Hanni Cook

Former concentration camp detainee Hanni Cook and her son Wayne Tahara.

Chris Flora/The Explorer

It was almost 70 years ago that Tucson resident Hanni Cook was released from Manzanar, one of ten concentration camps formed in the United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Cook would spend four years in the camp, where, after she was stripped of many of her possessions, she lived in a modified horse stall with a lack of privacy and freedoms.

But for Cook, the past is the past, and it is likely her forgiving attitude and forward thinking that allowed her to reach a triple-digit birthday, though her exact age is still unknown.

Born on the islands off the coast of Washington to a family of farmers, Cook was not taken to Seattle to register her birth until at least a year after she was born.

“Her siblings can’t agree on whether it was one year or two years before she was registered, so we know she’s at least one year older than her registered birthday,” said Cook’s son, Wayne Tahara, a retired school teacher who was born in the camp.

Recently, Cook celebrated her “official” 99th birthday, making her at least 100 years old in reality. While she now suffers from symptoms of Alzheimer’s, it’s apparent she still has not lost her positive spirit, nor did she ever focus on the negativity associated with her detainment. 

“She was always very encouraging, and she really followed the Japanese motto of having a positive philosophy on life,” said Tahara. “She never really talked about the experience with us until we were older.”

Before the war broke out, Cook was well on her way to success, having accomplished Valedictorian in her class in high school in California.

When the war got under way, Cook was forced to put her life on hold when she was placed in the Manzanar concentration camp alongside 110,000 other Japanese-Americans. 

“It wasn’t especially hostile, other than the fact that they were deprived of their freedoms,” said Tahara. “There was however some big controversy over the fact that while these people were being admitted, their sons were in the service and formed the 442nd Infantry Cavalry.”

The 442nd Infantry Cavalry was made up almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, and became one of the most decorated regiments in the war. 

Two of Cook’s brothers fought and died in the regiment.

After spending four years in a 14-foot by 14-foot stall with six to eight other individuals, Cook was released, but staying in California was no longer an option.

“Because of prejudice on the west coast, they were sent to Chicago,” said Tahara. 

There, Cook worked as an executive secretary at an import house, and her husband worked as a butcher. Unfortunately, the discrimination followed the family to their new city, where they were housed in a ghetto neighborhood.

“We know it was discrimination because income-wise, there was no reason for them to be in the poorest housing complex in Chicago,” said Tahara. 

As the years passed and the discrimination fizzled, Cook continued to work her way back toward success as an executive secretary before eventually retiring and moving to Green Valley and finally to Northwest Tucson, where she now lives at Emeritus Senior Living.

Due to current health issues, she was unable to speak much, though at one point, while holding a birthday balloon and stuffed animal she received as a gift, she smiled and asked, “How dull would life be without birthdays?”

Cook, whose life has been anything but dull, is currently looking for someone to write her biography.

Interested parties should contact Wayne Tahara at 716-240-5765, or email hapywat@hotmail.com.

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