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Fresh Ideas: Guarding against threat from within

Marilee Swirczek
For the Nevada Appeal

In 2006 my husband and I, with our granddaughters, drove home from southern California. In Owens Valley, I spotted a National Historic Site that we had passed many times before. I asked Ron to stop. Megan was 13 years old; Mellisa was 11. They were old enough.

“Why did we stop, Grandma?” Mellisa asked. “There’s nothing here.”

I looked out at the parched valley and the jagged Sierra beyond. Dust devils swirled close enough for us to taste dirt.

“This place is called Manzanar. It’s the Spanish word for apple orchard.”

The hot wind threw sharp sand against our legs as if to say my answer wasn’t good enough.

“Your Grandpa Sho was born here.”

In February 1942, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 declaring persons of Japanese descent “threats to the U.S. war effort.”

Without due process and with a week’s notice, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the West were forced under military guard to leave homes, property, jobs, businesses, professional practices and schools to relocate to internment camps in the remote deserts, plains and swamps of seven states. Some were legal aliens who had lived in the U.S. for decades; the majority were American citizens by birth.

Manzanar was one of the camps where, in the 500 acres surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and 5,500 acres of desert, more than 10,000 people lived in barracks for up to three years. Now, only sentry posts, foundations and garden features remain. But the Interpretive Center tells a chilling story about the vulnerability of our civil liberties.

Of all we learned at Manzanar that day, I remember the writings and photographs. One child’s poem describes sand blowing through walls and floorboards while her mother covers the open knotholes with tin can lids.

A photo shows the typical 20-by-25-foot room for eight people – an oil stove, single light bulb, cots with straw-filled mattresses.

Another photo haunts me: Rows of lidless toilets in communal latrines – no partitions, only inches of space between them.

And on the wall inscribed with 10,600 names of internees we found our granddaughters’ Japanese great-grandparents, grand-uncle and grandfather. Megan and Mellisa spoke their names: Ayako Nancy Matsumura. Giichi George Matsumura. Gable Satoru Matsumura. Flynn Shoji Matsumura, or as we know him, Grandpa Sho.

Later, as we walked to the car, Mellisa slipped her hand into mine.

“Can this happen to us, Grandma?”

It was the question I’d dreaded.

“If this happened again, would they take Mom and Megan and me, but not Dad?”

The wind died down, as if Manzanar itself awaited my reply.

“It can happen if we allow it.” I squeezed Mellisa’s hand. “But because we know this now, we will never, ever allow it to happen again.”

• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.