An April 26 article about the opening of a museum at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California said that the Veterans of Foreign Wars provided a color guard for the ceremony. The color guard also included veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a World War II unit that was made up of Japanese Americans. (Published 4/28/04)
. -- Beneath the snowcapped Inyo Mountains, hundreds of voices proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance to a country that rounded up thousands of people of Japanese descent and confined them behind barbed-wire fences in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
With that, the National Park Service officially lay bare an embarrassing piece of U.S. history for all to see as it opened a $5.1 million interpretative center at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in an attempt to explain what happened here and why.
"There were 10,000 people here. There are 10,000 stories to be told," Manzanar Superintendent Frank Hays said Saturday. But the process of deciding just whose stories should be told and how has stirred up emotions that have been pent up for decades.
Clara Yakushi said she thought she would never see the fences and guard towers of Manzanar again.
But there they were. Housed in the refurbished auditorium built by internees, barbed wire and grainy black-and-white images tell the stories of the internees who were once housed in this tiny patch of desert 220 miles north of Los Angeles. A replica of the camp's eight wooden guard towers dominates the room. The name of every camp resident is listed on a floor-to-ceiling display, a stark testament to U.S. domestic policy during World War II.
Yakushi was 9 years old when she was brought to the camp's orphanage in 1942. Returning to the place of her childhood memories for the first time brought the 71-year-old great-grandmother to tears.
"It's all so unreal. It's all so overwhelming," Yakushi said, choking back tears as she gazed across the desert where she and 100 other orphans once played under the watchful eyes of U.S. soldiers.
Once a year throngs of buses and cars converge here. Camp survivors march to the Manzanar cemetery and pay their respects to those who died at the camp and those who have passed on.
The number of former internees who make the annual pilgrimage has dwindled. Some are too frail for the trek. Others have died. Still others have found it too painful to return.
But those who are here, some with children and grandchildren in tow, say it provides an opportunity to reflect on their experiences at the camp and a way to remain vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of future generations. They also say the museum is a key step in telling what really happened.
Many of these stories have long been kept quiet, shushed by older Japanese Americans who felt ashamed they were forced to live in such conditions.
"There's shame. You're alienated. All of a sudden you're not part of America anymore. It isn't your history. It isn't your country. You're the enemy," former internee Wilbur Sato said.
Decades later, some of those hard feelings linger in tiny desert communities surrounding Manzanar. When museum officials asked Independence-based American Legion Post 265 to provide a color guard for the grand opening, not one member volunteered. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars from Lone Pine provided the color guard instead.
The Japanese were put in Manzanar for their own good, some said. Others argued the money could have been better spent elsewhere.
"So much has been said about [Manzanar]. You don't really know what the whole truth is," Legion post commander Carl King said.
Bill H. Michael, curator of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, said those feelings are not representative of the entire community, but some of the war years' hatred and prejudice still exist.
"There are just some people out there who are still fighting the war. They can't make the distinction between the Japanese army and American citizens," Michael said. "This town should be ashamed that in this day and age that's still happening."
Most of the camp's buildings are gone, bulldozed or moved to other locations after Manzanar was shuttered in 1945. Wooden markers identify phantom barracks and office buildings. Eventually two barracks, a mess hall and other camp features will be restored.
After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast as a security measure. Nearly 120,000 Japanese American civilians were rounded up and put into 10 guarded camps between 1942 and 1946. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.
They could take only what they could carry. With dishes and bedding to bring, there was room for little else.
Under the blinding searchlights that swept across the camp nightly, lives began and ended here: 541 babies were born; 143 internees died.
Internees made do with what little they had. Ponds were dug and gardens were planted in front of the barracks of wood and tar paper. A newspaper was started. Three classes graduated from Manzanar High School, in block 7.
Much of the controversy surrounding the camp involves a tug of war over semantics. What should Manzanar be called? The official government Web site calls it a "war relocation center." But a California historical plaque at the camp's entrance refers to the site and the other internment facilities as "concentration camps," a term that evokes images of Nazi death camps.
Others, including a segment of the local veteran population, have railed against the term for years, arguing that the camps existed to house enemies of the United States and that the residents deserved to be there.
"If it was for our own protection, which way should the guards be looking and the guns be pointing?" former internee Eiichi Norihiro, 77, spat out as he balanced on crutches at the camp's cemetery, his right leg a casualty of tuberculosis he contracted when he was incarcerated. "They were pointed at us."
Even within the Japanese American community there is not a consensus. Some prefer to use the term "relocation" or "internment" camp, rather than concentration camp, to describe their experience.
"I guess you call it want you want to call it," said Sue Kunitomi Embrey, a former internee who led the fight to preserve the site. "A lot of people think of it as a concentration camp, but they didn't like to say it. But internment camp is not an accurate term. I call it a concentration camp."
Officials were trying to get the museum off the ground as bitterness surfaced over what should be displayed.
Ross Hopkins, the first Manzanar superintendent, received death threats from residents who thought the site was better off forgotten. He received so many calls at home he got an unlisted number. One veteran told Michael he would see the buildings "burned to the ground" before he would see the site turned into "a Jap museum." Another drove to the camp just to urinate on the sign that commemorates its existence.
In nearby Bishop, detractors circulated a petition against establishing Manzanar as a historic site, arguing the money would be better spent elsewhere. More than 100 people signed the petition.
The Inyo Register, the local paper, received so many letters that it stopped printing them.
Years of focus groups and extensive community outreach by park officials helped to allay many critics' fears. Park officials say they are satisfied with the progress they have made. The museum is here.
A retired Navy man left his impressions scribbled in the pages of a museum memory book:
"Proud to be an American, ashamed of this little piece of American history."