The view from the other side of the fence: Kinge Okauchi

The view from the other side of the fence: Kinge OkauchiKinge Okauchi, who became a project aerodynamicist at China Lake in 1950, was honored in February by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for having joined at the local section’s inception and having been a member ever since.

Apropos of his long, distinguished career beyond the China Lake perimeter fence, he doesn’t talk much about his accomplishments, preferring to maintain a Zen-like state of simply observing. But recently Okauchi, 88, spoke about his years growing up.

He was one of many Japanese-Americans who spent the war years in the Topaz Internment camp in Utah, a sister camp to the one at Manzanar.

Born in Sacramento in 1924, Okauchi is a first-generation American.

“My dad came here from Japan as a teen. He lived in San Francisco for a couple of years about the time of the 1906 earthquake and had some tales to tell about it.

“Back then, San Francisco was nothing but Market Street and the Wharf and Van Ness Street and the waterfront,” Okauchi said. His father settled in Menlo Park, in the Bay area.

“My mother and her sister came over from Japan to this country to get a couple of husbands. They both got married here.

“Right after the 1929 depression, Dad’s store went bankrupt, so we moved to Santa Rosa. I was in kindergarten at the time.” An only child, he grew up bilingual.

Okauchi’s mother died just before the war started.

At 17 he had just started classes at San Jose State College. His cousin, who was the same age, joined the Army in December 1940. Okauchi tried to enlist too.

“They kept calling me in and sending me home and telling me to wait a year. If I’d gotten credit for all the time I spent doing that, I could have gotten the G.I. Bill.”

He never did make it into military service even though he made it clear that he is an American.

“We got rounded up about March of 1942. We were bused from Oakland and transported by trains that were left over from World War I. There was coal stored in one end of the passenger coaches.

“We went over Donner Pass up to South Lake and down to Delta, Utah. There were guards on the train with rifles, just to keep people from straying. The cars were steel, and not heated,” he remembered.

“Camp in winter was cold, but each apartment had one big coal stove. Topaz was built in 1941, like an Army camp, except each building had about six apartments, four large and two small ones.” He said anywhere from four to six people had to live in the larger apartment.

“The little apartments, for two people, were very, very small, like a large bathroom,” he said. He and his father lived in one of those. His cousins and friends were in the same camp.

“The buildings were about 20 feet by 20 feet. There were four buildings to a block, and a school in the middle of a dozen buildings at one end of camp.” He remembered the communal bathroom buildings, multiple mess halls and administration buildings. One building was a barracks for the guards.

“The poor soldiers were all buck-private military police. Except for the officers, everyone was just about all raw recruits. We’d see a squad or two of these guys going outside the camp to do maneuvers when they weren’t on guard duty.

“I imagine that was the most boring duty anywhere. It was a low-security camp, and nobody even tried to go over the fence. There were about 15 or 20 chow halls, and I worked in one.

“The first six months, I worked in the mess hall. That was great — I had some free time. Technically I was a pot washer, but I was also assistant store clerk. I got to know the Army guys pretty well. We got to eat all the leftover food. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of it, with wartime rationing.

“They tried to cook Japanese-style food, but we mostly got Army food, potatoes and beets — beets, beets, nothing but beets. We did get some rice. The only seasoning they knew was salt and pepper. We had quite a time convincing them to get us soy sauce. Fortunately, they made soy sauce in Louisiana, so we got it in five-gallon cans.”

Later he was assigned to the Recreation Department and oversaw boys playing baseball.

“Each block had one building devoted to recreation. There wasn’t anything in it, but it made a good meeting hall,” he remembered. There was a Boy Scout unit at the camp, too. In the summer, he supervised internees at a Boy Scout camp in the nearby mountains. The camp included day hikes. “I enjoyed that,” he said.

“During the first part of the war, Chinese kids had a problem. Some of them wore signs saying, ‘I’m Chinese, not Japanese,’ because of anti-Japanese bias at the time. People took it out on them. China was a friend at the time,” Okauchi remembered.

Political issues included anti-Asiatic laws that prevented Japanese or Chinese people from owning land. “It wasn’t until after the war that the whole thing was settled constitutionally,” said Okauchi. “By then, the second-generation kids could vote and hold land without question.”

When the war was over, Topaz was closed and the internees were all shipped back to the West Coast. “All that housing in Japan Town in San Francisco was vacant. It had been rented or leased to colored people for a labor force during the war, so Japan Town became Colored Town.

“But my father and I had no home to go to. The shipyards were closing down and the labor force was emptying out. We had to find jobs and a place to live, so we came back to Menlo Park. My father found a job as a gardener.”

So Okauchi picked up where he’d left off with his education, returning to San Jose State College. He commuted on the train between Menlo Park and San Jose daily with a group of other students.

“We’d do the next day’s homework on the train on the way home. We had our own private education system, checking each other’s work and doing our own tutoring between us on the train in the morning. We did this for two years, then transferred to Stanford because that’s where the engineering classes were. Half my classes were aeronautical.”

After earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he accepted a job at China Lake and moved here in 1950.

“Nobody knew much about rockets back then and I didn’t know much about rockets, so I fit right in,” he said, smililng. He has been here ever since. He and his partner Carol Schneider live in a nice quiet home outside Inyokern, where the spectacular night sky invites astronomy and contemplation.

“I’m happy I came here,” Okauchi said.

Story First Published: 2013-06-19