Friday, April 25, 2014

ROADTRIP: Manzanar War Relocation Center

In all, about 10,000 people were interned in the one square mile that makes up Manzanar War Relocation Center. Across the country, more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens, lost their homes, possessions, money. They could only bring what they could carry -- partially dictated by government order -- and were given a couple days or a week to decide what they needed -- just long enough to really agonize over what they would be forced to leave behind. Although we use the term "internment camp", probably to differentiate from camps in other parts of the world during WWII, these camps fit the definition of concentration camps (concentrated minority groups in a prison camp), and are recognized as such.

I held it together until I read one man's story of what he remembered taking as a child: a photo of his dog.The story of internment is so awful and senseless as to be inconceivable, and there is a little boy who has to leave his dog behind -- not because there is a natural disaster, or the family has made a decision to move, but because he was born to Asian-looking parents. I say "Asian-looking" because my own home state also interned coastal Alaska Natives because they appeared vaguely Japanese. Manzanar was just the first such camp.

The government first tried a voluntary relocation -- surprisingly that didn't work -- and then after forcibly relocating 100,000 people, our government had the nerve to try and press them into military service. Again not surprisingly, few volunteered. The few who did volunteer were called "loyals" and those who declined were "disloyals". Oh, the irony of the government putting their own citizens out of house and home, and then calling them disloyal. Probably there weren't designations for "scared to say no" and "pissed off and nothing more to lose".

Of course, the Japanese men who did sign up -- the 442nd -- became one of the most decorated units to return. And the flags of those who didn't were presented to wives and mothers still behind barbed wire.

Most of the buildings are gone now, but signs still mark where the newspaper ("free" press, indeed), baseball diamond, hospital (and what remains of a beautiful Japanese-style garden) and camouflage net factory stood. There is also a monument to those who died in the camp on the site of the cemetery.

A plaque recognizing Manzanar as a historic landmark reads: "May the injustices and humiliation suffered here a a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again." Amen.

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