians can shed more light on the experiences of Nikkei in their city. I recall that the local museum featured the work of a local female architect and her design of several significant buildings in Winslow. Now, I want to learn more about Asians in its history.

  2. Regarding Bill White’s comments – What a small Nikkei world – one of the Nisei mentioned by Bill White is Mas Oda, a frequent commentator to Nikkei press from the Seattle area.

    We knew his family who lived at Block 29 at Minidoka Camp in Idaho. He had a twin brother, both were in the Army.His mother was a good friend of my mother, who was a single mother during the internment,; they both worked in the mess hall. They had a daughter named Merriam Oda who of same age as I was. We used to have picnic and swimming at the adjacent Gooden Canal..

    Block 29 at Minidoka contained lot of famous Nisei including MinoriuYasui, of the curfew fame; his brother was Ren Fujimoto, who was adopted by a male-less family; he lived in the adjacent apartment and was a surrogate father to our family as our mother was a single parent during the camp years.

    Takeshi Yoshihara was a classmate of my brother, and he was the first Nikkei to attend the US Naval Academy in 1949; his son David Yoshihara later attended the Naval Academy and commanded the escort fleet around USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf.

    For some Nisei family, such as our family, the camp years was a blessing in disguise, as we learned a lot from the urban students from the Seattle and Portland areas at Camp Minidoka and we acquired an appetite and thirst for higher learning and in post-war years, we all went to universities and attained the profession occupations,The internment years was good for our family and we cherished the 20,000 dollars awarded to the four members of our family, which was used for further education by our children.

  3. Thank you for the wonderful article. Just wanted to let you know I am Mitsugi Nomoto’s grandson. It was really interesting to read and learn more about my grandparent’s and my family’s experience at Poston.

  4. I greatly enjoyed this article. I am an archaeologist that did some excavations on a Japanese lumber workers’ settlement in Mukilteo, WA in 2004. Two former nisei were interviewed for this project and they told a similar story. Japanese in Mukilteo were interned in minidoka, ID except for the few that joined the military and fought against Japan. In Washington, hundreds of Japanese lost their jobs and businesses because of internment and had to start over from scratch.

    Internment was a sad part of american history that is only now receiving attention. However, the decades of hard working Japanese issei that lived in the United States for decades before the war are often overlooked. Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. John Matsuda: Regarding Winslow, Arizona Internment. Thanks for your interesting article on Arizona Nikkei experience.

    The area of western and southern Arizona was in the Military Area A and adjacent area was in Military Area B , both areas were evacuated, and all Nikke were sent to Poston or Gila River camps.

    You mentioned that your family worked for the railroad. There were Nikkei also who were in labor camps in Idaho near Sand Point who were also interned in Minidoka camp. A portion of western Idaho were also interned at Minidoka.

    There are good maps and the collection of the Civilian Exclusion Orders for your area in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. This library is the depository of all the original WRA records. I’m too old now to research these events but perhaps some reader who has a student attending UC – Berkeley can research maps of your area and the Exclusion Orders.