By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Project is partnership of students and La Mesa Historical Society
Donald Ginn was looking for a class project that the students in the AP History class he teaches at Grossmont High could get involved in after they finished their testing for the year.
Ginn was put in touch with La Mesa Historical Society president James Newland who had started research on Japanese-American students from Grossmont who were interned during WWII. The resulting project is an exhibit that is now on display at the McKinney House Museum through September.
“[The students] did an amazing job,” Newland said. “Each team took up a person or two and researched what happened to them, what their story was. As a professional historian I really was amazed at how the level they went to try and learn.”
Through her research, AP History student Antonina Contreras learned about the life of Kyoko Kimura.
“I know with Kyoko, she was well-liked at school,” Contreras said. “There was no sense of discrimination around her [at school.]”
Many of the students lived normal teenage lives before they were sent to internment camps, which makes their stories “a tough part of history … but really important to understand,” Newland said.
“This was a community that, even though it was fairly small in overall numbers, it was integrated into this community,” he said. “One of the gentlemen you will find [in the exhibit] was the quarterback of the football team, who luckily had already enlisted or he probably would have been interned with the rest of his family.”
Jacob Niskey researched a Japanese-American student named Thomas Hoshimoto who was interned before he also enlisted in the military.
“A lot of Japanese-Americans who were interned enlisted to prove their sense of nationalism — prove they were part of the country, that they were American,” he said.
Through his research, Niskey learned that Hoshimoto was a Boy Scout and while he was interned, he was part of a group of young Japanese-Americans that protected a flagpole that hung the U.S. flag from being knocked over during a riot at Manzanar.
In addition to learning about the interned students, the students in Ginn’s class learned some valuable research skills.
Aljosa Nanusevic and his group had a difficult time researching Shigeru Sugaya.
“He was loosely mentioned in one document but mostly he was listed in only some marriage surveys and, of course, the internment documents,” Nanusevic said. “It’s kind of sad that that’s the only thing we could get on him — that he’s just kind of a digit on a bunch of paperwork.”
Nanusevic’s group couldn’t find family members but did eventually find a 95-year-old woman to interview, who knew Sugaya and was also interned, and members were able to write Sugaya’s story from that.
Brian Cushman and Luke Anderson had an even more difficult time researching Shigeru’s brother Yoshi Sugaya. The only person they could find to interview wasn’t interested in talking with them, so they resorted to bribery. Cushman said they found out the relative of Sugaya had unclaimed money using internet research and offered to disclose how to claim in exchange for an interview.
“This person was being completely adamant, saying, ‘No I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to talk about that,’” Cushman said.
“It could have been a cultural shyness,” Anderson added. “In their culture, maybe you just don’t discuss things like that that have happened.”
Ginn said he thinks the students had different challenges doing the assignment and also took away different lessons. “I don’t know if there was one general common experience,” he said. “I think each person had a unique circumstance.”
But there was one common question the students asked themselves. Could history repeat itself?
Nanusevic thinks it might, especially with some of the rhetoric happening in politics from candidates like Donald Trump.
“We’re not there yet, but in the next few years, it wouldn’t be that strange to have something happen to push this xenophobia over the edge and we might have a similar reaction to what we did back then,” he said.
“I think we as a people now would be more likely to protest that kind of thing happening again because it has already happened,” she said. “We know that nothing became of it, so I don’t think it will happen again.”
“So there’s some tough stories, but ones that I think have some resonance for all of us and make us realize that U.S. history happens at the local level,” Newland said. “Things that happen that affected this whole country and this whole world did effect La Mesa and you get a chance to understand that.”
“World War II, Internment and the Japanese-American Students of Grossmont High School” will be on display at the McKinney House Museum through September. The museum is open on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 1 to 4 p.m. and is located at 8369 University Ave.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.