For high school seniors across Lane County, June is the month for graduation - as it was for me five years ago. Many have celebrated their graduation this month at 34 W. Sixth Ave. in Eugene, the Hult Center, ignorant, as I was until a short time ago, as to the meaning of that address in Eugene's history.
The graduates thus enter society as full civic participants having been denied one of the crucial lessons every American, every Eugenean, especially in an age of potential terrorism, should know: that their rights and those of others are not fixed, but rather are unsteady compasses, only as certain as the skills of the people using them.
Sixty-one years ago, the Eugene community failed to live up to a challenge similar to the one confronting it today.
On June 3, 1942, the last of 3,677 Japanese-Americans were evacuated from Oregon, having been registered as potential threats to national security at the municipal building at 34 W. Sixth Ave.
They were loaded onto the 87th Civilian Exclusion Order train at Eugene's railroad station and, after a stop in Medford, went on to Tule Lake detention camp in Northern California. There they joined more than 18,000 other ethnic Japanese, to be held for the duration of World War II.
That camp, along with a dozen others with names that still ring in the ears of many Americans - Minidoka, Gila River, Manzanar - kept 112,353 people living in primitive conditions for more than three years in hostile climates under military guard and control.
It marks the largest single governmentally organized forced movement of people in American history. Most held there were citizens of the United States, born in this country, while all of those who were not had been barred from becoming citizens by federal law due solely to their ethnicity.
A panic following the Pearl Harbor attack provided the final excuse for a society that had long been uncomfortable with a group considered to be alien, despite the fact that Little Tokyos and Japantowns dotted large cities up and down the West Coast, including Portland, and that Japanese-American farmers were sprinkled throughout farming areas, including the Willamette Valley.
June 3, 1942, the date on which Oregon's last trainload of Japanese-Americans passed through Eugene on its way to the camps, ended that long presence in Oregon. It would not be until 1946 that anyone of Japanese ancestry could legally set foot in Western Oregon again.
Those dates, decades past, of wrongs done to people mentioned in history books made little impact on me until I spoke recently with 82-year-old Michi Yasui Ando, who told me of her experience with a trainload of internees.
In 1942, she was a 21-year-old senior at the University of Oregon. Having endured months of fear and uncertainty about the future - especially after her father, a leader in the Japanese-American community in Hood River, was arrested by the FBI - Michi received a call from her brother Ray in Hood River. He informed her that their mother and teen-age sister, Yuka, had been deemed risks to national security. Along with all other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, they were to be moved by train the next day, May 13, from Hood River to a fate unknown to him at a camp somewhere south of Eugene.
Despite all of her fears about her own fate, the next day Michi went to the train station. There, in the shadow of Skinner Butte, she anxiously waited throughout the morning, enduring suspicious glances and sometimes angry glares from those coming and going from the station.
Finally, a train approached. This, she concluded from the armed, uniformed men standing between each car, must be the evacuation train.
With long-suppressed tears running down her face, she began waving frantically to the people on board. But most of the shades were drawn and she did not recognize her mother or sister among the few eyes she did see peering out. Quickly, Civilian Exclusion Order train No. 49, carrying 555 people, her family, friends and neighbors, was gone, carrying its occupants to internment at Tule Lake for the next 3 1/2 years.
She then walked slowly back to campus on streets all Eugene residents have walked, feeling alone and isolated in a hostile community.
The Register-Guard 11 days later announced the imminent evacuation of the Japanese-American population in Lane, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Josephine, Jackson and Klamath counties and wrote that "only a limited number of Japanese and Nisei (were) expected to be affected by the order." As an afterthought, it mentioned the "less than a dozen students at the University of Oregon" and passed on the word that a "responsible member of each family of Japanese and each individual living alone in this area must report between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27, to ... the civic control station at 34 W. 6th Ave. in Eugene." There they would be processed for their own evacuation and imprisonment.
Michi instead fled the state for Denver, not knowing whether she had graduated, and remained there throughout the war. Despite her last few months and method of departure, she still remembers Eugene fondly and her time there "as among the happiest of my life."
The wrong of the internment of the Japanese during World War II has since been recognized nationally. In 1980, Congress formed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate and redress wrongs against Japanese-Americans during World War II. In 1984, President Reagan apologized on behalf of the nation to all those interred. A national memorial in Washington, D.C., recently opened in remembrance of those lost years for so many lives.
In Oregon, a decade-long effort saw the opening of the Japanese American Historical Plaza on Aug. 3, 1990. The plaza is a few blocks from where Portland's Japantown used to be, a somber memorial to the humiliation, loss and denial of an entire population in a moment of wartime hysteria. It is always open, and is a beautiful part of the waterfront reconstruction along the Willamette River.
Yet Eugene has no official memorial, plaza or even plaque to mark the location of its part in a great mistake of American history.
Recently, following the fears generated by Sept. 11, a Day of Remembrance Committee - made up of Eugeneans who were interred, children of internees and concerned citizens - was formed to mark Feb. 19, the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 authorizing the internment.
It would be fitting to remember such an event year round. It would be especially fitting for graduating high school students to have a spot to mark the fact that the society they are entering depends on them to protect their rights and those of others, and to remind them that devastating results can follow should they fail.
Such sentiments are crucial at a time when the fear of terrorism again has some Americans questioning their neighbors and the government is engaged in a delicate balance of national security and civil rights.
It is with that belief that Eugeneans have begun to think about an appropriate way to memorialize the internment of their fellow Oregonians and Americans. The place for such a memorial would be the site of the registration effort, 34 W. Sixth Ave. - the Hult Center.
Yet time is of the essence. Even though the same strong spirit that allowed Michi to survive the internment of her family has seen her through a vibrant 82 years, she will not be here forever.
And with the passing of those who lived through Eugene's part in the internment, it becomes crucial that their experiences live on so that others can learn from them.
Eugene is a wonderful place, a place to which I look forward to returning. Yuka, too, recognized it as such, for after her internment she returned to Eugene to go to college.
And years later when she and Michi would discuss the events of May 13, Michi was finally able to learn that her tearful waves had not gone unseen. Yuka had spotted her from the train and has treasured the moment ever since, through the months of internment and on into her life when she was once again free to live beyond the camps.
Navy Ensign Jake Klonoski grew up in Eugene. He is currently stationed in Ballston Spa, N.Y., where he is training to be a submariner.
Michi Yasui Ando holds a sketch of herself drawn by a peer when she was at the UO.
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|Title Annotation:||34 W. Sixth Ave. would be an appropriate site for a memorial to mark the regrettable internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; Commentary|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jun 15, 2003|
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