Last year I visited a recreated baseball diamond accompanied by a panel with this quote: “Putting on a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag.” I was not visiting a neighborhood park where a venerated Hall of Famer played as a child, nor was I conjuring the site of a long demolished stadium where the sport of baseball became legend. I was at Manzanar, and I was trying to imagine more than 6,000 acres of the Owens Valley taken over by the federal government for the false imprisonment of 10,000 innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II.
2012 marks the 70thanniversary of Executive Order 9066 that detained, behind barbed wire, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent and resident Japanese aliens without due process. Following on the heels of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, some government officials feared potential espionage and sabotage. The execution of Executive Order 9066 is one of the blackest marks in our history and a violation of Civil Rights the likes of which we must never forget. What occurred at Manzanar is just as relevant today; after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 most Americans jumped to the conclusion that the perpetrators were Arabs. Mass murder shooting sprees in Colorado, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. have similar story lines — our biases flare up and assumptions are made about who is to blame, about conspiracies and about religion. So it is critical that we visit Manzanar and learn the stories of those men, women and children who were betrayed by their government. The National Park Service has done an outstanding job interpreting the events, allowing ample pause for reflection and bringing Manzanar to life through footage, artifacts, art, crafts made in the camp and educational panels on a self-guided driving tour.
Kumiko, Kiku, Yusuro, Lily, Chiyoke, Mitsuye, Misuko, Kenji, Takeo, Kentaro, Mariko, Aiko. The names of the people who lived here for three years are etched into glass in the Visitor’s Center along with thousands of others. I read them one by one, but after a few minutes I stopped. The list was simply too long. A good many of those interned were from a small fishing community in San Pedro, California called Terminal Island.
I wanted to see this deserted village, so a few months later I drove to San Pedro near Long Beach to try to see what the community suffered. Again, imagination is required to piece together the history of Terminal Island, as no trace of Japanese gardens, schools, merchants or recreation halls remains. On foot I circled the memorial established by a committee who did not want the history to be forgotten. Two larger than life sculptures of Japanese fishermen reeling in their catch arrested my attention. A regal torii gate stands guard over the past. No tourists visited in that remote part of San Pedro, only 18-wheelers hauling freight for unloading cargo ships of goods from Asia and Europe. I toured Tuna Street and recognized storefronts from 1930s and 1940s photographs that now stand empty and will probably be demolished. It was here that barber shops, pool halls, small mercantile, grocers and restaurant owners were forced out of business, bound for the Owens Valley where President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently wanted them. The Navy subsequently razed their homes in the village.
My first memories of Manzanar are as a sort of ghostly roadside attraction, one of many markers along the road from Bishop to my Grandmother Lorraine’s house in Lakeside near San Diego. As mom or dad drove, my sister Carol and I looked out the windows and counted things such as train cars, Volkswagen Beetles, power lines, or big rigs. We always noticed Manzanar. As we grew older our questions about what it represented became more inquisitive. I realized after several years of asking that I would not know much more than what Mom and Dad said, namely, that it had been a sort of prison camp for the Japanese and now it was abandoned.
Addressing the deep wrongs of Manzanar has been a bipartisan affair – Gerald Ford revoked Executive Order 9066 in 1976; Jimmy Carter recommended an apology accompanied by payments of restitution and an educational center; Ronald Reagan delivered the apology and signed the act for payment; George H.W. Bush mailed the payment checks and signed the apology letters; Bill Clinton signed legislation establishing Manzanar as a National Historic Site; and George W. Bush signed legislation to preserve all ten sites where the Japanese were confined. Now three of the ten original internment camps have been transformed into national monuments.
“Without baseball, life at Manzanar would have been miserable,” said one internee.
Sporting events were common inside the camp. A men’s team called the ManzaKnights played baseball; the Dusty Chicks played softball.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX; recently I visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum’s temporary exhibit honoring the seminal legislation that addressed gender discrimination in girls and women’s sports in the schools. The gallery displays women’s uniforms through time as well as photographs of athletes such as tennis player Billy Jean King. In one section a grainy photograph of two teams of Japanese women playing volleyball at Manzanar was featured. Though they played under a scorching sun and competed behind barbed wire fences, these women put on their game faces.
I feel a kinship to these prisoners unknown to me, as sports have always been a bonding agent with my family as well as a potent demonstration of patriotic fervor. Yet I am not proud to be American as I drive from the baseball diamond toward what used to be Manzanar’s hospital. Before 2011 only the guardhouse entry building and the gymnasium, and the concrete foundations of the hospital and mess hall, remained. Now, thanks to the National Park Service, visitors can see recreated barrack buildings and learn about the camp through photographs and educational films and displays in the interpretive center. It’s a sobering visit, one that alternately makes you feel superior that it wasn’t you that made such an unfair decision to unjustly accuse and jail American citizens, and ashamed that it was your grandparents who probably supported it.
We passed Manzanar hundreds of times during our Owens Valley childhood, as it was the first touchstone along what seemed an interminable drive on Highway 395 from Bishop to San Diego. Traveling south, it was a sign that the journey had just begun; returning from Grandma’s house, it was how we knew we were almost home.
Its mysterious, shadowy past intrigued and plagued me; I had to write a story to include in my collection, Cover This Country Like Snow.
But what right do I have to tell a story set in Manzanar from the point of view of a third generation Japanese-American woman? I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Forrest Carter’s Education of Little Tree, a book originally marketed as an autobiography written by a Cherokee man and later found to be a fictional story penned by a white man with ties to racist groups. While I’ll never fully understand the experience of a Japanese woman interned at Manzanar, I can do something about it by bringing it to light for a 21st century audience. My story is “The Mounds of Mitsue,” and writing it has taught me more about Executive Order 9066 than all the years of driving by the site of the former camp.
The last Japanese American prisoner left Manzanar in November 1945, several months after the conclusion of World War II. Though they were forced to surrender their livelihoods and communities, the prisoners themselves volunteered to fight for the United States and thousands of them served in the Armed Forces. Many internees later wrote about the horrors in the camps, the extreme temperatures and the betrayal they endured. Photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams captured the experience for government department records. Despite the hardships the prevailing theme was – make the best of it and keep close to one another. U.S. intelligence services later found that not one Japanese American committed any act of spying or treason.
During baseball season we have our family’s teams games on nightly – Padres for me, Giants and Phillies for my husband. No matter what I’m doing around the house, whether it’s catching up on emails, preparing for work the next day or editing my book, I stop, stand up and place my right hand over my heart, and sing along to the National Anthem before a baseball game. I am proud to be American. Coupled with the Seventh Inning Stretch and the singing of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” these traditional ceremonies unite us all, as disparate as we are. And as flawed as we are.
Turns out, even during years of internment, Japanese Americans at Manzanar War Relocation Camp felt the same way. Today, the DustyChicks and the ManzaKnights live on with just the merest suggestion of a baseball field, the ghosts of a cheering crowd rooting the players on and the crack of a wooden bat making contact with the ball in the middle of the High Desert of the Owens Valley, barbed wire well beyond the outfield.
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