MANZANAR

PART ONE

Yuki Okinaga Hayakawa aged three, National Archive Photo

I took my first trips up and down U S Highway 395 when I was just two years old. Manzanar had been closed for just two years. Over the decades I have passed it by many times. It was always notable for the fact that there was nothing there. No road sign announcing it’s site, no buildings other than an old run down auditorium and the cut stone gatehouse. It was like all the rest of the open high desert land that surrounded it, Saltbush, Mormon Tea, Rabbitbrush, and Lupine that, when in bloom gave just a splash of color in the dry, desiccated ground bookmarked between the eastern Sierra Nevada’s Mount Williamson and the massive Keynot peak, lurking in the Inyo mountains to the east. It was like all the rest of the open, high desert land that surrounded it, Saltbush, Mormon Tea, Rabbitbrush, and Lupine that, when in bloom gave just a splash of color in the dry, desiccated ground bookmarked between the eastern Sierra Nevada and the massive Keynot peak, lurking in the Inyo mountains to the east. Midway between the tiny towns of Lone Pine and Independence my dad would point it out in a matter of fact way as the place they kept the Japanese during the war. That was all. 

I’ve driven that stretch of road almost more times than I can count but on this trip something about Manzanar was different. We decided to stop. There were a couple buildings I had never seen before and it was obvious the National Parks Service which owns the site was making an attempt to make Manzanar accessible. The place was almost completely deserted and only a young woman from Germany and an older couple were there. You can drive and walk completely around what was once the home to more than 13,000 Japanese Americans. About one third of the disingenuously labeled internees who were in fact prisoners guarded by guard towers with armed soldiers on duty 24 hours a day, were ineligible for citizenship because Federal law forbade native born Japanese from becoming  American citizens. The other two-thirds were born in this country and by Constitutional right were citizens of the United States. 

As far as I know nearly every kid of Japanese Ancestry I went to school with was born or lived in one of the ten so-called re-location camps spotted throughout the western United States. None of them were old enough to remember what it was like at Gila River camp in Poston Arizona or Tule Lake in the bleak scrublands of California’s far northeast corner, the camp built especially for the most troublesome prisoners. Freezing in the long cold winters, stovetop hot and constantly windy in the short summers, Tule Lake was reserved for those considered most disloyal. Sixteen guard towers, searchlights, a lighted perimeter fence and a fifty foot deadline manned by 1,200 fully armed soldiers all looking inward, “For their own protection”  said the camp commander.  All of this overlooked by the eternally frowning Castle Peak, it’s brow lowered and radiating disapproval. Whether it was the Japanese Americans or the military overseers know one knows but nonetheless, equally oppressive.

“Ashita wa ashita no kaze ga fuku,” Tomorrows wind will blow tomorrow. This Japanese saying means, “tomorrow’s another day” and to not worry about the future. I love this elegant proverb because it encourages perseverance in the face of hardship. Hardship it would be.

 A very old woman who lived across the street from Arroyo Grande High School stood on her front porch, holding the door knob to steady herself, unashamed tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched the Japanese-Americans loaded on the line of busses parked on Crown Hill. They were her friends and neighbors, each one with a dangling name tag in a button hole. The group waiting quietly, some sitting on suitcases or bundles of personal possessions rolled up in bedsheets or stuffed in gunny sacks. They did not know where they were going, only that their lives were completely shattered. They were leaving their homes, farms and businesses and as yet had not an inkling of how or when they would be able to return. 

There was Family #41605. The father, an American citizen, born right here in Arroyo Grande. His own father was also born here as was his wife. She was pregnant with their third child and she was destined to conceive and deliver another in the concentration camp at Gila River Arizona. It would be a boy with a kings name and we would be lifelong friends and high school classmates in the nineteen sixties.  The father was my dads age. They were friends too. We have an 11th grade high school photograph where they sit in the front row, right next to one another. They wear crisp white shirts, dirty corduroy pants, both destined to be farmers in our little valley. 

There was a 17 year old high school student, slim and earnest looking in his glasses, his family was #14436. His was a farming family too. A former Boy Scout in my scoutmaster father’s troop 13, Dad always said that he was one of the funniest boys he ever knew. There was no smile today, he stood with his brother waiting patiently.

They were all apprehensive and slightly bewildered by this turn of events. They were hardly surprised by the hatred that had so intensified since December 7th.They had heard General John L DeWitt, commander of the Western Approaches command which covered Washington, Oregon and California state that “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United State soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 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 certainly be taken.”  A comment of such self serving purpose can hardly be believed.

That bewildering logic didn’t deter California’s Attorney General and the next Governor, Earl Warren. Warren, a future Supreme Court Justice was a proponent of forced evacuation and helped to drive public opinion to support the Army’s policy. President Franklin Roosevelt signed order number 9066 on February 19th, 1942 ordering that all Japanese and Japanese Americans be removed from the zone of the Pacific to evacuation centers and then taken to the so-called war relocation centers for internment. No matter the sex, no matter the age, University students, National Guard serving soldiers, Teachers, Professors, nurses and doctors and even adopted Japanese American children were ordered sent. Photographers, artists, architects, it didn’t matter. All.

Japanese Americans and other Asians in the U.S. had suffered for decades from prejudice and racially-motivated fear. Laws preventing Asian Americans from owning land, voting, testifying against whites in court, and other racially discriminatory laws existed long before World War II. President Roosevelt had ordered the FBI, Naval Intelligence and Military Intelligence to conduct thorough investigations into the loyalty and sympathies of Japanese Americans in 1940. Both the Munson Report of 1940 and a second investigation finished in 1942, written by Naval Intelligence officer Kenneth Ringle and submitted in January, likewise found absolutely no evidence of subversive activity and strongly urged against mass incarceration. Both were ignored.

General DeWitt was quoted as saying, “A Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is a United States citizen or not.” Mrs Roosevelt as well as some cabinet members in Washington were against the policy but with a by election coming in November 1942 the president was concerned about west coast voters so he turned a blind eye to those who though the policy was both unwise and wrong.

In August 1942 the busses from Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Guadalupe arrived at the little town of Yellem just outside Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley. 

 “…we had to get off and carry the things we could carry and march, walk into the town to the racetrack. People came out as if it was some kind of parade, but a parade with soldiers on the both sides, with their bayonets fixed and up. It was just a very humiliating experience.” – Yosh Nakamura, Densho Archives

They were ushered off the streets and into the stables and the infield of an old horse racing track. They waited quietly with their meager belongings while they were processed in. Some of the people were settled in newly completed temporary barracks buildings, so new that they still smelled of pine sap, the floors covered with construction debris. Others not quite so lucky were marched to the old stables and installed in horse stalls, still covered with dirty straw hay and reeking of horse urine and manure. 

Bedding was not provided, just an old mattress cover that the prisoners had to stuff with straw themselves. Quietly and stoically they set about making the best of it. One of the qualities of Japanese Americans at that time was not to make waves, strive to give no offense and to endeavor to fit in by remaining almost invisible to non-Japanese people.

Most were to remain at the racetrack for as long as five months. They were in almost complete ignorance about what their fate would be. Where would they be going. No one knew and no one in authority would tell them, Rumors and gossip had to fill the void. Radios had been confiscated and no newspapers were allowed. Nearly every periodical in the country was foaming at the mouth with outrage and printed every kind of rumor and falsehood. They encouraged removal of the “enemy race” from the West Coast as a military necessity, and fully supporting the president‟s final decision.

The prisoners themselveswere deliberately kept in the dark.  The justification for the removal was ostensibly to thwart espionage and sabotage, but babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents were not exempt from removal. In all, over 17,000 children under 10 years old, 2,000 persons over 65 years old, and 1,000 handicapped or infirm persons were removed.

“……my mother got us up before dawn. She had us dress in as many layers of clothes as we could wear. She had packed everything she though we could carry in suitcases and duffel bags the night before. They were left by the door. Just after dawn a military truck stopped in front of our house and two soldiers hopped down and marched up to our door. The carried rifles with the bayonets attached and pistols. One of them knocked on the door using the butt of his rifle until my mother came and opened it. No one said a word. She had us carry our little duffels down to the truck where the soldiers lifted us up. I looked back to my mother standing in the street, carrying her suitcase with my little sister held tightly against her breast. She had tears streaming down her cheeks.” ___James Ota Koga

 Stuffed into the fairgrounds in the blistering heat of a San Joaquin valley summer where temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, they waited patiently. Most followed the lead of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and cooperated with the removal as a means to prove their loyalty. A few were vocally opposed to the removal and later took legal action that eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. 

It was to no avail. In 1944, when the Pacific War was well on its way to being won and there was no rational argument for keeping Americans in the camps ,the court handed down its ruling in Korematsu vs United States.   In a majority opinion joined by five other justices, Associate Justice Hugo Black held that the need to protect against espionage by Japan outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. Black wrote that: “Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race”, but rather “because the properly constituted military authorities … decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast” during the war against Japan. The dissenting justices Frank Murphy, Robert H. Jackson, and Owen J. Roberts all criticized the exclusion as racially discriminatory; Murphy wrote that the exclusion of Japanese “falls into the ugly abyss of racism” and was akin to the “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial  Fascist tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.”

The other side of the coin was represented by Harold L. Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior and personal friend of both the Roosevelts who wrote: ”It has long been my belief that the greatness of America has risen in large part out of the diversity of her peoples. Before the war, peoples of Japanese ancestry were a small but valuable element in our population. Their record of law-abiding, industrious citizenship was surpassed by no other group. Their contributions to the arts, agriculture, and science were indisputable evidence that the majority of them believed in America and were growing with America.

Among the casualties of war has been America’s Japanese minority. It is my hope that the wounds which it has received in the great uprooting will heal. It is my prayer that other Americans will fully realize that to condone the whittling away of the rights of any one minority group is to pave the way for us all to lose the guarantees of the Constitution. As the President has said, “Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.” ___Harold L. Ickes

Notwithstanding any of this resistance, the massive engine of the federal government simply rolled on. What had been put in motion could not be stopped.

Next___Part Two.

The Howlings of the military, government, and press drove the evacuation forward…..

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