Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Prisoner from Peru

The Peruvian policeman pointed a pistol at him.  “I arrest you on behalf of the United States Government,” he said in Spanish.  That had been in Lima on May 2, 1942.  On behalf of the United States Government?  Tadashi Yamada had been startled, then frightened, but not surprised.  The Japanese twenty-six year old knew the Peruvian authorities, drawing on lists provided by FBI agents in the American Embassy, were happily rounding up Japanese enemy aliens.  He was one of those aliens.   
A sales representative for inexpensive cooking ware, Tadashi had arrived in Lima from Yokohama in late 1940 with aspirations for launching a successful business career.  Spare, almost gangly, he was a bit taller than most of his contemporaries.  He had a longish, sober face, clean shaven—he’d worried his brush mustache made him look Chaplinesque, and he’d done away with it.  Although he viewed life seriously and was reserved in his manner, Tadashi brimmed with ambition.
Unfortunately, for all his ambition, his timing was not propitious.  He encountered a Japanese immigrant community in disarray.  Long-smoldering Peruvian resentment at the success of Japanese immigrants had produced a cascade of government restrictions.  Then, earlier that year, riots erupted.  Rioters attacked Japanese people in the streets and devastated shops while the police simply watched.  Ten people died, and many were injured. 
Despite his best efforts, Tadashi’s sales results had been meager.  Egged on by local Chinese residents and American propaganda, Peruvians displayed overt hostility toward Japanese businessmen and prejudice against Japanese generally, especially following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Even the prostitutes in the red light district turned away.  For months Tadashi hunkered down in a rented room behind a Japanese owned barbershop waiting for authorization to return to Japan.  He passed the time sketching local people, street scenes, the barber’s cat—anything to resist the boredom.  After several cables home, Tadashi obtained permission to travel on the next available ship.  He didn’t make it.  With American submarines lurking in the Pacific, there were no ships.
Under arrest, Tadashi found himself about to be hauled off to the United States where immigration authorities would seize his passport and those of his fellow internees and declare them undocumented and, hence, illegal aliens subject to deportation.  The Peruvian government, recipient of a multimillion dollar US payment, was happy to have the Japanese gone.  The US government, caught up in the grip of wartime hysteria, was equally happy to have the Japanese out of Latin America, where they might presumably have engaged in espionage, sabotage or the spread of propaganda.  Moreover, holding them in custody like human pawns could prove useful should the opportunity arise to swap them for Americans held by the Japanese in Asia. 
Like many others snatched from Peru without legal process (after all, the rationale went, there was a war on), Tadashi became one of three thousand Japanese from South and Central America destined for U.S. Justice Department detention camps in south Texas.  The majority came from Peru.
Within days of his apprehension, clutching a scant bag of possessions, Tadashi was trucked to Callao port, marched up the gangway of the rusting freighter S.S. Frank Johnson, and herded below decks.  In the hold he found himself crammed together with a hundred or so other men, nearly all of them long-time residents in Peru or Peruvians of Japanese ancestry.  Tadashi surveyed the faces of the people around him; they were mostly humble, confused people—store owners, farm workers, barbers, fishermen—about to be carried off into a void they could not imagine, for reasons they did not comprehend.  They were hardly suspicious characters.
The ship soon sailed for New Orleans.  Kept below as they passed through the Panama Canal (who knew what military secrets they might ferret out?), heads shaved, bodies stripped and doused with DDT in New Orleans, and ferried across the Texas plains in a train with covered windows and then by bus, the prisoners from Peru finally arrived at the Kenedy Detention Center in a swirl of dust.  A man armed with a shotgun waved their vehicle through the barred gate. 
Tadashi stepped down from the bus and found himself in a place unlike any he had ever experienced—or imagined.  A one-time Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, the detention center consisted of a half dozen rows of flat-roofed, single-story, wooden barracks and a handful of similar administrative buildings arrayed along sandy streets.  Here and there hurriedly constructed huts displayed raw plywood exteriors, still fresh and clean.  The dozen or so pitiable trees scattered along the edge of the camp seemed engaged in a losing battle with the dry wind that besieged them. 
But it was the desolate world beyond the camp’s wire fence that left Tadashi disoriented.  To a young man who’d come of age in the congested lanes and alleys of Yokohama and in the verdant world of close-packed, wet rice paddies beyond the city, his new environment seemed so vast, so empty.  Red-brown, rock-strewn, peppered with blackish green scrub brush, it struck him as a barren, endless place where human beings surely could not live.  Tadashi gazed across the arid south Texas terrain stretching away a hundred miles to Mexico filled with wonder—and unease.  That first night the unfamiliar braying of coyotes provoked spasms of nervousness.
On a scorching August afternoon, Tadashi and fellow detainee Ichiro Morimoto wielded mops across the rough wooden floor of their barracks.  They were dressed in ill-fitting, non-descript work clothes.  Like time always passing, the hot wind would not stop; it pushed through the open windows.  In a thorny mood as usual, Morimoto had been grumbling about the food served in the dining hall.
“You’re wrong, Morimoto-san.  It’s not so bad,” Tadashi said.  “The food is okay, especially now that we have rice and tofu from time to time.  I even like the Sunday chicken.”           
“Why do you say things like that?  If they treat us well, it is because they are just trying to win us over.  But every time I see the wire fence and the watch towers, I know we are prisoners.  Soldiers of the Emperor are pledged to never surrender.  Surrender is shameful.” 
Morimoto was a slim fellow who contemplated the world through blinking eyes and round framed glasses.  Like that of all the detainees, his hair was cut close.  On those rare occasions when he smiled, he displayed crooked teeth.          
“I am not a soldier,” Tadashi said.  “I was never asked to fight to the death.  We had no choice when the policemen came.  I feel no shame.”
“If you are truly Japanese you must feel shame.  We are like soldiers.  We are all the Emperor’s subjects.  I will never be able to face my family again.  We should have resisted.”  Although Morimoto lectured Tadashi and their twenty or so barracks mates on the righteousness of Japan’s war, Morimoto had himself managed to avoid military service.
Tadashi leaned on his mop and winced as a corner of the wind delivered a fast-rising whiff of disinfectant.  “And then what?  How would that have helped Japan?”
“I should have died.  There is nobility in such a death.”
“I dislike the Americans as much as you,” Tadashi said.  “But I am determined to go home when this war ends, perhaps even sooner.  There are rumors of another exchange.”
“It’s a lie.  They are always trying to deceive us.” Morimoto spoke with a certainty that stifled any possibility of a rejoinder.  “The Gripsholm was for the officials and big shots—not the likes of us.”
The two men spun around when the screen door at the end of the room screeched open and then slammed shut.  A ruddy-faced young American man, outfitted with khaki shirt and trousers, strode toward them, his booted footfalls echoing in the empty barracks room.  One of the locally hired civilian guards, he flaunted a holstered .45 caliber pistol.
“Hey, you two Japs.  You’re supposed to be cleaning floors.  Not standing around gabbing.  Get to work.”   
Tadashi had studied English in a Yokohama commercial college.  Hoping for a job in the camp’s administrative office, he worked diligently to improve his skill.  For his part Morimoto refused, as he put it, “to learn even a single word.”  But they both grasped the irritation in the man’s voice.  They had become accustomed to the overt prejudice and hostility their captors wielded like sharp knives.  The detainees concealed the reciprocal antagonism they felt toward the Americans, but it burned in them in equal measure.
The guard, Tom Reardon, was a twenty-two year old who had been granted a draft deferment to care for his widowed mother.  Establishment of the detention facility had proved an economic boon for dust poor local folks like Reardon.  But Reardon chafed at his status; as soon as his younger brother turned eighteen, Reardon declared to anyone who’d listen, he wanted, “to get in the fight, to get over there while the war is still going on.” 
Guarding a bunch of washed-up Japs wasn’t what he had in mind.  He took the job for the money, not sure he’d last.  After all, he griped, he’d have to associate with them.  He’d never met any Japanese before the camp opened, but he told his drinking pals at Billie’s Bar and Grill, “I expect it’ll make my skin crawl, just being around them.” 
After three months on the job, however, Reardon had to admit the detainees seemed tame enough.  He even heard that a lot of the ones over at the Crystal City center had their wives and kids with them, had schools and scout troops and ball teams, like a regular little town.  But he said to another guard, “If you give these people a chance, you just know they’ll yell banzai and come at you with a knife or something.”  The fact there had been no such incident at the camp since it opened failed to reassure him.  He kept his weapon loaded.  You couldn’t turn your back on them, no sir.
Two days after his brief encounter with Yamada and Morimoto, Reardon patrolled outside the camp’s eight-foot perimeter fence.  Mounted on old Maynard, one of the camp’s hand-me-down horses, Reardon rode parallel to a blacktop road that went round the camp just inside the fence.  A white line down the middle of the road marked a boundary no detainee should cross.  From time to time, just to irritate the guards, some of the Japanese teenagers would stand with their toes close up to the edge of the line. 
As his horse clomped along a worn track, Reardon spotted Tadashi sitting under one of the camp’s few trees.  A red oak planted by the CCC, the tree rose up at a spot between the road and the fence, well beyond the white line.  Reardon dismounted, tethered his horse, and approached the unaware Japanese man.  Reardon drew his weapon.
“What are you doing there across that line, boy?”
Startled, Tadashi twisted around and looked up at the guard.  Another policeman, another gun.  “Sorry, sir.  It was my rest time.  I find cool place.”
“I could shoot you, boy.  You get back across that road right now.”
“Yes, sir.”  Tadashi scrambled to his feet.
“What’s that in your hand?” Reardon said, his voice laden with suspicion.
“Old pieces paper.  Drawing picture.”
“Bring that paper here.  What the hell are you up to anyway?”  Reardon holstered his pistol.
Yamada pushed three or four sheets of salvaged wrapping paper out through the fence.  Disappointed they seemed to involve no espionage, Reardon stared at Tadashi’s sketches: trees, shrubs, and a horned toad.  They were pretty good.  As a matter of fact they were damn good.
“Where did you learn to do this?” Reardon said, displaying the pictures back through the fence.
“I always like make pictures,” Tadashi said, not quite certain what the guard was asking.  “Since little boy.”
“Can you do people?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Here.  Do one of me.”  Reardon handed back a piece of paper, then tossed a clipboard he retrieved from a saddlebag over the fence.  “Use this.”
Shielding his eyes against the coppery sun, just past its zenith, the prisoner from Peru examined the young American’s rectangular face, blond hair, and suspicious brown eyes.      
“Please no hat,” Tadashi said.  “Makes face dark.”
Reardon removed his Stetson
Then Tadashi began to sketch with a pencil stub he’d retrieved from a trash can.  Working with serious intensity he finished in three or four minutes.
“Please see.”  He delivered the completed sketch.
“Well, what do you know?  It really looks like me.  Didn’t know you people could do this.”  Reardon studied the sketch a bit longer, and then said, “I’ve got to show this to my boss.  I bet a lot of the folks on the staff would like one of these pictures.  Now, you get your ass back across that road—and stay there.  Hear?”
“Yes, sir.”
Reardon folded the drawing, shoved it into his pocket, and rode off on old Maynard.
Word got around concerning Tadashi’s drawings and, in addition to ten cents an hour for his janitorial job, Tadashi now sold sketches to guards and other staff members for a nickel apiece. 
One day, just before evening muster, Reardon marched into the barracks.  “People say they want nicer paper for their pictures, so here’s a tablet I brought you out in town.  Don’t get the idea I’m doing you any favors.”  Reardon flipped the tablet onto Tadashi’s bunk.  “It’s because that’s what folks want.”  That said, he strode away and out the door.
Seated nearby on his own bunk, Morimoto scowled.   “Be careful.  He will try to turn you against us.  You should not take anything from him.”
“It is just some paper.  I like to draw.  It makes the time pass,” Tadashi said.  “I am no friend of the Americans.  But Reardon is not as bad as some.”
Like Tadashi, Morimoto had been raised in Japan.  During a business trip to Lima, he, too, had been caught in Peru by the chain of events that came with the war.  He complained incessantly.  “It is bad enough that we are penned up with all these ignorant Japanese-Peruvians.  It is worse so many of them are from Okinawa.  The Americans have no sense of propriety.”
Tadashi shrugged.  “It can’t be helped.  That’s just the way things are.”
The camp director, Harold Ketchum, was a benevolent dictator, but a dictator nonetheless.  The detainees rarely received mail, and what did come through from the Red Cross representative was so heavily censored as to be meaningless.  Moreover, the director denied them all but the most limited access to news about the war.  No radios.  No papers.  They wondered and they worried, especially about family members left behind in Peru or in Japan.  When Reardon or other staff members said anything at all, it was in the vein of, “Well, we sure whipped your ass on Guadalcanal,” or “MacArthur’s headed back to the Philippines.” 
Morimoto refused to believe such comments; like many of the detainees he clung doggedly to the notion Japan was winning.  Less certain, Tadashi began to consider how he could turn his incarceration to his advantage in the postwar world.  He kept those thoughts to himself.  As the months dragged by he speculated about whether or not he would ever touch Japanese soil again.  At the same time he continued to hone his English skills. 
On a blustery November day in 1943, now assigned as a supply clerk, Tadashi hunched over a desk preparing invoices.  He shivered in the unheated room as cold air swept in around the windows.  Meantime, listening to a radio, his American supervisor basked in the warmth of a space heater next to his desk.  Momentarily distracted, Tadashi eavesdropped on the music.  He smiled inwardly at “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and “Don’t Fence Me In.”  “Mairzy Doats” left him convinced English was impossible.
Tadashi had once more immersed himself in his work, when Reardon’s voice unexpectedly filled the room.  “Hey there, Yamada.  How ya doing?  Hope you’re not cooking the books.”
“Cooking the books?”  I do not . . .”
“It means cheating, you stupid Nip; it means, oh, hell, never mind.”
Tadashi stared at him.  “I am Japanese.  Do not call me . . .”
Reardon laughed indulgently.  “Okay.  Okay.  I’ll keep my trap shut.  Anyway, I came over here to give you something.”  Reardon fished around in his shirt pocket, extracted a small rectangular box, and handed it to Tadashi.  “Here ya go.”
Opening the box, Tadashi announced, “It is fountain pen.  So happy.  Same policeman take my watch in Lima take my pen.”
“Hey.  It’s not just any fountain pen.  It’s a Parker.   There’s even a warranty.  The director and the guard chief figured it’s something you might need for filling out these forms—and for your drawing.  So they’re issuing it to you.  Just sign the receipt.”
Back in the barracks, Morimoto predictably viewed presentation of the pen as an underhanded maneuver by the camp authorities to enlist Tadashi in some nefarious, if undefined, scheme.  “You should have rejected this gift.  It is tainted.”
“But they’ve asked for nothing.  It’s true the Americans are crude, rough fellows.  Big.  They all seem so tall.  Too loose.  Too relaxed.  But some of them are goodhearted.  And they make good things, like this pen.  We might want to do business with them some day.”
“What day could that be?  You sound like a traitor.”  Morimoto flashed a look of contempt and stomped off.
Tadashi could never remember how the subject came up, but Reardon became fascinated when he discovered Tadashi had seen Babe Ruth play baseball during the 1934 Japan goodwill tour by American professionals.  Not only had Reardon starred on the local high school team, it turned out he was an ardent Yankees fan, a truly unlikely circumstance for a young man growing up in a whistlestop south Texas town.
“If that don’t beat all,” Reardon said.  “Here I am right in the good old USA, and I’ve never seen the Babe.  Yet there you were, way over there, and you saw him.  If that don’t beat all.”
“I went with young brother to game.  Mr. Gehrig and Mr. Foxx too.  Very exciting.”
The recollection briefly transported Tadashi to a faraway time.  He realized he’d had no contact with his brother for almost four years.  Nor with his parents.  He thought of his mother tending her chrysanthemums in the garden behind their house, of his father drinking sake and singing popular songs of the day.  He worried, but his worry lacked substance; he knew nothing of their situation.  Were they in peril?  Alive?  Dead?  Not knowing was among the worst of the torments Tadashi and the other detainees suffered.
“I don’t reckon you ever played ball yourself, did you, Yamada?”  Reardon said one day after he had inspected the barracks.
“Yes.  College club team.”
“How come I never see you out there in any of the camp games?”
“Those boys all speak Spanish.  All friends.”  Tadashi could not explain the social cleavages that had developed in the detention center, but he believed Reardon understood them.   In addition to difficulties between Japanese speakers and Spanish speakers, the relationships between detainees of mainland Japanese descent and those from Okinawa bubbled with rivalries and resentments.  Frictions with Germans temporarily housed at the center added to the abrasive mix.
One day, headed for the dining hall, Tadashi passed Reardon and another guard playing catch during their lunch break.  Reardon waved him back.
“Hey, Danny.  This is the one I was telling you about.  The one who saw Babe Ruth.”
“Did you actually meet him?” Danny Matthews said.  A tall, tousle-haired twenty-year- old, and a bit vacant looking, Matthews had been Reardon’s pal since childhood.  He lived in Reardon’s shadow.
“No, sir.  Just see.”  Tadashi sensed that having watched the American idol play ball had somehow elevated his stature in the eyes of his American keepers. 
Over time, the hate-filled, menacing looks he encountered from Reardon in the early days were replaced with a nod and a “how ya doing?”  More than once both Reardon and Matthews stopped by the supply office to ask about the Babe, as if Tadashi was the resident expert.  None of them seemed to consider the irony of the fact that, while they chatted about Ruth’s batting stance or Gehrig’s streak, their countrymen were killing each other in large numbers and without mercy across the Pacific.
Tadashi treated his Parker pen with care, as he would a calligraphy brush.  He cleaned the nib, screwed the cap on when he put the pen down even for a short time, and deposited the pen in its cushioned box at the end of the day.  He liked the heft and feel of the pen, the smooth texture of its black surface, the gold clip and band.  The pen was his only significant physical possession and one that in a curious way connected him to a world outside the camp.  A Parker pen.  Someday he would resume his interrupted business career.
“What do you miss most here?” Reardon asked him one spring day.
The question perplexed Tadashi.  “I miss my ofuro, my wooden Japanese bath.  With shower, I do not feel so good.  Still not clean.  Not pure.”
Reardon grinned.  “Not exactly what I had mind.  How about girls, Yamada?  How about girls?”
Girls?  When was the last time?  Perhaps a few weeks after he arrived in Peru.  He thought of them all the time.  “Yes, sir.  I miss girls.  I like girls.”
“Now listen, and listen real good.  Danny and I are gonna get a truck this afternoon to go pick up feed for the horses, and we want you to come along to lend a hand.  Lots of you people been leaving the camp lately to work for some of the ranchers hereabouts.”
“Yes, sir.  I know.  But how can I help?”
“Partner, we want to help you.  We been talking and figured you’ve been a pretty straight shooter, what with the drawings and all.  You said you miss the girls, right?  Well, we figure you need a little relief.”
Reardon winked, a gesture Tadashi failed to comprehend.
A few hours later the young guards and their still baffled passenger pulled up in front of a decrepit, shambled house, seemingly the only habitation in any direction.  A woman lounged in the door and waved to the men in the truck.
“Hi, Cindy,” Reardon called out.  “This is the fellow we told you about.  Treat him right, won’t you.”
“Hi, boys.  Send him over.”
Yamada froze.  “But she is American.  I never . . .”
“Hell, she’s only half American.  Half Mexican.  Who cares.  She’s real open-minded.”  Reardon and Matthews both laughed.  “Now get a move on before we change our mind.  We’ll be back in two hours.”
While the two Americans watched from the truck cab, pounded each other’s shoulders and laughed, Yamada approached the woman leaning in the door.
“How do you do,” he said and bowed slightly.
“Hi, honey.  The boys tell me it’s been a while.”
One day the Parker pen stopped working.  Somehow it seemed clogged.  Tadashi tried shaking it, rinsing it, probing it with a pin; nothing worked.
The supply supervisor showed no concern.  “You’ll just have to use one of those old pens you dip in the ink.  We have plenty.”
Tadashi was troubled.  He treasured the pen; it wrote so well, he liked the black, authoritative lines it made.  And it even performed well when he used it to ink in his pencil sketches.  But much to his unhappiness, it seemed unfixable.
Fended off by his supervisor, Tadashi approached Reardon as he crossed the assembly area that had once been a parade ground.
“Sir, I have sad news.  My Parker pen will not go.  I cannot fix it.”
“Let me see.”  Reardon examined the pen in the flat sun of late afternoon.  “If you say so, I guess it’s broken.”  He pondered for a moment.  “It has a warranty, doesn’t it?  Why not send it in to the company and have it fixed?”
“From a prison camp?”
“It’s not a prison camp, Yamada.  It’s a detention center.  Anyway, why not?  What have you got to lose?”
“Do you think . . .?”
“Put a note in with it and wrap it up.  I’ll mail it for you.”
“Perhaps they will think I broke . . .”
“Just get it wrapped up before I change my mind.”
And so Tadashi scrounged some paper in the supply office, copied the address cited on the warranty, tied the parcel with string, and handed it to Reardon before evening muster.
Weeks passed with no response, and Tadashi reconciled himself to the fact he would not see the pen again.  For all he knew, the pen company had ceased to exist, or had shifted its manufacturing to war goods.
During early 1944, when his brother finally came of age, Reardon enlisted.  On his last day at work, he swung into the supply office.
“There’s still time to get into it,” he said to Tadashi.  “I’m headed for the Marines.  Might be kind of hard.  Everybody says we ought to hate the Japs.  And I guess there’s ones that likely deserve it.  I know there’s some jokers in this camp that sure fit the bill.  But I expect some of the ones we’ll be fighting against aren’t so bad—guys like you, Yamada.  I’ll sure keep you and a few of the other boys in mind when I’m over there.”  He shuffled his feet.  “Sorry you never heard back from the pen company.”
Tadashi nodded.
“Well, so long,” Reardon said and started for the door.  Then he stopped and turned back.
A look of embarrassment crept across his face.  He hesitated and then extended his hand.  “Oh, hell.  I never figured I’d ever shake with one of you . . . Japanese.
Tadashi, too, hesitated, and then reached out and shook his warder’s hand.  “I will not forget you for a long time, Mr. Reardon.  I hope we can meet again when there is some peace.”
Months passed and word came that the Camp Kenedy would close in August 1944. The remaining detainees would be transferred to a new site near Santa Fe.  Not long before that transfer, on a sweltering late July day, Matthews stepped through the office doorway.  Tadashi looked up and turned in his chair.
“Got something here for you,” Matthews said.  “There’s a note from Reardon.  I’ll read it to you.  Tom’s got awful handwriting.”
Danny:  Here’s Yamada’s damn pen.  Even though I told them not to, since it said in care of me, the post office forwarded it to my military address.  It followed me all the way out here to a place I can’t mention.  Anyway, here it is.  Say hello to everybody.  I’m sure we’re going to wrap this thing up soon.    Tom
Matthews gave Tadashi the pen and the accompanying letter from the Parker Pen Company.
Mr. Tadashi Yamada
            c/o Tom Reardon, Security Office
            Kenedy Alien Detention Center
            Kenedy, Texas
            Dear Mr. Yamada:
            We were sorry to learn of your difficulties with our Parker pen serial # 445566.  We regret any inconvenience the malfunction might have caused you.  We take great pride in our craftsmanship and in the quality of our products.  We are, therefore, happy to provide you with a new top of the line “Silver Writer.” 
With our best wishes, Wilfred Marker, Customer Service Division
“I like the way of American business,” Tadashi said.  “Even to the enemy person in jail, they send me new pen.”
“There’s something else,” Matthews said.  “Before he left Reardon gave me this and said to deliver it to you if the pen showed up.”
He handed Tadashi a carton containing a box of stationary and two bottles of Parker’s Black Ink.  On top of the box Tadashi saw a handwritten note.  Yamada:  Stay behind the white line until it’s all over.  Reardon
“Yamada, do you know where an island called Tinian is?” Matthews said.
“No, sir.”
“Just wondered.  Tom’s mother asked me.  She seemed worried.  Heard something about Marines landing there a couple of days ago.  I expect she thinks Tom’s one of them.”    








As a career diplomat, Lawrence Farrar served in Japan (multiple tours), Norway, Germany, and Washington, DC.  He also lived in Japan as a graduate student and as a naval officer. A Minnesota resident, Farrar has degrees from Dartmouth and StanfordHis stories have appeared in GHLL (2010), The MacGuffin, Red Cedar Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Evening Street Review, G.W. Review, Straylight, Colere, Worcester Review, 34th Parallel, Blue Lake Review, Bloodroot, New Plains Review, and Bryant Literary Review.  He also provided assistance to the author of a Hiroshima memoir published in New Madrid.  Other pieces are forthcoming in Jelly Bucket and Paradise Review.