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Remembering Manzanar.

MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, a Buddhist priest and a Christian minister traveled 200 miles east from Los Angeles to a desolate spot in the desert. They had been making this same but separate journey each Memorial Day for years. Although unknown to each other, both came for the same reason: to remember the dead buried at Manzanar, California.

One Memorial Day, as they stood as strangers near the cemetery, they began a conversation. This initial talk led to an annual pilgrimage, an event that eventually drew hundreds of people. The pilgrims were Japanese-Americans, just like the Buddhist priest and the Christian minister, who spent World War II trapped behind barbed wire, watched over by sentries on U.S. soil.

Last year Manzanar became part of the National Park System as a national historic site. Congress approved the designation on March 3, 1992, just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066--a decree signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, allowing the forced "evacuation" of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.

One of ten relocation camps established by the U.S. government, Manzanar held more than 10,000 people at its peak, 80 percent of them from southern California. Motivated by racism and the fear that any city on the West Coast could become the next Pearl Harbor, the federal government engaged in action that 40 years later would be recognized as a gross abuse of civil rights without military justification.

Both the Buddhist priest and the Christian minister, who would later die within one year of each other, wanted to remember what had happened there. "They were concerned that someone should keep coming and remember that people were buried there," says Sue Embrey, founder and president of the Manzanar Committee. "They suggested the first pilgrimage, and we have been doing them ever since." The first one was in 1969, and since 1973 the pilgrimages have taken place on the last Saturday of April. Those interested in remembering the story or learning about it have traveled to Manzanar each year, helping to draw attention to the camp and to the circumstances that permitted the exclusion to happen.

"Manzanar is a symbolic reminder that a nation of laws needs constantly to honor the concept of freedom and the rights of its citizens," said David J. Simon, natural resources program manager for the National Parks and Conservation Association, in testimony before Congress last year.

The National Park Service and NPCA have both long supported the addition of Manzanar to the park system, and the designation recognizes the historic importance of this home-front war experience. The significance lies not only in the personal loss and economic misfortune Manzanar represents, but also in the obvious and gross abuse of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

"Nations should and do use history to celebrate great achievements," says Jerry Rogers, NPS associate director of cultural resources. "But the greatest nations use history as a reminder that we can, and should, do better."

Explaining Executive Order 9066 requires an understanding of the anti-Asian feeling that pervaded the West Coast earlier this century, a feeling that was deeply ingrained by the time planes flying for the Emperor of Japan surprised the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.

When Japanese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 1880s, Americans eager for cheap labor welcomed the influx. In the first eight years of the 20th century, 135,000 Japanese had arrived, many settling in California. The number and the concentration proved too great for politicians, labor leaders, and newspaper publishers, who began an active campaign against further immigration.

In 1908 President Teddy Roosevelt negotiated a "gentlemen's agreement" to limit the flow of Japanese people to the United States. In 1924 the United States prohibited Japanese immigration entirely and barred any Japanese who had entered the country before that time from becoming citizens, a prohibition that was not lifted until 1952.

The outbreak of the war with Japan in 1941 entangled Japanese immigrants in a Catch 22 that some would never be able to break. Barred from becoming U.S. citizens, many maintained citizenship with Japan for fear of becoming stateless. Because they did not relinquish their Japanese citizenship, they were suspected of being disloyal to the United States. Many Japanese immigrants also encouraged their American-born children to acquire dual citizenship to ensure that the children would gain any inheritance owed them by family remaining in Japan, an action also viewed with suspicion after the war began.

As 1941 ended, pressure mounted to establish military zones along the West Coast and round up, deport, or incarcerate all people of Japanese descent, whether or not they were citizens or suspected of subversive activities.

One columnist for the San Francisco Examiner urged: "Herd 'em up, pack 'em off, and give 'em the inside room in the badlands. Let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry, and dead against it...let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone whose veins carry his blood."

Lt. General John L. DeWitt, head off Western Defense Command and in charge of carrying out Executive Order 9066, began beating his own incessant drum to exclude all Japanese and Japanese-Americans from "strategic areas." His arguments were unyielding.

"The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on U.S. soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted...," DeWitt wrote in a February 14, 1942, memorandum to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. "It therefore follows that along the Pacific Coast [more than] 112,000 potential enemies of Japanese extraction are at large today. There are indications that these were organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."

Although the arguments that all Japanese were disloyal and that sabotage was imminent simply because it had not yet happened seem preposterous, DeWitt's views gained increasing support as Japan dealt deadly, rapidfire blows to the American forces, capturing Guam, the Midway Islands, and the Philippines.

Once President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, DeWitt moved quickly to "evacuate" Japanese-Americans, first calling for volunteers to move to the interior and then ordering them to assembly centers to await assignment to internment or "relocation" camps. The first orders were issued in March 1942, and Japanese-Americans were given as little as 48 hours to sell, crate up, put into storage, or secure any belongings they could not carry with them.

"Imagine that you don't know where you are going or how long you are going to be away," says Marge Taniwaki of Denver, Colorado, who at the age of four was incarcerated along with her entire family. "Your own government has said to you that you are untrustworthy. All the ideals you have been brought up with have just gone down the tubes. If you had a pet, you couldn't take it with you. If you had a business, people knew you were leaving; who would buy it, and could you get a fair price?"

For a majority of the people, answers to these and many other questions were wrenching ones. Some of those who entrusted belongings to Caucasian friends never got the items back. Houses were boarded up only to be vandalized. Businesses, cars, homes, appliances, and other items were sold at panic prices. Family members were separated, especially when one member was ill or when married children were involved, and some Japanese-Americans were not allowed to return to their homes until well after the war.

Some estimates have suggested that Japanese-Americans lost more than $200 million--in 1942 prices--in property and lost income as a result of the incarceration. This figure does not include damages incurred through mental anguish, loss of loved ones, death during incarceration (sometimes at the government's hands), loss of precious years in school, or loss of earning power because of racism and lost time.

Loyalty to country was a constant topic for those inside as well as outside the camps. The question spurred many Japanese-Americans to seek the draft from behind the barbed wire of the camps. Although DeWitt and others questioned the loyalty of these men simply because of their race, the Japanese-Americans who joined the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team to fight for the United States in Italy became one of the most heavily decorated units in U.S. military history.

The experiences of those who were interned in the camps are as varied as the people themselves. Many refuse to talk about it 50 years later. Most have indelible memories that have shaped their lives.

For Marge TAniwaki, the experience pushed her into her life's work. She has what she describes as a survival job, a receptionist at a law firm during the day, but her avocation is human rights advocate. Sue Embrey, who lives in Los Angeles, has worked for more than 20 years to attain national historic site status for Manzanar, her home for more than two years, and has become adamantly opposed to war. Aiko Yoshinaga of Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia--a suburb of Washington, D.C.--turned a painful experience into a job as a researcher for a congressional committee.

After two years of visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in an effort to understand the internment, Yoshinaga landed a job with the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. While doing research for the congressional committee, she discovered information proving that there was no military justification for the "evacuation." This data went a long way toward convincing Congress that redress and individual payments of $20,000 to survivors were warranted nearly 45 years after World War II ended.

Yoshinaga's oldest daughter was born in Manzanar, something the child never disclosed to friends. "Our history books in the schools do not say anything about the camps," says Yoshinaga. "We refrained from facing this issue for whatever reason. There was a sense of being considered a second-class citizen, and it has taken a long time to get over that. I used to feel dreadful for my daughter, because she didn't have a hometown. Now, she can say a national historic site is her hometown."

Although a few German and Italian Americans were incarcerated in camps run by the Justice Department, it was only the Japanese-Americans along the West Coast who were rounded up wholesale and herded to "the inside room in the badlands." And the sites chosen for the ten camps to be administered by the War Relocation Authority--established for this purpose--were large tracts of land that could be described only as either desolate or dank.

Although Manzanar had at one time supported an orchard, the City of Los Angeles had drained nearby Owens Lake for its water supply, turning the once fertile ground into a dry and dusty wasteland.

More than 300 sites initially were proposed, and nine sites in addition to Manzanar were selected as primary relocation centers: Tule Lake, California; Poston and Gila River, Arizona; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; Granada, Colorado; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; and Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. This year Rohwer--which includes a monument to the soldiers who fought in the 100th Battalion--became a national historic landmark. The two sites in Arkansas were located in swamps, and humidity and mosquitoes, rather than dust, mark the memories of those incarcerated there.

Although Manzanar possesses a kind of stark beauty because of its location at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it was not a pleasant place to live. The camp proper encompassed about 500 acres and was surrounded by barbed-wire fences, and the "evacuees" were guarded by sentries standing in watch towers.

There were 576 barracks, and each one-story building was 20 by 100 feet. Each one was divided into four to six rooms. Each family lived in either a 20-by 24-foot or a 14- by 20-foot single, open room. Firebreaks, or plots of land devoid of shrubs or buildings, were cleared between every four buildings, creating mini-dust bowls each day. Other buildings housed the communal mess hall--no one was allowed to cook in the rooms--as well as latrines, showers, and shops. The knotty-pine construction was cheap, quick, and sloppy.

The long lines to get food or visit the latrine, the lack of privacy, the cold, the heat, the uncertainty of the future, and the pervasive and inescapable dust became etched in the minds of many who lived there.

"Every day in the afternoon, there was a wind...that kicked up dust through the floorboards," says Wilbur Sato, who marked his 13th birthday in his first month at Manzanar in 1942 and who now lives in Torrance, California. "There was no protection; all you could do was sit there for hours until the wind stopped. Your hair would be full of dust. There were layers of dust everywhere: dust on your eyelids, dust on your eyelashes, dust in your ears."

Today, the streets that separated the blocks are still visible, and within several of the blocks, traces of former rock gardens survive. Three historic buildings remain from the internment period: a sentry post, a guard post whose architecture suggests a Japanese style, and a large building that had been the camp's auditorium and gymnasium and is now used by Inyo County as a maintenance facility.

In part, what has made the Manzanar Historic Site a possibility is the U.S. government's admission that a grievous error was committed. In 1980 Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to review the circumstances surrounding Executive Order 9066 and the impact of the order on American citizens and permanent resident aliens, and to recommend remedies.

"The personal injustice of excluding, removing, and detaining loyal American citizens is manifest. Such events are extraordinary and unique in American history," according to Personal Justice Denied, the commission's report.

On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill providing an apology, review of convictions and pardons of crimes for noncooperation, as well as payment of $20,000 to each individual who was imprisoned under Executive Order 9066. The legislation also established the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and a board to administer it.

Some do not believe the legislation went far enough. Aiko Yoshinaga and Marge Taniwaki maintain that a more important step would have been to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that suggested the "evacuation" was justified, a ruling that was made during the war. The high court refused to hear the case in 1988, and the 50-year-old ruling still stands.

Although the community remains divided over whether redress went far enough, Manzanar may offer an opportunity for education and enlightenment that could go a long way toward healing this still-open wound.

The Park Service has received some money to begin the General Management Plan for Manzanar, and Congress has appropriated $1.1 million to the Park Service to allow replacement of Inyo County's maintenance building. NPS has scheduled a meeting in late April (coinciding with the pilgrimage) to begin the planning process. Seven Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and who are now professionals with the American Society of Landscape Architects will donate about $85,000 worth of time and talent to help the Park Service with the General Management Plan. Dan Olson, a planner in the Park Service's western regional office who did one of the first studies on Manzanar, says the planning process will take about two years.

Whatever the Park Service decides to do at the site, says Ed Rothfuss, superintendent of Death Valley National Monument (under whose jurisdiction Manzanar comes), it will not involve rebuilding or reconstructing either the camp or the gardens. "Manzanar has a subtle interpretive character about it," says Rothfuss. "I think it is important to be able to walk through and think about the people living there. You can watch the sagebrush and the sand drifting and let your mind creep and think about what happened."

Last summer, as an experiment, Rothfuss sent a Death Valley interpreter one day a week to Manzanar to gauge the public's interest. The lowest daily number of visitors was 20 and the highest was 100--and there were no signs directing people to the site. Rothfuss estimates that more than 250,000 visitors will stop at Manzanar each year to learn about the experiences there.

The annual pilgrimages to Manzanar for the past 20 years have helped to keep this issue alive and fresh. "People were not so concerned about the redress money, but getting the apology was important," says Sue Embrey. However, she adds, "the idea that the government actually said it was wrong doesn't make up for what happened."

Embrey has been credited with being the heart and soul of the effort to designate Manzanar a national historic site, and she says her efforts have a lot to do with her desire to turn a painful experience into something of value.

"Being a teacher, I tell people that they can learn from what has happened in the past so it does not happen again. We are a great nation, willing to acknowledge our errors. We are not weak. It takes a certain amount of strength to admit that we made a mistake."
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Title Annotation:Japanese-American internment camp during World War II
Author:Rancourt, Linda M.
Publication:National Parks
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:2901
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