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Pilgrimage to Manzanar

ON Sept. 16, 36 members of my family made a pilgrimage to the site of the Manzanar Relocation Center in southeast California. In the spring of 1942, the United States government unceremoniously deposited thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children in this internment camp during World War II. I was one of them. For this trip back, our guide was Shi Nomura, Manzanar curator for the Eastern California Museum in Independence, Calif. He has made the camp his personal crusade for over 17 years and knows more about it than any other person living.

Manzanar was a remote place in my consciousness. I had pushed it back in my mind until recent years when the camp began to make the news headlines. Somehow I felt a stigma attached to my Manzanar connection. I was not alone. ``Death Valley,'' a niece responded when someone asked her about her place of birth.

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Over the years I had sped by on Highway 395 with my husband, taking our children on fishing trips to the Sierras. As we passed the little town of Lone Pine, I'd begin searching the desolate brush-covered terrain, with Mt. Whitney as a magnificently incongruous backdrop, and wonder, ``This is where I lived?''

For ``this'' was not even a ghost town. Aside from two weather-beaten guardhouses, there was absolutely no sign that we had once made this barren land our home.

I first saw these guardhouses as our buses rolled in through the gates in May 1942, after a long, anxiety-ridden train and bus ride from Los Angeles. The ``civilian exclusion order'' that we had received six days earlier gave our family only a few frantic days to dispose of our businesses, homes, and treasured belongings.

We then reported to our evacuation point as instructed with bedding, clothing, and personal possessions - only what we could carry. Armed soldiers assigned the families numbers and herded us onto the trains. These are memories that have been hard to erase.

On the day of my return to Manzanar, gray clouds shed intermittent rain, eventually giving way to a blistering hot sun. And then the wind came up, that pervasive, gusty, stinging wind, unmercifully shooting pellets of gravel. It was enough to bridge the 45 years that had passed since I lived here.

Our 11-car caravan drove past the guardhouses to the camp grounds. It was a wilderness to me: I wanted to know where I had lived. Where our barracks had stood. Uncle Shi led me over to our Block 21. There was our clothesline pole foundation, where the family laundry used to flap in the wind. ``That's where the women's latrine was, and there the men's,'' he pointed out.

Memories came rushing back. The humiliating lack of privacy in the communal latrine/bathhouses. The constant struggle with the sand seeping through the walls and the floors of our tar-papered barracks. The armed sentry towers edging the camp.

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I picked up a sliver of wood with a nail stuck in it. Wherever I stepped, there were nails. Thousands and thousands of nails. Once the internees were released in the summer of 1945, the barracks had outlived their usefulness, Uncle Shi told me. They had to be disposed of. Lumber was in much demand and eager buyers plentiful. So the barracks were torn apart, plank by plank.

We made a last stop outside the perimeter of the camp, a mile off the highway. Here was the graveyard. Watched over by a solemn white monument that my people erected in 1943, on which ``Memorial to the Dead'' was inscribed in Japanese. With a pang I recalled the death of my aunt only two months after we arrived.

ON Aug. 10, 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1987 providing former internees restitution and an apology ``for ... fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights....''

The burden of shame has been officially lifted and I am trying hard to forgive and forget. ``How could it have happened?'' demand the sansei (third generation in this country) and yonsei (fourth generation). The nisei (second generation), having experienced California life in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, reply, ``Easily.''

Fifteen former internees made this pilgrimage, including one born in camp. Gone now were the issei(first generation). The nisei had become the elders. Others in the group were our sansei and yonsei children and grandchildren, and spouses. Over 120,000 Japanese-Americans from all along the Pacific Coast were sent to 10 inland war relocation centers in 1942.

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