Aunt Terry and Manzanar

August 26, 2007 · Print This Article · Email This Post

U.S.S. Shaw Exploding at Pearl Harbor in December 1941We wrote recently about the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as we do every year to honor both the living and the dead. There were also thousands of American victims (2,333 dead and 1,139 wounded) during Japan’s surprise military attack on Pearl Harbor at Oahu, Hawaii on the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941. It was the first attack on American soil since the War of 1812.


Instructions Requiring Japanese-Americans to Report for Relocation, San FranciscoBut before America’s crushing defeat of Japan with nuclear weapons in 1945 and just three short months after Pearl Harbor, America, whipped into a nationalistic frenzy, turned upon many of its own in a vicious way. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Roosevelt, exercising war powers to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps, authorized U.S. armed forces to declare areas of the U.S. as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” Eventually, the policy was applied to one-third of the land area of the country, (primarily in the West) and was used to imprison those with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry.”

The sign seen above, posted at the corner of First and Front Streets in San Francisco and dated 1 April 1942, advised that all “All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien” were to be evacuated no later than 7 April — a mere six days later — from a wide area of San Francisco. It goes on to read that the “Civil Control Station” would “assist” the Japanese in the following ways:

  • Give advice and instructions on the evacuation.
  • Provide services with respect to the management, leasing, sale, storage or other disposition of most kinds of property including real estate, business and professional equipment, buildings, household goods, boats, automobiles, livestock, etc.
  • Provide temporary residence elsewhere for all Japanese in family groups
  • Transport persons and a limited amount of clothing and equipment to their new residence.

Jerome, Arkansas Internment CampAbout 110,000 Japanese-Americans, 62 percent of them U.S. citizens, were held in the internment camps by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the government agency charged with relocation and internment. These prisoners were Nisei (American-born, second-generation Japanese-Americans) or Sansei (third-generation Japanese-Americans), while the rest were Issei (Japanese immigrants and resident aliens, first-generation Japanese Americans). Some Italian and German citizens were also interned. One of the interned Nisei familes was that of my aunt.

She was about 16 at the time, and lived on a family-owned farm in California which now has expensive vineyards on it. We’d show you a picture of her then, but all family photos were lost during the sudden relocation to Manzanar. Her mother died there of cancer. She and her father remained at Manzanar for the rest of the war. Most of the Manzanar buildings are gone; we’ve shown a picture of the camp at Jerome, Arkansas, which gives a good idea of what the buildings looked like. The construction and appearance of all the camps were much the same. In an additional outrage, most of the camps were built on Native American lands.

Manzanar Relocation Center, California“Relocation” of Japanese farmers was greeted with enthusiasm by white farmers in California, who saw the removal of Japanese-American farmers as a way of getting rid of the competition. These sentiments were pointedly expressed in 1942 by Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, who told the Saturday Evening Post: “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. . .If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.” Ironically, the sudden dearth of Japanese farm workers and farm owners led to a massive influx of…Mexican immigrant replacements.

In another irony mirroring current events, only about 2,500 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii were interned in one of two Oahu camps: the island was already under martial law but, more importantly, 35 percent of the territory’s population was of Japanese ancestry and government officials quickly realized that the local economy would be destroyed by carting off so much of the population. It was just simply logistically, economically and politically imprudent to expel such a large percentage of the populace. (Pajamadeen can’t help but be reminded of contemporary desires to simply make 12 to 20 million Hispanics “go away.”)

Manzanar Watchtower ReplicaWhile the two Hawaiian camps, at Sand Island, in the middle of Honolulu Harbor, and near Ewa, on the southwestern shore of Oahu, were referred to as “Hawaiian Island Detention Camps,” names for the other camps included relocation center, internment camp and. . .concentration camp. Although the meaning of concentration camp has been largely overshadowed by Nazi use of the term, U.S. government officials including President Roosevelt and his contemporaries such as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, President Harry S. Truman, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and some members of Congress all referred to the camps as “concentration camps.” At Manzanar, eight watchtowers, positioned around the camp’s perimeter and armed by military police with searchlights and machine guns, pointed inward at the prisoners. The compound’s perimeter was additionally secured by five-strand barbed wire.

Manzanar was the first of the camps. The new refugees were unused to the harsh weather conditions of scorching heat in the day and freezing temperatures at night. Located on 6,200 acres leased from the City of Los Angeles, the residential area was only one square mile. There were 36 blocks of hastily-constructed tar paper barracks. Each prisoner family lived in a single 20-foot by 25-foot “apartment.” The “apartments” all had open ceilings and the latrines were communal, segregated by sex. Privacy was virtually nonexistent.

The U. S. government explained the whole scenario to the gullible (and eager) public in print, on the radio and at the movies. Watch this preposterous pablum which aired at movie theaters, before the main feature played. Does it remind you of any of today’s mindset and language?

Finally, it was over. Manzanar closed on 21 November 1945, the sixth of the camps to do so. Although the prisoners had been brought to Manzanar by the government, they were told to leave camp on their own; the WRA gave $25.00 to each person, plus one-way bus or train fare and food to people who had less than $600.00. Many of the Japanese-Americans refused to leave because they had no place to go, having lost everything when they were uprooted in 1942. This time, they were forcibly removed from Manzanar. My aunt and great-uncle had lost everything. They would never regain the lost farmland.

President Reagan Signs 1988 Civil Liberties ActIn 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was sponsored by Representative Norman Mineta (D-CA) and Senator Alan K. Simpson (D-WY). Mineta and Simpson met while Mineta was interned in a Wyoming camp which Simpson visited. The reparations provided about $20,000 per living detainee, with payments to begin in 1990. The legislation characterized the interments as being based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” (Why, it sounds positively contemporary, thought Pajamadeen.) More importantly, the United States apologized to the Japanese-Americans. The formal apology was what really mattered to the former detainees.

Manzanar, Soul Consoling TowerThe Manzanar cemetery is a lonely place now. In August 1943, stonemason and prisoner Ryozo Kado built this “Soul Consoling Tower” for the dead, which is what the Japanese inscription says. Altogether, 146 detainees died at Manzanar. While 15 prisoners were buried there, only five graves remain, as families later reburied the bodies elsewhere. Strings of colorful origami left by survivors and other visitors blow in the wind. Pajamadeen doesn’t know if one of those graves is the grave of her great-aunt. Aunt Terry didn’t want to talk about Manzanar, and she has now disappeared. A devout Buddhist, she is grieving the death of my uncle. Her whereabouts are unknown. But she is loved and admired. And missed. We just wanted to let her know.

Photo credits: Gann Matsuda and Daniel Mayer

Copyright ©2007


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