By John Sammon —
It was a friendship that couldn’t be broken, not by a world war, not by injustice and racial prejudice, not even by a separation that lasted for decades.
“I think the most beautiful thing is, this was a child who thought enough of me as a friend to stand by me,” said Reiko Nagumo. “It’s something that affirms your faith in human beings.”
Reiko Nagumo was a seven-year-old girl in California when World War II broke out and when agents of the FBI came to her door to take her and her family to imprisonment for no good reason only based on ethnicity, she had to say goodbye to her best friend Mary Frances.
When Mary Frances and Reiko Nagumo said their final goodbye, the chance they would ever see each other again was remote. In fact the two friends grew up to be adult women and lived most of their lives unknowing what had become of the other.
“I got a call from a British film producer Mark Usher,” Nagumo said. “He told me his company was filming a series in England about people who had been friends or family and who had been separated by some historic event. They had heard about me and Mary Frances and wanted to know if I was interested in being featured on the show. They wanted one of their segments to be about children.”
Nagumo said the British have become more interested in recent years in the story of Japanese Americans in the World War II prison camps.
The result is the documentary “We’ll Meet Again,” a PBS (Public Broadcast Service) series set to air on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m.
The show will be seen nationwide for the first time in America.
In addition to Nagumo’s story, other segments include a survivor of the Mt. Saint Helens eruption, a science trainee whose co-worker saved her life but was killed in the blast. She seeks his family members to tell them the story. Other segments include reuniting lost children of Vietnam, long-separated survivors who helped each other during the 9-11 New York World Trade Center bombings, civil rights workers in the 1960’s, and organizers of the gay rights movement.
For Nagumo’s segment a British film crew visited the sites of her childhood, the home where she lived in Los Angeles and the school she attended with Mary Frances, Los Feliz Elementary. The crew also filmed the site where during World War II she was imprisoned, Heart Mountain Wyoming, a dusty, remote windswept area.
“The director of the museum at Heart Mountain was on hand to explain the history to the British visitors,” Nagumo recalled. “The British were impressed by the awesome expanses of the place and the big sky.”
Until Dec. 7, 1941 Nagumo had lived the fairly ordinary life of a child in Southern California.
“My parents came from Niigata, that’s a little mountain province in Japan,” Nagumo said. “My father (Shoji Nagumo) was the oldest boy and he could have inherited the family property, but he wanted to immigrate to the U.S. When he got to California in 1918 the only job he could get was as a migrant farm worker.”
Nagumo’s father had attended a teacher’s college in Japan and was a Chinese Classics major who could fluently read and write Chinese.
“He had wanted to start a publishing company in California,” Nagumo said.
Both parents were highly educated. Nagumo’s mother Umeo (means plum blossom) had been educated in a Church of England Mission all-girl convent school in Tokyo and was interested in western art and artifacts.
The couple married in 1917.
Given the anti-Japanese bias prevalent in California at the time many new arrivals could only get jobs as fruit pickers in the fields. Nagumo said the laborers would often stay in dingy, run-down hotels with their meager pay and move from place to place, working in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno, Stockton, and San Jose.
A catastrophic earthquake in Japan in 1923 wiped out what little savings Shoji Nagumo had.
The Nagumos would have eight children. The first two children Shoji Nagumo delivered himself because he couldn’t afford a doctor.
“When we moved to Southern California he was told we don’t do that here in America (deliver your own baby),” Nagumo said. “A doctor said he’d charge $50 for the next birth. My dad said he only had $6. He would make payments.”
Two boys died in infancy. It was Reiko Nagumo’s job to tend a little shrine and place rice there daily to honor the departed.
Reiko was born in 1934 and eventually the family settled near Hollywood in the Los Feliz area.
“My dad became a gardener doing landscaping, some of the jobs for production people in the town’s expanding movie industry,” Nagumo said. “We bought an old house and because my parents could not own property it was put in my older brother’s name.
The advent of World War II and the imprisoning of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens brought their world to a crashing halt. They were taken to the Pomona Fairgrounds and a temporary holding pen.
“We rented our house to a neighbor,” Nagumo said. “This saved our house for us to come back to after the war. We stored our belongings upstairs and rented out the bottom floor, but some teenagers stole most of our stuff while we were gone.”
Agents of the FBI used census information to locate the Nagumo family (including Reiko’s three older brothers and two older sisters), as well as other families.
“My father knew they were coming so he had his bag already packed,” Nagumo said. “I don’t remember knowing what war was. We went to church that Sunday (December 7) and we were told to go home and don’t bring attention to yourself. I did know we were going away. My dad tried to make light of it by saying, ‘won’t it be fun to ride on a train?’”
Nagumo would have to say goodbye to her best friend at school, Mary Frances.
“We had done everything together,” Nagumo said. “We were inseparable. One day Mary Frances told me we’re at war so I’m not supposed to play with you anymore. But she ignored what her parents had told her. I was so grateful.”
Until the time the family was sent off to prison in May of 1942 Mary Frances continued to play with her friend—secretly—-when Mary Frances’ parents were out of the house.
“One time she invited me to come over to her house to see the Christmas presents she had been given,” Nagumo said. “Her Uncle Bill came unexpectedly into the house and heard us and asked Mary Frances—who are you talking to? He discovered us and pulled me from behind a sofa where I had been hiding. He told me ‘you go home,’ and said he was going to punish Mary Frances. I felt guilty. I cried all the way home.”
Before her departure Nagumo received presents from some of her classmates at a little going-away party held at the school.
Nagumo said at Heart Mountain the family occupied a barracks with others, six rooms of different sizes, with military-style cots to sleep on.
“It was my mom and dad and three of us girls in one room,” she said. “There were guard towers but at first no barbed wire. They put the prisoners to work putting in the barbed wire this was in August of 1942.”
That winter when it snowed the children were amazed. They had never seen snow before. Some of the smaller boys the oldest 11 squeezed through a wire fence to have a snowball fight. They were caught, 32 of them, and put in the camp brig (cell).
“The parents of the boys were told when anybody goes beyond the fence—we put in jail or shoot. They said that to scare them,” Nagumo said.
News and camp regulations were conveyed by mimeographed sheets at first and later the camp had a regular newspaper published by a trained journalist named Hosokawa. Food at the camp was usually bland army-style fare with plenty of mutton.
“Most of the former prisoners still alive can’t stand the sight of mutton, or what we children got, bread with apple butter,” Nagumo said.
After the war the family was released and returned to their home in California—after three years. Nagumo said some people were still racist, the war had just ended. But she recalls returning to her school. A teacher named Mrs. Fleischer, with Caucasian students standing behind her said, “We’re happy to see you.”
Her loyal friend Mary Frances was there too and came and took Reiko’s hand.
Mary Frances later moved away with her family.
Nagumo grew up, went to UCLA and trained as a nurse. She served as a nurse for the U.S. Foreign Service, tending to the health needs of embassy staffers and native workers for the embassy in countries like Cambodia and Egypt from 1950 to 1963. She also served in a State Health Dept. crippled children’s services program and as administrator for a statewide genetic disease study program.
She retired in 1995 but kept busy volunteering as a docent at the California Museum in Sacramento, explaining the history of her camp experiences to schoolchildren.
Then last February she received a call asking her to come to San Francisco.
“I didn’t know what to expect I’m partially blind now,” Nagumo said. “I was brought to the Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park and guided by the host of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ Ann Curry. I was taken over a bridge to a kiosk. Mary Frances was standing there.”
At first, words couldn’t come. The two friends hugged each other.
Some of the British camera crew had tears in their eyes.
“I’m 83 now,” Nagumo said. “I had wanted to see Mary Frances before I die.”
Mary Frances had two children and worked for a transport (trucking) company. She was living in Kentucky when the show’s producers located her.
Nagumo said a story of true friendship is important for people to see, especially children.
“It’s the act of kindness that’s important,” she said. “Children will see what a good friend Mary Frances was to me. She was a good citizen too she spoke up for me when others wouldn’t.”
For information on the “We’ll Meet Again” show go to www.pbs.org/about/blogs/news/pbs-announces-well-meet-again-with-ann-curry-new-six-part-series-premiering-winter-2018/