The devastation of Pearl Harbor and the hysteria of the Second World War set the stage for white Americans to indulge their racist attitudes. Despite Japanese Americans showing no verifiable signs of sedition, many American citizens saw them as enemies who could not be trusted. Those of Japanese ancestry who lived along the Pacific coast were forced to enter inland internment camps like Topaz, Utah, for the duration of the war. Despite having had their rights disregarded, many of these prisoners continued to develop their talents. One such prisoner was a boy named Willie Ito, who went on to create a piece of art that would be seen by millions of Americans for years to come.
Willie was born in 1934 and grew up in San Francisco California. One of the most influential experiences in young Willie’s life was going to a movie theater in San Francisco and seeing the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was then that he knew that he wanted to be an animation cartoonist. After President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, Willie and his family were interned at Tanforan racetrack in San Francisco. A few months later the government relocated the Tanforan prisoners to a permanent camp in Topaz, Utah. In Topaz Willie went to school and took art classes. While many of the kids liked to play games and baseball after school, Willie liked to go back to his family’s assigned barrack and draw. Willie would draw on the Sears Roebuck catalogs that were delivered every three months, making flipbooks in the margins of the expired catalogs.
Willie and his family left Topaz in early 1945. While studying at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Willie landed the dream job of working at Walt Disney Studios. One of his first projects was animating the famous spaghetti scene in the film Lady and the Tramp. Willie also worked at Warner Bros and Hannah-Barbera Studios before returning to Walt Disney to work on consumer products. More recently Willie has illustrated two children's books, Hello Maggie (2007) and Boy of Heart Mountain (2010). These books detail some of the experiences of the people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during World War II. Willie has chosen to use his artistic skill to educate others on the great injustices done to him and many other Americans of Japanese descent who were here at Topaz as well as the other internment camps across the country.