OBERLIN — Oil torches pierced the dark New Mexico night as a vigilante group moved across the railroad tracks toward Roy Ebihara’s childhood home.
“They were coming to kill us,” he said.
Though he was only a child at the time, 80-year-old Ebihara remembers watching through his window as the group approached his home in Clovis, N.M.
It was 1941, just after the Pearl Harbor bombing, and the group was seeking retribution for the attack from Ebihara’s working-class Japanese-American family.
“I remember crying,” he said.
That night marked the first in a series of incidents that would see the family move through various internment camps before landing them in Cleveland years later.
An avid gardener and a retired Cleveland Clinic optometrist, Ebihara lives in Oberlin and is far removed from the events that changed his life at age 8.
But that won’t keep him from returning to the place that exiled him almost 72 years ago.
Earlier this year, Adrian Chavez, a college student in New Mexico working on a term paper about Japanese-American families during World War II, brought Ebihara’s story to the attention of the City Commission in Clovis.
“There was a dead silence. … The mayor said he had no idea,” Ebihara said.
Soon after it was brought to the City Commission, Mayor David Lansford of Clovis reached out to Ebihara, inviting him to come to Clovis this week where they plan to issue Ebihara a formal apology and make him grand marshal of the Pioneer Days Parade — a favorite tradition of Ebihara’s when he was a child.
“While we know we could never adequately make amends for the mistreatment you and your family endured following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Clovis City Commission would consider it an honor and privilege to welcome you back to Clovis,” the city wrote in a letter.
Ebihara is touched by the letter. While he isn’t bitter about what his family endured more than 70 years ago, he said he can still vividly remember how it felt to be a young child, persecuted by his own neighbors.
The early 1940s in the United States was rife with prejudice against Japanese and Japanese-American families like Ebihara’s. Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ebihara said his father, who emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, lost his job working for a railroad company. It was about the same time that Ebihara and his siblings were told they couldn’t attend public school in Clovis because it was too dangerous.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Ebihara said, adding that the family watched and waited every day, fearing an attack from vigilante groups.
“We had to be on constant watch every night. Every day we thought, ‘When might it come?’ We thought, ‘Is it ever going to happen?’”
It did happen. Ebihara was awakened by his siblings late in the night in December 1941 when, in an effort to escape from an approaching group he, his siblings and their parents moved out of their house. The New Mexico State Patrol took the family to an internment camp near Fort Stanton, N.M.
“We didn’t last more than a couple of days,” Ebihara said, adding that the State Patrol came for the family again and moved them twice, to another camp in New Mexico and a final camp in Utah.
They spent most of 1943 in Utah, isolated from the outside world with other Japanese-American families, many of whom resented Ebihara’s family for their Americanized southern accents, he said.
“When you throw people in together, who come from all walks of life, it just doesn’t work,” he said.
In an effort to make up for their lack of schooling, Ebihara’s older sister tried to teach her siblings, but with only a partial high school education herself, she wasn’t able to give the children an adequate education.
Almost a year after they were brought to the camp in Utah, Ebihara’s family was released and sent to Cleveland, where many of them stayed for the next 70 years.
Despite spending two years separated from the rest of the U.S. in hot desert internment camps, Ebihara doesn’t feel resentful toward the country that refused to accept him. Instead he chooses to focus on the happier moments in his childhood.
“We didn’t have a bitter experience. We had a joyful life,” Ebihara said, adding that he believes people should learn forgiveness, just as they should apologize for their faults.
Ebihara plans to exercise this belief when he marches in the Pioneer Parade and accepts an apology from the mayor today.
“I didn’t think it would ever come to this,” he said, adding he is grateful for the chance to finally forgive and connect with his childhood home once again.