GHOST GRADUATES: What happened to La Jolla High’s Japanese-American seniors during WWII


In 1942, three La Jolla High School (LJHS) seniors graduated without finishing their spring semester. The reason? They were of Japanese ancestry.

Sando Shinmoto, Kiku Yamashita and Kimiye Nakamoto were issued their degrees in June, yet all had been shipped to internment camps two months earlier. (The LJHS registrar’s best guess is that they were allowed to attend internment-camp high schools and transfer credits.)

The vanished Vikings lived in Pacific Beach, where many Japanese immigrants farmed fruits and vegetables they sold out of truck stands in Bird Rock. (Back then, Pacific Beach had no public high school, so residents sent their children to LJHS.)

“Sando — now he was a really good guy,” said longtime La Jollan Harry Crosby, 94, while flipping through his 1942 yearbook. (Crosby graduated in 1944, but purchased the 1942 edition because it also pictured the school’s sophomores.)

La Jolla resident Harry Crosby, 94, scans his 1942 La Jolla High yearbook, wondering what happened to a close friend.

“Sando was a track man, but he had volunteered to help the coach and he coached me in shotput and some other event,” Crosby recalled. “Without any warning, he was just not there anymore. We had an entire Japanese neighborhood in La Jolla that I never saw again — not after 1942.”

On Feb. 19 of that year, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes and businesses. After the surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — which propelled America into World War II — the fear was that Japanese-Americans would remain loyal to their ancestral homeland and serve as spies.

In telephone conversations and correspondence with the White House and other government officials, U.S. Army General John DeWitt claimed that, while the majority of people of Japanese ancestry living in California were loyal to the United States, “many were spies for the Empire of Japan” with “more (arms and ammunition) in their possession than our own armed forces.”

“You don’t know how afraid the people were of the Japanese,” said La Jolla native Bill Stewart, 100, who recalled the blackouts around town, when military coastal patrols — fearing a Japanese invasion by sea or air — made every civilian darken their home and even tape up their car headlamps to cut down on collective light emission.

“They left just a little sliver, and that’s what you drove with at night,” Stewart said.

Train of tears

On April 7, 1942, two 16-car trains removed the first group of Japanese-Americans — 1,150 in total — from the southern half of San Diego County. The detainees — including Shinmoto and Yamashita — were housed for three months in horse stalls at the Santa Anita Racetrack near Los Angeles, where they waited for their official internment camp to be built.

The Poston War Relocation Center — named after a government engineer who irrigated the area — opened on June 1 near Parker, Arizona on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. (This was over the objections of the tribal council, which refused to take part in doing to others what had been done to them.)

The look of the housing at Poston War Relocation Center leaves little doubt as to what kind of camp it really was.

Like the nine other Japanese-American internment camps, Poston was outfitted with schools, a post office, work facilities, farmland and recreation facilities. Housing the majority of California’s detainees, Poston was the third-largest “city” in Arizona at its peak capacity of 17,000.

Before she died, Kiku Yamashita — whose family owned a farm on Turquoise Street — shared recollections of her Poston years in the September 1987 Pacific Beach Historical Society Newsletter. She called the experience “an ill wind that blows nobody good.”

Two of the only good things that happened to Yamashita at Poston were marrying fellow evacuee Nobuo Kawamoto in February 1943 and giving birth to their daughter, Christine, that December. Kiku and Christine remained there until July 1945, after which the family reunited in Chula Vista and had two more children.

On the weekend before their relocation, Yamashita’s family set up its produce stand (located where Mission and La Jolla boulevards now meet) one last time. As a show of respect, she said, cars from La Jolla lined up “as far as the eye could see.”

Criminal treatment

Before they were relocated, according to the “Another Side of History” blog by John Webster, Pacific Beach’s Japanese-American farmers were forced to register and list details of their acreage and crops, “to assist in their transfer to American ownership with minimal effect on the food supply.” (Their land was sold for pennies on the dollar to investors, since the farmers had only weeks to liquidate everything they couldn’t take with them.)

Later, federal housing projects — many of which produced still-standing homes in Pacific Beach and Bird Rock — were constructed on much of that land, to house thousands of Consolidated Aircraft defense workers during the war, and G.I.s after it ended.

Poston internment camp detainees gather for some unknown instructional training.

Most Japanese-Americans saw their incarceration as unconstitutional. But Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old Oakland resident, was the first to take his case to the Supreme Court. He was arrested in 1942 for refusing to relocate, and he argued that imprisonment violated his Fifth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court rejected Korematsu’s argument, claiming the executive order was a “wartime necessity.” However, another Supreme Court case — brought by detainee Mitsuye Endo in 1945 — resulted in a unanimous ruling that citizens who have “conceded loyalty” to the U.S. could not legally be detained.

All Japanese internment camps were closed by 1946 — although Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945 probably had as much to do with that as the court’s decision.

It was not until 30 years later that that U.S. President Gerald Ford officially repealed the executive order. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, offering reparations of $20,000 to each surviving internment victim. (More than 80,000 accepted the payment.)

The fate of the others

The Light located a friend of Shinmoto’s, Yukio Kawamoto, who said they had known each other since age 6. (Their parents, who were all from Hiroshima, met each other as neighbors in downtown San Diego.)

“My dad took me along when he visited Sando’s Dad, and Sando and I would play in the backyard,” Kawamoto recalled. “After Sando and his family moved from San Diego to La Jolla, I did not see Sando again until we were in the same internment camp.”

Historical photographs obtained by the Light show that Shinmoto continued his high-school athleticism, playing on both the camp’s baseball and basketball teams. But Kawamoto couldn’t recall any details of their time in Poston together.

“I’m 94 and my memory doesn’t work so good,” he explained.

Sando Shinmoto (top left) was on Poston internment camp’s recreational baseball team in 1943.

Shinmoto also resettled in Chula Vista and, according to Kawamoto, died about 10 years ago, without ever having married or had children. (When told the news, Crosby said: “Ah, what a shame. He was a good man.”)

Nakamoto was sent to the Granada War Relocation Center in southeast Colorado, according to her high-school transcript. What happened to her afterward could not be determined by the Light.

“A lot of Japanese-Americans, after the campaign ended, went back to Japan,” explained Joseph Duong, spokesperson for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. “They just felt a sense of betrayal. They were Americans and they felt like the treatment they received in those camps was going to continue afterward. And they decided to return to their ancestral home. A lot of them also Americanized their names after their experience.”

Executive Order 9066 — signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942 — forced the evacuation of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes to internment camps.

A different day that will live in infamy

This Feb. 19, the California Assembly unanimously passed landmark legislation recognizing the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 as a day of remembrance. It also issued an official apology.

“The Assembly apologizes to all Americans of Japanese ancestry for its past actions in support of the unjust exclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” read the text of HR 77, “and for its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese-Americans during this period.”

Introduced by Assembly member Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and endorsed by Governor Gavin Newsom, the bill also vilified General DeWitt for his role in internment.

When asked how the Japanese-American community views California’s apology, Duong replied: “We can’t obviously speak for the entire Japanese community. But we can say that it’s a welcomed apology — although, obviously, we feel like it’s long overdue.”