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Wyoming History


Japanese in Wyoming

Part four of four parts

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Unfortunately for the Japanese of the region, World War II brought with it increased racial tension. Possibly due to the diverse ethnic make-up of Rock Springs' population, the prejudice resulting from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, while evident, did not manifest itself in the extremes that marked other parts of the country.

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese, Italian, and German "aliens" in Rock Springs and the surrounding area were ordered to register with local authorities. The Rock Springs Daily Rocket chronicled this registration, concentrating on the Japanese population in Sweetwater County. Among the first to register were the Japanese miners. Only four days after Pearl Harbor, the paper reported, "Officers said the registration had been orderly and that no disturbances had occurred. All Japanese are being urged to stay at home and avoid public places as much as possible for the present time." Two days later the Union Pacific Railroad ordered time-keepers in Rock Springs to "freeze all paychecks of Japanese nationals."

Besides making the Japanese register, Italian and German immigrants were also required to obtain certificates of identification. An article in the Rock Springs Daily Rocket on February 7, 1942, entitled "500 Alien Enemies Are Expected to Register in Springs Before February 18," notified these nationalities that they would have to carry identification cards with photographs on them. A later article, published February 26, claimed that there were not 500 aliens in Sweetwater County; however, this article was published after the removal of the Japanese. On February 13, "all Japanese national employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in the area were dismissed. . . ." Since the Japanese all lived in housing owned by the railroad, termination of their jobs also meant the loss of their homes.

The events surrounding the Japanese removal from railroad camps in southwest Wyoming were described by the Rock Springs' newspapers. In February 1942:

Japanese nationals . . . were given notice to have their belongings and families aboard special cars spotted at sections preparatory to being transported to either Salt Lake City or Cheyenne. They were given three days in which to comply. . . . The sheriff's office reported that no official orders had been received here for removal of evacuation, but it was understood that the railroad took the step as a precautionary

measure. . . .

It is not known how many Japanese will be affected by the railroad's action, but it was stated officially that Japanese nationals not employed by the railroad would not be affected.

In essence, the Japanese working in the coal mines were allowed to keep their jobs, but those working for the railroad were fired. In the words of one local resident whose family was affected by this action:

My brother was one of them. I was lucky; I was at school then. But heck, you come home, and they laid off all the citizens, noncitizens, whatever, up and down this line. . . . You were just off the property. You couldn't even be close to the railroad. Then the railroad comes right through the city [of Rock Springs], and there was people living right alongside the railroad tracks in the city. It didn't make much sense.

Indeed, Japanese did continue to live in Rock Springs and the surrounding coal camps. The Japanese even continued making "powder dummies," which were sand-filled bags used with blasting charges in the coal mines.

During World War II, the Japanese in southwest Wyoming contributed to the war effort by mining and processing coal. At the time, coal was the principal fuel used to fire Union Pacific's locomotives. These locomotives were powering trains that hauled men and war materials to the Pacific Coast--critical to fight the war in the Pacific Theater. Mixed loyalties were to be expected, but Japanese miners, both male and female, worked in and around the coal mines to provide fuel for the Union Pacific Railroad.

According to one Japanese coal miner, the only recorded Japanese death in Reliance occurred as a result of an accident in a coal mine. Yashio Tabuchi recalls, Tom Kawaguchi "got killed in the tipple. . . . When he fell inside the conveyor, [he went] through . . . the crusher. [He was] the only . . . Japanese that got killed." Tabuchi's account represents the only Japanese version of the event that transpired on November 15, 1945. The tipple was a loading and handling facility used to process the coal from the Reliance mines and was a relatively modern facility for the time, capable of loading five railroad cars at one time.

The official report is a much more sterile account, but it does detail the accident. According to the State Inspector of Coal Mines, Tom Kawaguchi was a single male and was 71 years old when he was killed in the Reliance tipple.

Kawaguchi was employed as a tipple cleaner. On the day of the accident he was cleaning the second floor underneath the mixing conveyor. When he started to clean under this conveyor, the tipple had been stopped about ten minutes. When the tipple started up, a Klaxon horn was sounded to notify all persons to get into the clear. It seems that he did not hear the horn, as he made no attempt to move from underneath the conveyor.

From the position of his broom and shovel, he had finished sweeping and raised up when one of the flights of the mixing conveyor caught him and pulled him onto this conveyor. The conveyor carried him its full length and dropped him on the six-inch loading boom where his body was discovered by a tipple operator.

This Department recommends that all employees be instructed to stay away from any machinery while in operation.

The official description leaves out several factors that provide insights into not only the death of Kawaguchi, but also the war-time operation of the tipple.

The tipple operator at the time of the death was a twenty-two-year-old woman who had begun working in the facility some time after the outbreak of hostilities with Japan. Even though the war with Japan was over when the accident occurred, the war-time operations continued through November of 1945. During the war, the tipple was staffed by women "boney pickers," some of whom were of Japanese descent. The boney pickers were people hired to sort through the coal and discard stone or other objects that would not burn.

The woman operator who started the tipple the day Kawaguchi died had attained her position of authority and her skills as a result of the war. Prior to the war, even an Anglo female would not have been employed in a coal mine operation regardless of her skills. In the tipple, female workers, along with high school students, gained employment due to the drain on the labor pool created by World War II. In Rock Springs the problem was even more acute. Japanese railroad workers who had been laid off in 1942 had to be replaced. The coal industry was operating at peak production levels; therefore, in 1945, the gender, age, and racial make-up of the workers in the tipple reflected the difficulty in obtaining male laborers. While this trend of hiring women during World War II has been widely documented, the fact that a Japanese national was working with female laborers in a tipple that provided fuel to the American war transportation network is significant. The death is noteworthy not only because it is an isolated incident, but because it reflects the contributions Japanese immigrants made to the American coal industry during World War II.

Mr. Kawaguchi was not the only Japanese worker to lose his life in the Wyoming coal industry during the early 1940s. On December 29, 1941, Sunge Yoshimoto, age nineteen, was killed in the Lincoln-Star Coal Company tipple south of Kemmerer.

Many Japanese miners spent the entire war working underground. Yashio Tabuchi worked in the mines at Reliance, Wyoming, throughout World War II. Takayuki Tanaka entered Union Pacific's No. 8 mine in Rock Springs before he joined the armed forces in 1944. These men all lived in Japanese towns and were part of a larger work force that contributed to the growth of the Wyoming coal industry during World War II.

At best, life in a company town in Wyoming during the 1930s and early 1940s was not the most desirable. Housing, while providing modest comforts, lacked central heating and was built so quickly that occupants complained of snow and dust blown in through the sides of structures. From the dust of the mines to the dust in the streets, coal towns in southwest Wyoming are commonly remembered for the brown and black film that covered everything from bed clothes to cooking utensils. All miners living in company housing faced similar conditions. However, the difference in the case of the Japanese quarters was that they were isolated from the rest of the miners' homes.

The majority of the Japanese miners living in places like Reliance were bachelors. The families settled in the company-built "Japanese Town," and the bachelors often lived in company barracks or at boarding houses. Some of the Japanese families took in boarders. One Japanese woman took in as many as six boarders into her home. She raised seven children in addition to taking care of her husband and borders. Of course, the home was not large, and meals were served at one long table. All of this was done to help make ends meet. The Japanese communities in Superior, Reliance, and Rock Springs were principally made up of miners and their families. Many of the wives were in the community as a result of arranged marriages, and they had little concept of the conditions they would face when they arrived in the United States from Japan. Numerous women who had left their homes without meeting their future husbands faced severe culture shock, isolation, and years of hard work. They shared their experiences of isolation and hard work with the women who had emigrated from Europe

The Japanese who chose to stay in Rock Springs during World War II either worked in the mines or owned their own business. George Okano, Rock Springs-born resident who eventually fought with the United States Army's famed 442nd in World War II, when asked what he did for recreation stated:

We didn't have too many free days. Any days that school was out, by God, guess what? My dad had a store, and you had to help. I can remember, I was just learning how to drive dad's delivery truck. There used to be a big boney pile down here. In there would be some coal. So dad said, "I'll let you drive that truck, but you go get a load of coal and fill the coal shed up; then you can go hunting or driving or something like that." That was recreation, but we had to get the coal first--a winter supply.

Okano's business involved selling and delivering food to the coal mining towns and to Japanese workers in the section camps.

The Japanese who lived in the coal camps and in the surrounding communities did witness racial prejudice. Most Japanese residents tend to minimize the racial tensions, but all those interviewed about life in the area during World War II have stories dealing with difficulties and prejudice. George Okano recalls, "As far as [prejudice] goes it was good. We were real fortunate. But there were some animosities." Chinese residents in Rock Springs "used to run around saying I'm Chinese. One of them kicked Jeral, my brother, out of their restaurant here in town. I never did forgive them. I won't eat there even today." Edith Sunada claims, "people weren't very kind. In fact, we had one man come in one night . . . drunk, and he kicked the door down . . . trying to get in; I don't know what he thought he was trying to do." Edith and her family remained in Green River and Reliance throughout World War II. Her brother was fired from the railroad in 1942 with the rest of the Japanese workers but took several jobs in the area before joining the Army's 442nd.

Edith Sunada, who continues to reside in Green River, provides a glimpse into the determination the Japanese exhibited in spite of the numerous problems they faced. Sunada's account of her and her brother's attitude toward their war-time experience provides insight into her tenacity.

My brother was very bitter about the whole thing because he got more rough treatment than I did. I didn't get that much because my brother didn't fight back like I did. He just kinda kept still. But like when people would say to me, `Are you a Jap?', I would say, `No, I was born here in the United States. Why, what's it to you? What are you?' I learned to fight back. And I would say, `Are you German?' or something like that, so they got so they'd keep still to me. My brother kept still because he's one of the quieter ones in our family.

There was a certain amount of give and take in the coal communities of southwestern Wyoming during World War II. Many immigrants in the area were from Italy and Austria and did not wish to draw attention to the fact that their nation was allied with Germany. German immigrants in the coal camps could ill afford to draw attention to themselves. Many Japanese residents worked in the coal industry and service industries in the area.

Their contribution was needed, and the fact that many Army 442nd veterans returned to live in Rock Springs after the war illustrates the close family ties that still existed in spite of the war. Today, there are still Japanese residents who have long since retired from the coal mines who recall the war years. It touched them as it touched all Americans. But their memories are couched in the fact that they continued to work for their country and served in a critical war industry when few recognized or appreciated this effort. In more ways than one they were true patriots.



If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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