National

U.S. internees recall ballgame of freedom

by Koichi Ito

Kyodo

A baseball series played 70 years ago between two U.S. internment camps became a symbol of freedom for a group of Japanese-Americans rounded up during the war.

The players, now octogenarians, are among the more than 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans who were forced into the internment camps by the U.S. government after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Since some of the camps allowed internees to play baseball, they built makeshift diamonds and organized league matches that attracted thousands of spectators.

In 1944, some 20 young players at the Gila River internment camp in Arizona were granted permission to travel to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming for a series of games.

The 2,000-km trip by the internees during the war was an incredible adventure, Bill Staples Jr., a 44-year-old baseball historian, said at an event in late October to commemorate the 70-year-old baseball series at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

The bus trip started at the end of August 1944 and was financed using money the players had accumulated from their labor in the camp, as well as small amounts pitched in by other internees.

As their decrepit bus frequently broke down, it took them several days to make the journey. The players also slept in the bus at night to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

First baseman and pitcher Tetsuo Furukawa, now 87, recalled the strange sensation he felt outside the Gila River camp because the air seemed so fresh.

When they stopped to refuel at a gas station in a small town on the way, a Caucasian man approached and asked what they were doing.

After an uncomfortable silence, one of them replied that they were traveling to a farm to help increase food production for the United States — ostensibly, the trip had been authorized for this purpose.

To their relief, the man accepted the explanation and walked away.

The Gila River All-Stars and Heart Mountain All-Stars played 13 games in what was nearly a monthlong stay. Pitcher George Iseri, 86, who won two games for Heart Mountain, said the series was his “best” memory, adding he was able to forget almost anything unpleasant while playing.

“We did a long journey,” second baseman Kenso Zenimura, 87, of Gila River, said thoughtfully. “I was a teen at that time. (It’s been) 70 years since then.”

“Baseball was the ticket for freedom, symbol of freedom under suppression during the war,” Staples said. “The journey was in a way a declaration of independence, a celebration of freedom, and all made possible through the game of baseball.”

The goal of the event is to capture the story of these Japanese-Americans so “it can be shared with future generations around the world,” said Staples, who helped organized it.

“Most likely, this will be the last time for these ballplayers to reunite, and for some, the last time to share their story with the public,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”