HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. — “We’ve gotta find Mary Frances” was just a phrase Reiko Nagumo said at the end of her museum presentations about a childhood friend she lost because of World War II.
Nagumo, now in her 80s and blind, wondered if she would die before reconnecting with Frances — a white girl in her class who befriended her in 1942 when no one wanted anything to do with the Japanese.
Thanks to a new PBS show, “We’ll Meet Again” produced by TV journalist Ann Curry, Nagumo found Frances (now Mary Peters) living in a lake house in Cadiz where she chose to retire in 2006.
Their episode entitled “Children of WWII” will air at 7 p.m. Jan. 23 on PBS, KET.
“It’s amazing to me,” said Peters, about reuniting with her long-lost friend. “Here we start with two 7-year-olds in a small elementary school class, and by the touch of a hand, it turns into this.”
“Children of WWII” is the first episode of the six-part series dedicated to reuniting people separated by historical events.
Peters, 83, admits she was skeptical when her cousin in California told her a producer was trying to contact her about a show.
“I didn’t respond for probably a month,” she said. “My cousin kept saying ‘This guy sounds really nice,’ and I just knew it was a scam artist.”
Luckily, the crew gave more details to Peters’ cousin, and when she mentioned Reiko’s name, a light bulb came on. Peters knew exactly who was looking for her.
Nagumo, an American born to Japanese immigrants, became friends with Mary Frances when they attended Los Feliz Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Frances and her parents had moved from Virginia to LA in 1939 to find work. Her mother was a surgical nurse at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital and her dad was a sheet metal worker at Lockheed.
In a clip from the episode, Nagumo remembers Frances running up to her at school in January 1942 (right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor) excited to show her what she got for Christmas.
“I said, ‘Yeah, but your mother told you not to play with me,'” Nagumo recalled in a preview for the show.
But Mary Frances insisted that she come over to play after school — despite her mother’s warning.
Shortly after they got there, Mary’s uncle found Reiko hiding behind the sofa and demanded she go home and never come back. He then told Mary she would be punished.
“I felt so terrible, I ran all the way home,” Nagumo told Curry in the clip.
As World War II intensified, the Nagumo family was shipped to an internment camp in Wyoming, where they were held until 1945. Shortly after their return, Mary Frances and her family moved, and the pair never saw each other again.
Today, Nagumo now lives in San Francisco and spends her time educating people about World War II and telling her story as a Japanese-American child who lived through it. She often does educational sessions for fifth-graders at the California Museum.
Peters is retired but once worked as a manager for Swift Transportation in Phoenix. Throughout her life, she volunteered for a number of organizations, including hospice in Arizona and Kentucky, and started an Al-Anon program in the Perryville Women’s Prison in Phoenix, for which she was named Woman of the Year by the Business and Professional Women.
Peters said she never thought about the impact she had on Nagumo when they were kids — in fact, she doesn’t remember the moment that Nagumo said solidified their friendship.
“When she came back (to school in 1945), she was scared to death,” Peters recalled Reiko saying when they met up in San Francisco to film the episode. “It was what we’re calling ‘bullying’ today, but she said I went up and I held her hand — I don’t recall any of that, but she’s got a memory like a steel trap. She remembers all types of good stuff.”
Peters said knowing her own family’s rhetoric, it’s a wonder their friendship survived.
“I was born to be a racist,” Peters said. “My grandparents had slaves, my mother was very prejudiced and my second husband was very prejudiced of the Japanese particularly because he was shot in WWII . but I just feel like I missed that gene or attitude, and for that, I’m very fortunate.”
Peters said she was always doing the opposite of what people told her to do, so it wasn’t shocking that she would befriend the outcast.
“I’m not saying that rules are not important, but I think that my heart is going to tell me what to do,” she said.
Since filming, Peters said she and Nagumo have kept in touch over the phone. They both exchanged photos of themselves from their younger years, and Peters hopes to visit one of Nagumo’s presentations at the museum.
Peters hopes the show will be a testament that friendship can withstand the deepest woes of the world.
“I just have a lot of faith in the world,” she said. “To the point that I don’t want to hear people talk about the negativity or the conditions because I think we can change it. Who would’ve thought that Reiko and I would meet up after all these years — I never did, but I’m glad she found me.”
Information from: Kentucky New Era, http://www.kentuckynewera.com