Kumaji Furuya set his gaze upon a wedge of geese crossing the Louisiana sky. It was October 1942, and unaccustomed to the climate and family separation, the prisoner was in search of ways to temper the pain. To the guards keeping watch, the birds may have meant nothing, but the 53-year-old Japanese man had only ever seen wild geese in books. He later wrote in his memoir, An Internment Odyssey, that they looked motionless and beautiful, a promise of cooler weather, an end to days wasted lying in cool pits dug beneath barrack floors.
Built in 1940 in a clearing of pines, one of a cluster of Army posts in the area, Camp Livingston was installed 12 miles northeast of Alexandria, Louisiana, for the purpose of training entire divisions. After the attacks on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, a portion of Livingston was converted to an internment camp. In June 1942, after a month at Camp Forrest in Tennessee, Furuya transferred to Livingston. He was among dozens of other civilians and a single prisoner of war, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, who was captured in Hawaii, after the coordinated attack, when his “midget” submarine smashed against coral reefs and sank. (As the war raged on, a few dozen more Japanese POWs came and went.)
For the approximate year, civilians were held in camp — before German and Italian POWs replaced them. They came in waves, arriving by train, more than 1,100 Japanese immigrants (“Issei” in Japanese), who left behind families and communities across the United States.
Furuya didn’t know if he would die in this camp, but he knew he’d committed no treasonous crimes. None of the civilians had, and faced with the enormity of this injustice, some of them barely coped. Some fell into depression and poor health and some died. At least seven, in various camps, were shot and killed. At Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, a fellow Issei from Hawaii, Kanesaburo Oshima, was gunned down for trying to scale a fence. Witnesses said leaving his wife to care for 11 children and a failing business was too much for him to bear. Nobody knew when — or if — this war would end. Rumors that it might last 25 years, perhaps 100 years, prompted some internees to reluctantly volunteer for a prisoner exchange with Japan, a country many hadn’t seen in more than half a lifetime. At least there, they reasoned, they could live outside of the barbed wire.
This nightmare began before 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft showered bombs on Pearl Harbor: Dec. 7, 1941. The surprise attack stunned Furuya as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, that afternoon, while his son, an ROTC cadet, defended Farrington High School nearby, two officers hauled Furuya away. He left without a struggle and with only the clothes on his back, assuming the matter would quickly resolve. But it didn’t turn out that way. Unbeknownst to him, Furuya had been placed on the Custodial Detention Index (aka the A-B-C classification matrix), a covert government program established to surveille “aliens” and rank them into three levels of ostensible risk to national security, in case war should break out. Fueled by xenophobia and paranoia, thousands of people were interned based on their ethnic background: “17,447 of Japanese ancestry, 11,507 of German ancestry, 2,730 of Italian ancestry, and 185 others,” writes historian and camp survivor Tetsuden Kashima.