Wally Matsuura Life Long Kinney Heights Resident

Wally1ab TNN:   Wally how long have you lived in this house and how old were you when you moved in?

Wally: Well we moved in, let's say '38 October, so I was about 7, I believe.

TNN:   What was the racial mix of the community?


Wally: There was covenant so only people of the Caucasian race could live here. But I think the covenant was coming down already because the Naruse family lived here, they had the big mansion on Gramercy and 25th where the empty lot is and they were Japanese. Then we had the Stanley Uno family who lived on the street that the freeway took which would have been, 22nd or 21st, and they were Japanese. So, the barriers were starting to come down. My mother told the agent to be sure and inform the neighbors that we were of Oriental descent, partially, because she said, if they don't approve of us she didn't want to live here. They approved, so we moved in.

Apr17Wall2ab
TNN:   Which of your parents was Asian?

Wally: Both.  My mother was half Japanese and half German and my father was all Japanese, so I'm three quarters. 

TNN:   What was it like as a child in this neighborhood?

Wally:   Very quiet. All the children who were in the neighborhood had grown.  I was going to St. John the Evangelist, south of Slauson and Crenshaw, and then my mother thought it would be easier if I went to 24th Street, so I came out of parochial school and went to a public school, which was just as good because 24th was an excellent school at the time.

TNN:   Did you experience any push back for your ethnicity?

Wally: No. A lot of people didn't know I was Oriental because I looked more Caucasian at the time, except for my name of course.

TNN:  What did a kid do for fun back then? Were there parks close by?

Wally: First I had a scooter and wagon when we first moved in. Then I got a bicycle so I'd go on my own basically.  There was another family, the Winnaman family lived at the northeast corner of 24th and Gramercy, so I hung out some time with them. There were two boys, the father owned a paint store up here on Washington.

TNN:  Was this area still considered the outskirts of Downtown?

Wally:  No, but it wasn't really mid-city like it is now, it was just a quiet suburb type thing.

TNN:   Your parents were very stylish. Did they go out alot?

Wally:  Well in the Japanese American community they had quite lavish galas. They used to have big things at the Biltmore and Pasadena Civic where they really dressed.

TNN:  Tell me your first memory of your family's experience with internment.

Wally: Well of course, I was still very young. It happened in December 7th 1941, so I would have been 10. My folks said, "They're going to make us get out of here." I don't remember when Roosevelt signed that Executive Order, but we had to leave here by May, 1st 1942. 

So it was my mother, father, and my grandfather my mother's father, and me. Then my great-grandmother and my great-aunt stayed here because they were German. We would have lost the house but they kept up the mortgage payments.

TNN:   Do you remember your parents reaction to this?

Wally: As far as I can remember there was no great discussion except the fact that we had to prepare to leave.

TNN:   So there was no anger or organizing? Just acceptance?

Wally:  Yes. The only thing we could take with us was a suitcase with our clothing.  For us it worked out all right, but my father's relatives, his sister, brother, mother and father who lived over on Hobart and Olympic and didn't own the house they rented, they lost everything. They had to sell everything quickly.  They got $5 for their refrigerator.  There were no banks in the concentration camp so people had to take their money and sew it into the hem of their clothes so it wouldn't be stolen. We didn't have that problem because we had the house.

TNN:  Okay, so now you're all packed and you're ready to go. What happens? A bus picks you up or ... ?

Wally:   First we had to assemble someplace southeast here. Then they had buses to take us to Santa Anita, the racetrack.

TNN:   Do you remember what your reaction was or what your parents reaction was?

Wally:  No, I frankly don't remember. Except, I did find out from my parents that we were very lucky to be put in a barracks, because some of the earlier arrivals had to live in the stables. They moved the horses out, whitewashed the walls, and moved people in.

TNN:   Were the barracks just a big room with lots of beds in it?

Wally:    Yeah. 4 beds.  Originally when we got there, the barracks were broken into 3 units which was a fairly good size for us.  But then they ended up having 18,000 people there so they broke the barracks up, each unit in half again. In the end the only thing that we had room for was 4 army cots,  a table in center, a little nightstand and one card table at the foot of the cots.

TNN:  Packed like sardines. It sounds like they were unprepared. What about the food?

Wally: There was army style. We had mess halls and we had latrines. The women didn't like it because it was army style. You were right out in the open. We had to take showers in the huge circular horse shower. They split that in half for men and women.

TNN:    How long were you there for?

Wally:  It was just the assembly center so were there for only 6 months, from May 1st, 1942 until November, sometime in November 1942. We had to stay there the longest because my mother was a dental nurse, so she was in the medical section. My father worked in the administration, so we had to stay until the end. It was almost like a ghost town, most people had left.Then they shipped us to Amache, Colorado.  Amache was a permanent center for as long as the war was on from 1942 until the end of the war.

TNN:    What was the new place like? 

Wally:  It was built better, although it was still a barracks. You still went to the latrine, you still went to the mess hall. It snowed, and it got cold, and it was on the edge of the Dust Bowl. We could see the sandstorms coming, the dust storms coming miles away.

TNN:  Was that during the big dust storms, and the big drought?

Wally:   Well I guess it was the end of it. We were kind of on the edge of what they considered the Dust Bowl, but we got plenty of dust.

TNN:    You could see these dust storms coming?

Wally:  Yes. The barracks were made fairly well for a winter, not like the Santa Anita barracks, but the dust could just come in everywhere, so after the dust storm the inside of that place was full of dust the same as the outside. Then we had a plague of crickets, and a plague of locusts.  We were basically in a desert.

TNN:   Were you all packed in again or did you have a little bit more room?

Wally:  A little bit more. Let's see, the end unit was for couples, married couples, so those were small because you only needed one bed. They were still cots so I suppose there were 2 cots. Anyway, of course we had 4 of us, so we were in a fair sized room. It wasn't as cramped as Santa Anita, we were able to have a little sitting area. Then of course, we had to have a pot belly coal stove and that. Yeah so it was little bit bigger.

Then my father went into the service in '43. He had to go to language school and learn how to read and write and speak Japanese because he was going to interrogate prisoners.

TNN:   So now, they're saying, "We're going to use your dad in the army to help us, but your family still has to stay in the camp"?

Wally:  Oh yeah, oh yeah, that happened everywhere. Although Dillon Myer who was the Head of the War Relocation Authority, told my parents that when my father got into the service, that he would get us back to Los Angeles. It took him awhile.  My father went in August or September of '43. Then he had an intensive course in Japanese in Fort Snelling. First he was at Camp Savage in Minnesota, then he was transferred to Fort Snelling in Minnesota, where he graduated. But it was an intense 9 months course.

TNN:    Meanwhile, leaving his family back at the camp.

Wally:  Yeah. Myer got us out in January of 1944 on military permit. I had Western Defense Command ID to allow me to be in California. My mother and I, we had to carry ID with us.

TNN:    In case they said, "Hey you're Asian, what are you doing out of the camps?"

Wally:  Right.

TNN:    Did anybody get angry about any of this?

Wally:  Yeah they did, but it wasn't around us, you know. As a matter of fact, my father's brother, they were at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and he was arrested for protesting and sent to Leavenworth. Of course, he was pardoned after the war, but I mean, that's where he spent some time. There was one guy Korematsu or something like that, he was a big guy protesting the fact that we were American citizens and put in a camp.  My grandfather of course, could not become a citizen, Orientals could not become citizens. He was always an enemy alien. He understood the situation, and he said that he would be willing to go into a camp, but he didn't think we should go in, but he just said that to us, he didn't go out and protest. So, that's why he was with us all the time. Then he couldn't come back to California, so he went to Chicago.

TNN:     Why couldn't he come back to California?

Wally:    Because he was Japanese. Japanese could not be in California, Oregon or Washington while the war was still on.

TNN:    So it wasn't Japanese from everywhere?

Wally:  No, if you lived east, if you lived anywhere east, say you lived in Colorado for instance, you weren't evacuated, only the West Coast.

TNN:    In case one of you happened to be an enemy agent?

Wally:   Right. I think there were a 110,000 people in camps.

TNN:   Now did they ever discover an enemy agent amongst any of you?

Wally:   No, not to my knowledge.  So we got back in January of '44 like I said, on military permit. - I can't find the card. I’ve had it  until recently.  My mother, of course she was well known in the dental industry here, so she got a job right away. The army told my mother, not to send me to school until the fall, which was fine with me.

TNN:   Did they have school for the kids in the barracks at all?

Wally:    Yeah, they had a school, well not so much in Santa Anita because you know, that was only temporary but in Colorado they did.  I didn't show up half the time. It wasn't that good a school.

TNN:    Now when you came back to the community, what was it like amongst your neighbors?

Wally:   Same as when we left.

TNN:     Same as always. Did anybody come over say, "Oh I'm so sorry this happened to you?" 

Wally:  Well I suppose, there were like the Sutherlands, you know, they were pretty good friends with my parents, they were sorry.  Then of course, Mr Perkins who lived next door, he died during the war. By the time we came back new people owned the house. So, you know, the rest of the people we didn't know that well.

TNN:    When you went back to school did you get any attitude from any of the kids?

Wally:   Only once but that wasn't right away. There was a fellow in the next block who started harassing me, and the police went and talked to him. Told him my father had been in the service and all this stuff. Then it was all right. But that was all.

TNN:    So it was like, "Okay we have to go to these camps and now we're back," and boom, that was it? No big drama?

Wally:  No we just moved back in. Of course it was only my mother and me with my grandparents and my aunt.   They were able to keep the house up. We had to sell that Buick. My father had an older Ford, sold that. Then they borrowed on their life insurance and that got us through that period of time as far as ... oh and the finance company even lowered the payments, which was very nice.

AprilPorchweb2TNN:  Now I want to fast forward.  On Saturday at 4:30 every Saturday, I've been coming for 3 years faithfully, the neighbors from the block gather at your porch and bring refreshments, and sit and enjoy neighborly conversation and interaction. They have little events in the summer and you know, if one of kids in the neighborhood is getting dressed up for a prom, they have to come over and get approval from everybody, and oohs and aahs. It's just the most charming, sort of community old-school way of being with your neighbors, and Wally you're at the center of that. How did it start and when?

Wally:   It started after I retired in '86. It didn't start right away though. First I used to go to the Sutherland house because they would invite me for martinis, they loved to have martinis in the late afternoon. One day, we were over there, and actually we were on the front porch, we used to be in back under the closed in porch . One day we happened to be out on the front porch, and at that time, I didn't know Roy and Shirley. They were having a movie shoot, actually it was television, and so Roy came over and then Amos came over, who lived across the street, That's how we met. But it still didn't start yet until after 1986.

Then I used to have block club meetings here. Louise wanted to start a block club so you had the block club here. Then I got to know Roy and Shirley pretty well, and I don't know how long that took. Then Shirley goes to Mass on Saturday, and Roy is not Catholic, so he started coming over here, and we'd have glass of wine. I said, "Well gosh, that sounds like Shirley's going to Mass and you're coming for communion." That's kind of how it kind of started.  We'd talk about different things. Then slowly, other people would come by and it just kind of built from that time. It took years really, because Ron Hutchinson didn't move in here until '91, and it was a long time before Ron started coming over here. It really took a while for it to build up.

TNN:   But the secret was everyone showing up every Saturday at that time.

Wally: Yeah, and then people would see us, and then they'd come and talk, then they'd come back. That's basically how it all started.

TNN:      Now on a busy porch day, there could be how many people in the neighborhood standing on that porch and yabbering?

Wally:    15, 25 but typically it's about 8 to 10.

TNN:   You’re now living alone, you had a room mate here for a long time, so what does this gathering do for you? How does it affect your energy?

Wally:  It keeps me going really, you know, it's nice because I know I have all these neighbors, if I need any help all I have to do is call.

TNN:   It keeps you healthy and feeling supported. The value of having neighbors you are connected to and community is so critical for seniors.

Wally:   Yeah, that's what's fantastic about this, this block. It's just wonderful. I mean, there's no other way to say it.  It's too bad it can't be this way all over. But these people on this block, they're very special, very supportive of each other. Everyone gets along well, and I hope it never changes.

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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