A visit to a memorial to the human spirit
Just on the basis of our different faces, they locked us in places like Manzanar.
– Margie Yasuko Motowaki Wong
In August, my husband Ron and I, with two of our granddaughters, drove home to Carson City from Southern California. During the long, empty stretch through Owens Valley, the girls passed time by naming relatives. Megan, with 13-year-old insight, pronounced Great Grandpa Tom, my stepfather, as their only living great grandfather.
When I spotted a sign that we must have passed dozens of times in the last few years, I asked Ron to stop at the National Historic Site. As we stepped out of the car, heat hit us like a blast-furnace. A dust devil swirled close enough for us to taste dirt, and crows raised a fuss somewhere nearby.
“Why did we stop, Grandma?” 11-year-old Mellisa asked. “There’s nothing here.”
I looked at her bright eyes, at the freckles sprinkled across her face, and for the first time, instead of Mellisa, I saw a Japanese girl. I pulled her close, away from barbed wire that separated us from a stretch of the parched valley and the jagged Sierra beyond.
“This place is called Manzanar.” I knew that how I answered her question was important. “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.
“Let’s look around,” I said. “Your Grandpa Sho was born here.”
In February 1942, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 declaring persons of Japanese descent “threats to the U.S. war effort,” despite the fact that thousands of Japanese-Americans were serving in the U.S. military.
Without due process and with less than a week’s notice, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were ordered to leave their homes, property, jobs, businesses, professional practices and schools to “relocate,” under military guard, to 17 temporary “assembly centers” at racetracks, fairgrounds and similar places.
Some were legal aliens who, by law, were denied citizenship but had lived in the United States for decades. Most of them, though, were U.S. citizens.
By November 1942, they were relocated to one of 10 internment camps in the remote deserts, plains and swamps of seven states. Manzanar was one of the camps.
There, in the 500-acre section surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and 5,500 acres of harsh desert, more than 10,000 people were crowded into barracks for up to three years.
Of the original internment site, only sentry posts, foundations, concrete slabs and some garden features remain. But the Interpretive Center tells a chilling story about the vulnerability of our civil liberties and the transcendence of the human spirit.
Of all the facts we learned at Manzanar through films, exhibits and models, I will remember the writings and photographs. One child’s poem describes the wind blowing dust and sand through walls and floorboards while her mother tries to cover the open knotholes with tin can lids.
A black-and-white photo shows the typical 20-by-25-foot room shared by eight people. An oil stove, a single light bulb, eight cots with a blanket on each straw-filled mattress.
But of the hundreds of photos, one resonates: rows of lidless toilets in communal latrines, no partitions, no privacy, a few inches of space between them.
Then there is the wall: 10,600 names of human beings whom fear locked in at Manzanar.
When we found the names of our granddaughters’ Japanese great grandparents, grand uncle and grandfather, my husband walked away, overcome with emotion. Megan and Mellisa said the names aloud: Ayako Nancy Matsumura. Giichi George Matsumura. Gable Satoru Matsumura. Flynn Shoji Matsumura, or as we know him, Grandpa Sho.
An elderly Japanese man, hands clasped behind his back, also studied the wall, perhaps searching for a relative’s name, perhaps for his own. When he heard the children read the four names, he turned to nod first at Megan and then Mellisa – dignified, slow nods that felt more like blessings.
Then I got it.
I had expected to see resentment, bitterness, embarrassment, even hatred in the thousands of faces preserved in the exhibit’s photographs. I didn’t.
In the men’s faces, I saw strength and pride, only a flash of anger here and there. In the women’s, I saw determination and resolve, only an occasional glimpse of resignation. The children in the photos looked curious, some serious for the occasion of the group photographs, but many were smiling, innocent witnesses for their parents’ wisdom and grace during what had to have been a hellish nightmare.
The impression these 10,600 people gave me – two-thirds of them American citizens by birth and not one ever charged with espionage – was of calm. “We are more than this,” they seemed to say. “Our country is bigger than this.”
Later, as we walked back to the car, lost in our own thoughts, I felt a hand slip into mine. “Can this happen to us, Grandma?” Mellisa asked.
There it was: the question I’d dreaded. “If this happened again, would they take Mom and Megan and me, but not Dad?”
I raised my eyes to Mount Williamson and felt comforted by the mountain’s abiding presence.
For a moment, the wind died down, as if the desert itself awaited my reply.
“It can only happen if we allow it,” I answered. I squeezed my granddaughter’s hand. “And because we know this now, we will never, ever allow it to happen again.”
• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.