The Desert Was His Home

There are many things we don’t know about Mr. Otomatsu Wada, and a few things we do

We don’t know much about Mr. Otomatsu Wada of Unit B in Barrack 14 in Block 63 of the Gila River Relocation Center in southern Arizona beyond the fact that on May 1, 1943, eight months to the day after he arrived at the concentration camp for Japanese Americans, he went missing.

Census records and ship manifests do little more than sketch a picture of a typical member of the generation of Japanese that came to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. We know that he was born in Japan in 1873, that he had a high school education, and that he arrived in the United States for the first time in 1901, when he was about twenty-eight and a bachelor. He never learned to speak much English. He worked as a laborer in Santa Ana, California, until early 1906, when he went back to Japan for a short time. He must have gone to get married, because by the fall of that same year he was back in the United States in the company of a wife seven years his junior. We know that upon returning as a married man, Otomatsu went into farming, as so many Japanese immigrants of his generation did. And we know that tragedy struck less than a year later, when the young Mrs. Wada passed away.

We know that by 1914, when Otomatsu Wada was around forty, he had remarried, this time to a twenty-six-year-old Japanese woman named Toshi. She quickly bore three sons: George in 1916, Gabriel in 1917, and Paul in 1919. And then tragedy struck again. Toshi Wada passed away in February of 1920, just thirty-one years old, leaving Otomatsu a widower for a second time.

We know that on December 7, 1941, Otomatsu and his two younger sons were working on a farm they had leased in Compton, California, just north of Long Beach. His oldest son had joined the U.S. Army a few months earlier and was away.

We know that the government did not arrest Otomatsu in the weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack. The government did do this to hundreds of other Japanese men on a list of supposedly dangerous aliens that intelligence agencies had compiled in the years before the war. Making this list wasn’t hard; all a person had to do was hold some sort of leadership role in the Japanese community, whether as an officer of a business association or as a Buddhist priest or as a Japanese language teacher or judo instructor. Later in the war, the attorney general would repudiate the list as unreliable. But however little evidence of subversiveness it took to make the list, Otomatsu Wada didn’t have it; the government didn’t see him as a dangerous man.

We know that in the spring of 1942, as the government uprooted every man, woman, and child of Japanese descent along the West Coast, Otomatsu and his youngest son were shipped some two hundred miles north to the Tulare Assembly Center, a temporary gathering facility not far from Sequoia National Park. They moved into makeshift barracks that ran almost the entire half-mile length and quarter-mile width of the Tulare Fairgrounds, including across the infield of a big racing oval.

We know that from there, late in August of 1942, Otomatsu and Paul were removed by train to what the government officially called the Rivers Relocation Center. Nobody actually used that name; people called the camp “Gila River” because the government had built it on reservation land owned by the Gila River Indian Community, even though the tribe didn’t want it there. 

The camp was south of Phoenix. It was searingly hot there. On September 1, the day Otomatsu arrived with his son, the high temperature was 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

We don’t know exactly how he spent his time at Gila River, but we can make some educated guesses. Camp jobs paid between $12 and $19 a month, depending on the skill level of the work, but it’s hard to imagine that an almost seventy-year-old widower who knew only farming would have jumped at the chance to work in the scorching sun, particularly when he didn’t have to earn money to pay for his room and board, such as they were. Most of the elderly inmates at Gila River and the other War Relocation Authority camps really did very little with their empty days. A lifetime of hard work lay behind them, and now they had nothing to show for it, so lots of the older folks just tried to ease into this first real moment of idleness they had ever known, hunting for whatever shade they could find to sit and gossip and play cards or checkers. There were lots of elderly bachelors in camp—men who had come to the United States to work and had never married. They tended to be more solitary than their married counterparts. Maybe, as a widower, Otomatsu whiled away his time with some of them, brewing homemade sake, musing about the war, and playing the ancient game of Go with black and white stones on boards they made from leftover plywood.

We know that in the spring of 1943, life got lonelier for him. Paul Wada had the opportunity to get out of camp on what they called “seasonal leave,” to pull and top sugar beets in the fields of Montana. Even though it meant leaving his father behind in camp to fend for himself, the young man headed north in early April.

Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, Otomatsu caught the Eleanor Roosevelt fever that gripped Gila River later that month when the First Lady paid a surprise visit to the camp as part of a public relations effort. Her tour was an attempt to refute charges, swirling in the national press, that the government was coddling Japanese Americans in the camps. She wowed inmates with an energetic itinerary of appearances around camp, moving unannounced from schools to recreation halls to mess halls to the camp hospital to the factory where inmates made camouflage netting for the war effort. The camp’s newspaper reported that “curious and thrilled evacuee eyes followed her everywhere, and autograph hunters had a field day,” but Otomatsu was preoccupied by other things. He kept telling people that he was going to leave camp to be with his son on the beet farm in Montana. But the beet fields were at least a thousand miles away, and he didn’t have permission to leave or any way to get there. Nobody took him seriously.

We know that by 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, May 1, a week after the First Lady’s visit, Otomatsu had been reported missing from his barrack. The temperature that day was 84 degrees.

We know that over the next several days, as temperatures climbed as high as 97, camp officials launched a massive manhunt for him. Upwards of a thousand prisoners searched inside the perimeter fence on Sunday. On Monday, several hundred of them were given special permission to search outside the fence, within a concentric circle with a five-mile radius, while two private airplanes buzzed the skies above. On Tuesday—a day when the camp newspaper warned camp residents about scorpion stings and rattlesnake bites and announced the distribution of salt tablets due to the heat—administrators devoted even more manpower to the search, throwing twenty-five to thirty volunteers from each of the residential blocks into the effort, so many that the camp had to shut down all but the most essential operations. Word went out to law enforcement officials across Arizona and southern California to be on the lookout for a five-foot-seven, 140-pound, white-haired and clean-shaven seventy-two-year-old man in blue jeans, work shoes, a white dress shirt with brown spots, and a gray gabardine slouch hat.

The search turned up nothing—not a clue. At that point, Otomatsu was officially listed as missing. Four months later, the camp newspaper described his disappearance as one of Gila River’s “unsolved mysteries.”

• • •

We don’t know whether, in the heat of the search, any of Gila River’s prisoners saw foreshadowing in a poem, by Gila River high school student Tokiko Inouye, that appeared in the camp newspaper. She titled the poem “The Desert Is My Home,” and it went like this:

The desert is my home, I love its suns and sands,
I love its vastness, centuries’ sleep; it challenges, commands.
At night the cold stars crystallize, opalescent, clear and free—
I exult in their ageless eyes, their silence envelopes me.

And this is now my home; this, the open plains
And endless sage beneath hot sun, the sky and sudden rain
From golden dawn to red sunset, the desert beckons, calls—
I love its freedom, wilderness, unlimited by walls.

And this will be my home, The desert paths I’ll trod,
For out beneath its skies and stars, I can be alone with God.

• • •

We really don’t know much about Otomatsu Wada.

But we do know that almost two years after his disappearance, in March of 1945, a cowboy on horseback in the desert about ten miles southwest of the camp happened across a bleached and partly clothed skeleton. It was of a small man in shredded blue jeans and the tatters of a white shirt.

In camp, where people did know Otomatsu Wada, the newspaper reported that “Gila’s two-year-old mystery” had come “to an abrupt end under a lonely mesquite tree.”

The war was nearing an end, and with it their desert exile. Their pre-war lives were gone, their futures nothing but uncertainty. 

At least this was one mystery solved.

About the Author

Eric L. Muller

Eric L. Muller has been studying and writing about the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans for more than two decades. He is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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