A Place for Remembering, Part 2

This post continues an earlier article about Poston Internment Camp.

(Click for the story.)

In Verlot, Washington, the logging community where I grew up, World War II seemed far away to us children. Though we Robe Valley people originally came from many places, we were a homogeneous group: Caucasian, mostly poor, and most men were loggers.

We were unaware that not far away, in communities near Seattle, descendants of Japanese immigrants cultivated truck gardens, greenhouses, and berry farms. Although the first Japanese immigrants had encountered much prejudice, still their willingness to do the heavy labor involved in railroad construction, sawmills, coal mines, and salmon canneries gave their next generation a foothold in farming or business. Our counterparts in these communities went to church and school with the children of Japanese farmers and businessmen in places like Bellevue, Seattle, the White River and Puyallup valleys, and Vashon and Bainbridge islands in Puget Sound.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hostility and prejudice resurfaced. Although two-thirds of the 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry in our midst were loyal citizens and American born, many non-Japanese people panicked and considered every person of Japanese descent as a potential enemy.

Within two months of America’s entry into the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the exclusion of “any or all persons” from “military areas.” At first, the intention had been to deport Japanese, but since there was no place to send them to, all these people were eventually gathered into ten hastily thrown together “internment” or relocation camps as far away from our vulnerable West Coast as possible.

A young mother from Bainbridge Island ponders an uncertain future as she awaits transport to the center at Puyallup.

My friend Peggy, who grew up in Seattle, told of her bewilderment and sadness at watching a playmate board a train with her family, lugging a suitcase that contained all she was allowed to keep from her life in Seattle. By April 1942, 2300 Japanese Americans had vanished from their Seattle- area communities. Many sold their homes and businesses for pennies on the dollar. Others, hoping to come back, refused to sell but found at war’s end that their properties had been looted or taken over by others. My friend said that the people she’d watched board the train were first sent to a temporary detention center at the Puyallup fairgrounds. Poor food and lack of privacy gave a foretaste of what life would be like for them for the duration of the war. Later most detainees from the Seattle area were sent to Camp Minidoka, in Idaho, while the majority of rural Western Washington internees went to Tule Lake, California.

But some from Washington ended up in the Arizona desert, at Poston.

 In all, nearly 20,000 Japanese Americans were sent to this and two other centers on the reservation of the Colorado River Indian Tribe. Most of the detainees were Californians, skilled in farming. It was the government’s plan to have them help develop tribal lands for later Indian use. The Tribal Council wanted nothing to do with the plan because they too had been “relocated” and mistreated by their own government. However, the work of the interned Japanese in clearing land, building irrigation systems, and building schools from handmade adobe bricks laid the foundation for the tribe to upgrade its living standard and to thrive financially, according to Michael Tsosie, director of the Colorado River Indian tribal museum.

The view from Poston Relocation Center today, with power lines, irrigated fields, and lambing sheep. The big birds in front are vultures.

When we visited Poston several years ago, we didn’t realize that the remains of some detainee housing still stood only a short distance from the monument and today’s community. On our second trip to the monument, someone told us where to find the site. Though protected now by a tall chain-link fence, one can peer in and get a feel for what it must have been like to carry on community life in such crowded conditions.

This deteriorating building, showing mud bricks made by internees, was more suited to extremes of heat and cold than the original board construction.
Rows of 20′ x 100′ buildings housed the internees.

A building later used by tribespeople

On December 8, 1941, James Sakamoto, the editor of Seattle’s Japanese-American Courier wrote a statement about Japanese Americans’ loyalty to their country. He called his piece, We Cannot Fail America.” He said:

The list of Poston service people who died fighting for America

No matter what develops involving the United States in the present tragic world situation, we Americans of Japanese ancestry must be prepared and remember that there are certain fundamental truths from which we cannot depart. One of them is that we were born in these United States as American citizens. Now that we have become involved in the Far Eastern conflict that is going to test our worth and mettle as citizens, we cannot fail America.

There is a remote possibility of our becoming the victim of public passion and hysteria. If this should occur, we will stand firm in our resolution that even if America may “disown” us — we will never “disown” America.

It is easy for us at this time to shout our patriotism and declare our loyalty. But we must do much more than mere lip service. Our biggest job, and the hardest, will be to go ahead, doing our work as diligently and as efficiently as we can, to contribute to America’s defense. This is a time for calm thinking and quick action, in behalf of America.

It is amazing to realize that although America faltered in its responsibility to this large group of citizens, those of Japanese descent at Poston and in the other camps worked hard to carry on their lives as normally as possible. They left a great heritage of service and loyalty, even though when the Executive Order was repealed, hostility against Japanese Americans remained high. Some communities displayed signs telling evacuees to stay out. As a result, many scattered to other locations across the country.

More than 40 years after WWII ended, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation apologizing to Japanese Americans on behalf of the United States.

Today, the crumbling remains at Poston seem to cry out, “Never again!”

Writer’s note: Check my next blog for more about the reasons behind the anti-Japanese feelings of the time.

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