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Japanese American National Museum Magazine

Letters of Conscience

I’m missing my good American friends very much. I wish this horrible war would stop right now so I could go back to my home farm and see the old Palos Verdes again.
—excerpt of a letter to teacher Afton Dill Nance, date September 13, 1943, from Amache, Colorado

She wrote them telegrams, mailed letters of encouragement, and sent care packages that included books, checker sets, a fingernail clipper, cookies, fresh cherries, and ripe peaches. On one student’s birthday, she sent a comb and compact set.

Instead of polishing an apple, her students repaid their teacher the only way they could: they wrote back.

At the outbreak of World War II, Japanese American students (ranging in age from 12 to 15 years) who attended Malaga Cove School in Palos Verdes, California, were forced to leave campus and join their families in assembly centers and concentration camps.

During the course of being removed from their homes like the other 110,000 people evacuated from the West Coast, several dozen students at Malaga Cove shared a long-distance, yet intimate, relationship with their teacher, Afton Dill Nance.

Nance visited them while they were being held at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, and she made it her personal business to track the whereabouts of each student, whether they were interned at Tule Lake, Manzanar, Poston, or any of the other concentration camps.

“This morning the first group to relocate from Santa Anita left for Parker,” wrote one student in a letter to Nance dated August 27, 1942, referring to internees being moved to Poston, Arizona. “Tonight the people from San Diego are leaving too. Lots of others are leaving in a few days.”

One teenager had earlier written to Nance and his former classmates informing them that he and a crew of 7 boys had to wash 4,000 dishes after each meal. He noted that the task took four hours, that he took pride in doing a good job, and that he usually had enough time to play outside.

Others told Nance of experiencing a white Christmas after six inches of snow fell during a wintry season at Amache. A girl admitted that her report card wasn’t as good as it had been in the past. One student reported that there was an outbreak of measles and that it had infected 75 percent of the children in Poston.

But most correspondents confided eloquently to Nance that they felt betrayed by their own government.

“Please bear with me because everything in which I formerly believed in has been shot to H,” wrote another student in a typed letter dated May 20, 1942, from Manzanar. “From now on, I’m not going to trust anyone when it comes to governmental affairs. To think that I got fairly good grades in civics, American History, Political Science, etc., makes me laugh because I really believed in all that I studied.”

“Sometimes I wonder why I’m here after living all my life before the war in Palos Verdes where I felt no discrimination,” wrote a Tule Lake internee on June 24, 1944. “I still love the United States as it stands for [sic], but some of the people in it are making this place unlivable for others who want freedom and happiness.”

By all accounts, Nance tried to encourage her students to do their best to be agents in promoting better ties between the United States and Japan. She also asked her students to continue to be diligent in their schoolwork, and she gave them writing assignments and sent them books to read. She inquired of army officials about the quality of education in the camps, and she was surely disappointed when they told her that she could not visit students during school hours.

During one Christmas season she asked parents of students at Malaga Cove to buy a gift for all of the former students now in camp, but her suggestion was met with resistance.

“Definitely NOT!!”, replied one parent. “Would our American children receive the same treatment at Christmas through Japanese hands? I doubt it~ Why not instead war stamps, bonds, a gift for a serviceman.”

The special bond between Nance and her students came to light after a collection of approximately 300 letters written by her students was donated to the Japanese American National Museum in May 2001. (Nance kept many—perhaps all—of the letters sent to her, and she gave them to her friend and colleague, Dr. Helen Heffernan, before her death in 1986 at age 83. The donation was made by Dr. Ruth Morpeth of San Diego, who researched the life history of Heffernan for her doctoral dissertation.)

During the war another dedicated woman, Clara Breed, a children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library, also wrote letters to many young internees. Her story has been chronicled by the National Museum in an exhibition, Dear Miss Breed (1997), and a digital exhibition and video, Dear Miss Breed, part of the Once Upon a Camp series designed for school use.

If there were other educators like Nance and Breed who rose above the racial hostility of wartime, then one thing is sure: they were all loved.

“Why can’t [the] majority of the people be like you?” asked the same Tule Lake student in a June 1944 letter to Nance. “Trusting, and helping others, thinking of the future of the people and not just for yourself and today’s luxury.”

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See the Clara Breed Collection online in the Japanese American National Museum Collections Online archives.

Find information on Clara Breed and other educational resources in Discover Nikkei's Nikkei Resources section.

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*This article originally appeared in the Japanese American National Museum’s Member Magazine Winter 2001 issue.

© 2001 Japanese American National Museum

Afton Dill Nance assembly center california camp life correspondence Japanese American National Museum Malaga Cove Miss Breed palos verdes Poston santa anita teacher tule lake World War II

About this series

These articles were originally published in the print member's magazine of the Japanese American National Museum.