AROUND NJ

History of Japanese American internment lives on in southern NJ

BY NJTV News Staff |

Authored by NJTV  News Intern Taylor Jung.

(Courtesy: Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center)

February 19, 1942 was a day that would change the lives of many Japanese people living on the West Coast. That is when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which helped make the internment of Japanese Americans possible.

While their relocation may seem like a faraway event, their history hits close to home in Seabrook, New Jersey. A little known fact is that many Japanese internees moved there after World War II.

This happened because the town’s eponymous frozen foods business, Seabrook Farms, faced a labor shortage during the war. The company hired workers from several corners of the world — immigrants, German POWs and other displaced Europeans. Yet, it still needed more employees.

The solution? Tap into West Coast internment camps.

Advertisements appeared in camp newspapers and recruiters visited those camps. By 1944, Japanese internees began arriving at Seabrook. In her book, “After the Camps: Seabrook Farms, New Jersey, and the Resettlement of Japanese Americans, 1944—47,” Mitziko Sawada estimates between 2,300 and 2,700 Japanese American and Japanese Latin American internees had migrated there by January of 1947.

“It was a place to start over, save some money, send their kids to school and improve their situation,” says Beverly Carr, executive director of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, or SECC.

Carr works with the SECC to help preserve the town’s intricate history. The project was started in 1990 by former Japanese American residents and the Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL.

(Courtesy: Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center)

Keeping Seabrook’s history alive is no small task. The SECC archives documents and photos, teaches visitors about the town’s story, records stories from past and current residents, and more. Volunteers help with this work. 94-year-old Frank Ono is one of them. He goes to the center to share his internment story with visitors and groups. Although he never worked for Seabrook Farms, members of his family did. He followed them to the town after he was released from the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

“My mother, I think, was the first one to go out with one of my brothers, and [then] my dad went out…and I went out four months before they closed the place. I went out in August…I came to Seabrook on V-J Day,” he remembers.

While Ono is able to talk about his past, it hasn’t always been easy for others to share their internment story. Ono says his generation “never talked about it.”

(Courtesy: Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center)

With every passing year, World War II moves further away and there’s a race to preserve not just Seabrook’s history, but all stories about internment. Ono and his remaining contemporaries will soon be centenarians. Ono’s wife, a fellow Seabrook resident who was once interned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, passed away in 2010.

Nonetheless, the SECC continues to work to spread the word about its town. The organization welcomes visitors and groups, and will visit schools to educate students about Seabrook’s history.

Ono finds that younger generations “…don’t even know that it ever existed.”

“I think residents of New Jersey should be proud and curious about the Seabrook story…,” says Carr.

The SECC is located at 1325 Highway 77, and is open Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon.