Monday, July 26, 2010

Did you know . . .

BY J.P. RICH Off The Cuff/

Ken EtoChicago gangster turn mob rat Ken Eto, known in the media as “Toyko Joe” and by Outfit guys as “Joe the Jap,” was in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War?

It’s true. He was. It happened before he became a top Outfit gambling boss.

Ken Eto was born in Livingston, California, on October 19, 1919, to Mamoru and Kura Eto, immigrants from the Japanese city of Taketa, Ōita. Mamoru, the family patriarch, was an educated man who became a minister after arriving in San Francisco and witnessing the depravity of Japanese railroad workers gambling all their money away.

How ironic: The father becomes a minister because he is appalled at gambling while his son becomes a gambling boss for the Chicago mob.

Once the family moved to Pasadena, Mamoru Eto started his own ministry — the First Japanese Nazarene Church — and began holding weekend sermons in his living room. His family eventually swelled to nine children — with Ken Eto the second oldest and the first to be born in the U.S. In 1936, the family matriarch, Kura, became ill and returned to Japan, where she died in 1942 at the age of 48.

Ken Eto dropped out of high school after his first year. Next began a succession of odd jobs as a waiter, farm hand, and, eventually, a semi-skilled meat cutter. His father tried to keep him on the straight and narrow with the teachings of the Bible. The young man presumably felt the pressure of being a minister’s son and took off on his own.

His arrest record provides a brief glimpse of his travels in the Pacific Northwest. In 1942, he was first picked up in Portland, Oregon, for “inquiry.” His first criminal conviction also occurred in 1942 in Tacoma, Washington. Finally, he was taken into custody for breaking the curfew law for Japanese-Americans in the western coastal states during the war.

In the spring of 1942, Ken Eto, his father, and six of his brothers and sisters were sent to the Tulare Assembly Center located in Tulare, California. There the Eto family stayed for five months while the government hastily constructed 10 camps located in remote areas of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

The camps would operate from 1942 to 1946 and were alternately known as relocation camps, detention camps, or internment camps. Officially, they were called “relocation centers” and the Japanese-Americans placed in the camps were officially called “evacuees.”

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the Army to “designate military areas” where “any persons may be excluded.” The camps were reserved for Japanese-Americans living in the “military exclusion area” on the West Coast.

The camps opened a mere two months after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They were like prisons: surrounded by high fences topped with barb wire and guarded by armed soldiers. What set the camps apart from prisons were the inmates. Men, women, and children — entire families — were imprisoned in the camps.

Approximately 112,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to the scattered detention camps. About 70,000 of those detainees were U.S. citizens. Half were children.

Since Ken Eto was detained in Seattle, he was separated from his family and sent to the 33,000-acre Minidoka Relocation Center compound located in the desert in south central Idaho. Japanese-Americans sent to Minidoka primarily resided in the regional areas of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

One of the Minidoka detainees later said: “I remember thinking, ‘If I could just go over that fence and over those mountains, there would be the ocean and I would be home.’”

Minidoka opened on August 10, 1942, and closed on October 28, 1945. At its peak, the population there rose to 9,397 detainees.

Mamoru Eto and his six remaining children were sent to the Gila River Relocation Center near Phoenix, Arizona. At its peak, Gila River's population rose to 13,340 detainees. Mamoru Eto tried to make the best out of a bad situation. He started the first garden in the barren desert at Gila River. He also started church services and Sunday school classes.

Hitoko “Helen” Eto, the eldest Eto child, visited her family as often as she could. She and two other adult Eto children decided to leave the West Coast on their own after the signing of Executive Order 9066. (This was temporarily allowed as an alternative to internment.)

“It was horrible,” Helen Eto later recalled of her visits to Gila River. “It was so hot.”

A year after the camps were opened, the detainees were asked to take a loyalty oath. They were asked to pledge allegiance to the U.S. and forswear any allegiance to the emperor of Japan.

“We came to America,” Mamoru Eto later recalled. “We’re not Japanese anymore. We’re American. Of course, I think about Japan when it comes to inochi [life] or defending [one's country]. That’s where I put my efforts — with America . . . There’s no other way. I never doubted it . . . It was absolutely uncalled for to be put in a camp, inside the wire fence, and with a soldier with a gun in a tower.”

In late 1944, the Etos detained at Gila River were released once Mamoru Eto was allowed to leave the camp to work at a prominent frozen-food processing plant in Cumberland County, New Jersey. He took two of his sons with him to New Jersey and sent his daughters to live with Helen Eto in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 1988, forty-two years after closing the camps, Congress enacted legislation to compensate the detainees by providing $20,000 to each one still living or to their heirs. It is unknown if Ken Eto received compensation, for he entered the Witness Relocation Program in 1983 after the Outfit failed to kill him in a botched hit. However, his father, Mamoru, received compensation in 1990 at the age of 107. In fact, he was the very first recipient of the redress checks.

At the historic ceremony in the Great Hall at the Department of Justice Main Building in Washington, D.C. on October 9, 1990, Mamoru Eto delivered the invocation in Japanese from his wheelchair after Attorney General Richard Thornburgh presented an apology letter to him along with his $20,000 check. The apology letter was signed by then-President George H.W. Bush.

“By finally admitting a wrong,” declared Attorney General Thornburgh, “a nation does not destroy its integrity, but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution and, hence, to its people.”

Mamoru Eto died on February 16, 1992 — just thirteen days after his 109th birthday — while his son was still in hiding in the Witness Security Program.

Ken Eto first became involved in gambling while detained at Minidoka. The highly-intelligent man in his early 20s became a card sharp and cheated fellow detainees at poker. He actually learned how to shoot craps on the train ride to Minidoka.

Once released from Minidoka, he slowly drifted from Idaho to Illinois, spending some time along the way in Montana, where he picked up the alias Joe Montana. He arrived in the Windy City in the late 1940s and quickly became involved with the Outfit due to his gambling.

By the mid-1950s, Eto’s benefactor in the Outfit was powerful North Side boss Rosario Priolo, better known as Ross Prio. The aging Sicilian mob boss would watch over and protect Eto until he died of natural causes in Florida in 1972.

Eto came to prominence in the Outfit in the late 1950s when he assisted in a bloody takeover of Chicago’s lucrative Puerto Rican-run bolita gambling business.

It was in 1958 that he set up a Puerto Rican bolita operator who refused to join the Outfit’s growing bolita gambling portfolio led by West Side boss Fiore “Fifi” Buccieri. The man was sliced and diced and dumped into a vacant lot with his intestines spilling out by the LaPietra brothers — “Angelo the Hook” and “Jimmy the Lapper” — of 26th Street crew fame, who then worked as enforcers for Buccieri.

In addition to bolita, Eto controlled policy games for the Outfit in cooperation with black street-gang members. He set up three more hits for Outfit killers in the 1960s, all three killings related to the bolita business. By the early 1980s, he was financing a Los Angeles-to-Chicago cocaine-trafficking ring as a sideline.

After nearly thirty years busting his hump and making millions for the Outfit, Eto was betrayed following his guilty plea in a federal gambling case in mid-January 1983. The Outfit bosses — primarily Vincent “Vince Innocence” Solano, who succeeded Ross Prio as North Side boss when he died and inherited all of his interests, including Eto — feared the guilty plea was just the first step in Eto’s plan of cooperating with the government and turning against the Outfit as a star prosecution witness. Solano got the OK to put into motion his own preemptive steps to take Eto out.

On February 10, 1983, Eto was shot three times in the back of the head by two members of the Rush Street crew. He was instructed to pick up the two men by Joseph “Caesar” DiVarco, Vince Solano’s street boss in charge of the Rush Street crew. After picking up the pair in his car, he proceeded to a restaurant for a prearranged meeting with Vince Solano, but it was all a double-crossing ruse to set him up and kill him.

The two Rush Street goons instructed Eto to pull into a parking lot, then shot him and left him for dead, slumped over in the front seat of his car. Some way or another, the bullets failed to penetrate his skull. His two would-be killers would pay dearly for this blunder — with the forfeiture of their own lives.

After the failed attempt on his life, Ken Eto joined Team America and was whisked away into the Witness Security Program with a new name: Joe Tanaka. He spent the better part of a decade testifying against Outfit members as “a virtual roving ambassador of stool pigeondom, testifying at mob cases in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago,” proclaimed the Chicago Sun-Times in 1989.

The U.S. Marshals Service reportedly moved him around a lot before he settled in Norcross, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta. He spent the last decade or so of his life living there quietly, fishing and keeping up with sports. He died in Norcross on January 23, 2004, at the ripe old age of 84.

Copyright © 2010, 2011 | J.P. Rich Off The Cuff. All rights reserved.

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At July 18, 2012 at 8:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a child growing-up in the Chicago suburbs I knew Mr. Eto and his family living only a few houses down from them. They were nice people and good neighbors, even though Mr. Eto's "occupation" was one of the neighborhood's worst kept secrets. I remember going to school with the only child living with them, a son and belonging to a book club run by Mrs. Eto. I often wonder what became of them.


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