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Reaching Out, Reuniting

Reiko Nagumo speaks about her childhood experiences and the new PBS documentary series “We’ll Meet Again,” at her home in Sacramento on Jan. 4. The 83-year-old is featured in the first episode of the program, as she searches for her schoolmate who showed kindness during wartime. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS Rafu Arts & Entertainment

We’ll meet again Don’t know where Don’t know when But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.

Perhaps the best-known anthem of the World War II era, “We’ll Meet Again” echoes much-needed hope and affection for an entire global generation, through Vera Lynn’s loving vocal.

Love and reunions are the common thread and driving force behind the new PBS series of the same title, hosted by journalist Ann Curry, who also served at the show’s executive producer.

Based on the British program, the U.S. version of “We’ll Meet Again” premieres next Tuesday, Jan. 23, with the story of a young Los Feliz girl who was one of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated for most of the war’s duration.

Like the song, the series seeks a positive outcome in the aftermath of upheaval, a restoration of faith in all that is good, after often overwhelmingly negative circumstances.

Toward that goal, the first episode packs a powerful punch, with the story of Reiko Nagumo.

“If you have a very good friend and all of a sudden you’re told you can’t play with her, you don’t really understand why,” said the 83-year-old Nagumo. “You’d still want to reach out to that friend, and I think that’s what she did for me.”

Sitting in the sun-drenched breakfast nook of her Sacramento home, Nagumo recalled memories of how a friend at school rejected the anti-Japanese sentiment following the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the racism that lingered post-war, and continued to show her friendship.

Nagumo was born in Los Angeles and was a 7-year-old second-grader at Los Feliz School when the Dec. 7, 1941 attack plunged the United States into the war.

“The next day, it was a Monday, and she finds me on the playground, because we were best friends at school,” Nagumo said, telling how her Caucasian classmate, Mary Frances White, had what seemed like heartbreaking news. “She says, ‘My mom told me that we’re at war with Japan, and you’re Japanese, so I can’t play with you anymore.’ That was to be the end of our friendship.

“Despite that, Mary Frances continued to find ways to befriend me,” Nagumo said.

“We’ll Meet Again” follows the search for Mary Frances after the two girls lost touch after sixth grade. Before then, the worlds of the children had taken vastly different paths, but their friendship had endured.

In a 1942 composite photo taken at Los Feliz School, Nagumo is seen with her second-grade classmate Mary Frances White. (Courtesy of Reiko Nagumo)

Nagumo told the story of how in January 1942, a defiant Mary Frances wanted to show young Reiko all the wonderful gifts she had received for Christmas. Having been forbidden to associate with her Japanese American friend, Mary snuck Reiko into her home while her mother was away at work.

“As we were going into the living room, we hear from the back of the apartment someone coming in from the back door through the kitchen,” Nagumo remembered, adding that a voice called out to see who Mary was speaking with.

“She answered, ‘Nobody, Uncle Bill,’ and told me to hide behind the sofa.”

The strategy didn’t work, and Reiko was discovered.

“He finds me behind the sofa and physically drags me out, and that was very frightening. He was kind of a big guy, and he came right up to my face and said, ‘You go home and don’t you ever come back.’”

The man said he would punish Mary.

“I ran crying all the way home. Because of me, she was going to be punished. That’s what I remembered of that incident,” Reiko said.

While the girls continued to be friends at school, it wasn’t long before Reiko, like thousands of other Japanese and Japanese Americans, was ordered to be rounded up and sent to camps in remote areas of the western U.S.

Before her family was removed from their home in May, the teachers at her school were sensitive to her plight and along with their classmates surprised Reiko and another child with a farewell party. Nagumo said at the time, Mary didn’t understand why her friend was being taken away.

Likewise, young Reiko couldn’t grasp the reasons for her removal. In the PBS series, she said the lion’s share of her sadness came from trying to accept what her parents must have endured, and how they did their utmost to lessen the impact on the kids.

“We children got bored very soon,” Nagumo recalled about the three-day train ride that eventually led to the internment camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. “My father tried to make the best of it, saying things like ‘Won’t it be fun to ride on a train?’ or things like that.”

Despite her age at the time, she said she vividly remembers the air of secrecy surrounding the journey.

“I remember the soldiers coming through with their guns and bayonets, telling us to pull down the shades. They didn’t want people from the outside, I suppose, to see us,” she said.

She suspects the government didn’t want a situation in which officials would be required to explain to the residents of various small, rural towns why trainloads of people who looked very different were being sent to live nearby.

Upon returning from camp, Reiko found post-war L.A. quite different from the one she had known earlier, as the anti-Japanese sentiment was widespread. Her friendship with her schoolmate, however, hadn’t changed at all.

“One of the first kids to come up and take my hand was Mary Frances. Again, she did a very kind thing. She had no idea what I was going through, but she saw me as a friend and came up to me.”

After that school year, the girls went their separate ways, attending different middle schools and losing touch for decades.

Nagumo moved to Sacramento in 1977, to take a job with the state. For more than 30 years, she has spoken with grade school children about the experiences of internment and often relates her stories of Mary Frances.

“The children always ask what happened to that kind girl, because she left after 6th grade,” Nagumo said, telling of how one student suggested writing to Oprah Winfrey to assist in a reunion.

A docent at the California Museum in Sacramento, where Nagumo regularly speaks to students, took the suggestion to heart, but was repeatedly rejected by Winfrey’s staff. It wasn’t until February of last year that someone called, asking her to tell her story in detail.

Producers in London had heard of Nagumo from another filmmaker, Satsuki Ina, director of the documentary “Children of the Camps.” They were interested in a wartime story that focused on the experiences of kids rather than the adults.

“We don’t get stories about children, everything is about the grown-ups,” Nagumo said. “And here I was, looking for this person because of what she did for me as a child.”

On yesterday’s “CBS This Morning,” Curry explained how the search for Mary Frances was hardly as simple as many these days might believe.

“You would think with the Internet, we could find anybody we want, but actually, not so much,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of excavation that has to happen, talking to librarians and genealogists, so absolutely, it’s hard.”

Ann Curry, with Nagumo and Mary Frances (now Peters), after their reunion last year in San Francisco. (Blink Films)

Curry’s own history has a compelling reunion story, as her father, an American occupation soldier in Japan, was forbidden to marry her Japanese mother. He was reassigned to a post in Morocco for two years before returning to find the woman he loved, who by then was suffering from life-threatening tuberculosis.

“What you see [in “We’ll Meet Again”]is history, not from the point of view of presidents and generals, but you hear history from the point of view of the common man, and how they were caught up in it and how they needed each other,” Curry explained. “This is a story of all of us.”

Following episodes of “We’ll Meet Again” focus on reuniting people who were separated – a woman born during the Vietnam War trying find the American father she last saw 40 years ago, a military chaplain who helped a traumatized stranger on 9/11, and civil rights workers whose lives were forever changed by the relationships they forged in the 1960s South.

Nagumo echoed Curry’s sentiments, saying that despite being a very private person, she believes stories like hers offer something interesting for everybody.

“Our current president sometimes says things about putting people away, and the only relevant experience is what happened to Japanese Americans on a mass basis. That has value in itself,” she explained.

At the moment of her reunion with her classmate, now known as Mary Peters, Nagumo said it was a very emotional occasion, with even the film crew weeping.

“They must have gotten really involved in the mission, how I, at 83, wanted to have the opportunity to thank her before I died, for the kindness she showed me 70-some years ago.”

“We’ll Meet Again” premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 23 on PBS SoCal. The station broadcasts over the air on Channel 50, or check your local cable system provider for channel number.

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