On Feb. 19, 1942, in response to the bombing on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, requiring “any or all persons” of Japanese descent living on the West Coast to be removed from their homes and interned in desolate relocation centers.
Without due process of law, almost 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth, were first taken to 17 temporary assembly centers.
James Kazuo Motoike, who was born and raised in San Fernando, had recently finished high school when he and his family were taken and housed at the horse stables at the Santa Anita Race Track. They were then put on a train to Manzanar, to one of ten sloppily built relocation centers, located northwest of Death Valley in Inyo County, California, 225 miles north of Los Angeles.
While behind the barbed wire, many worked and tried to make the best out of the horrible situation. Motoike was allowed to leave temporarily to pick sugar beets in Idaho, while his niece, Setsuko, who was 16, worked making camouflage nets for the war.
On Nov. 24, 1945, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) closed Manzanar and internees could choose to relocate to a city away from the West Coast to look for work. Motoike went to Chicago and lived with friends in an apartment. He eventually met Hiroko Yata, from Los Angeles, when she relocated to Chicago from the internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas and they started dating.
After the exclusion was lifted, Motoike enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Japan to translate and interrogate Japanese prisoners of war. He then returned to San Fernando and married Yata.
My grandpa’s story is just one of the 10,000 stories of the Japanese incarcerated in Manzanar. Even though he has passed away, his memory endures and my family and I will never take for granted what he went through so that we could all be where we are today. Over 30 of our friends and family members were also interned across the country and all of them deserve to have their stories shared, which is why my cousins and I choose to volunteer at Manzanar.
In 2008, not knowing what to expect, 15-year-old JT Turner was the first in our family to volunteer. Under the direction of Jeffrey Burton, the Cultural Resources Program Manager, Turner was “assigned to clean up and help out with the archaeological restoration of Merritt Park…[by] unearthing and cleaning up the area so visitors can see where the bridge used to be and where the water would run through.”
Named after the camp director, Ralph Merritt, Merritt Park was once a place where the internees could meditate, think, or reflect by the water, but due to a flash flood, it was entirely covered in dirt.
While digging, the most significant thing Turner uncovered “was a layer of concrete at the bottom of where the pond used to be so the water would remain pristine instead of containing murky water from the dirt.”
After looking at records, he found that “our Uncle Frank, Grandpa’s brother, worked in construction and found a way to get concrete mix into the camp possibly by paying the guards off. How he got the concrete in the camp is yet to be determined but we know that it was not allowed in the camp so someone had to sneak it in.”
Reflecting on the experience, he acknowledged, “At one point when I was digging and unearthing all these rocks and concrete slabs it reached 110° in the high desert. It made me look back on being at grandpa’s house when he was older and asking myself, ‘How did he and our family survive this?’ The weather conditions are brutal there and to think they were displaced for doing nothing wrong made me upset and angry. But even when Grandpa and Grandma were released, they had nothing bad to say about America, they loved Los Angeles and they loved this country, which to me is quite amazing.”
Turner continued to volunteer until his freshman year of college and recognized that he kept coming back because “To me, I felt like I was volunteering on behalf of our relatives. I know from a Japanese perspective, our relatives would not want to talk about it and just move on, but as time progresses, more people will learn the truth and the story of our ancestors. It is imperative for people to know the truth and educate themselves; that is how we progress as a society.”
In 2011, during the summer in-between his freshman and sophomore year of high school, my cousin, Conner Maruyama made his first trip to Manzanar to volunteer and continued to go for two more years.
“Most of the times I went, they had me excavate certain areas of the camp. I sifted through sand to find anything that might have been left behind. They also had me try and recreate different areas from pictures they had on hand. In one picture there was a small pond, so I had to remake that by digging according to the picture,” he explained.
While excavating the gardens outside of the blocks, Maruyama was able to uncover marbles, pieces of china, and shards of pottery, as well as a whole abalone shell from the Manzanar co-op fish market. Also found in abundance were tin can lids, which were used by the internees to seal the holes in the barracks in order to keep out the cold winds.
Since Maruyama did not get to know our grandpa very well, he recognized that, “[volunteering] was something that made me understand a little bit more about a pivotal part in his life. Even though the weather conditions there are almost unbearable, it was definitely one of the most important experiences I have had.”
Last year and during this past spring break, my cousin, Washakie Tibbetts, my twin sister, Rayna Dieguez, and I have followed in our cousins’ footsteps and volunteered.
“I wanted to volunteer at Manzanar because it has become a family tradition and connects me to my grandfather as a young man…I think that the internment of my grandfather at Manzanar along with my grandmother at Jerome strengthens their identity as Japanese-Americans, as well as mine, because even after their unjustifiable imprisonment they still believed they were Americans,” said Tibbetts.
Both years, we worked in the Administration area.
“The idea behind our work in the Administration Area is to show the differences between where the staff lived and worked and the internee area; for example straight lines of painted rocks versus naturalist Japanese gardens,” explained Burton.
Dieguez and Tibbetts both cleared the dirt from where the police station was in order to expose the foundation.
“I think it is important to volunteer because you are supporting things that are special, like Manzanar, that would not get the support they need otherwise,” said Tibbetts.
Both years I have volunteered, I have cleared, restored, and painted the rock alignments that the WRA had the internees paint white.
According to Burton, “the military just seems to always paint rocks white, they would be easier to see, but also it is something to keep people busy. I think at Manzanar it was to make them more functional since there was plenty of other things to make people do.”
All three of us plan on returning next spring break to volunteer because personally, just as Bernadette Johnson, the superintendent of Manzanar said, “My goal is for every person traveling on the 395 on their way to Mammoth to stop and come in and learn something.”