Surviving wasteland years
Learning that `Manzanar,' a book of Ansel Adams photographs of the Manzanar internment camp, was to be published this fall by Times Books, the Home Forum asked playwright Wakako Yamauchi, whose dramas `And the Soul Shall Dance' and `12-1-A' are set in similar camps, to write a recollection of her internment. EVACUATION was the euphemism for the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. ``Japanese and Japanese-Americans'' is a cumbersome phrase, but it's important to use here because it includes two generations of Japanese in America: first, the immigrants who settled here and were denied citizenship; second, their offspring - Americans by birth. This is hard for some white Americans to grasp. ``A Jap is a Jap'' is one of the ugly phrases used in those terrible years. Another was ``But look what you did at Pearl Harbor.'' The median age of the internees was 17. That means most of us took a civics course and we knew that all people are created equal, and justice and freedom are for everyone, regardless of race, color, or creed. That's what the American Revolution and the Civil War were all about. Then as suddenly as the attack on Pearl Harbor came, we learned something else - a devastating lesson on the politics of economics and racism.
In February of 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and without due process the Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were herded off to 10 internment camps in the ``badlands.''
First, the leaders of our communities were arrested and put in ``detention centers'': Bismarck, North Dakota; Missoula, Montana; Santa Fe, New Mexico; there were others. Later the rest of us were sent to assigned camps, taking only what we could carry. Those who got there earlier advised us to bring boots. ``Nothing but snakes, scorpions, and dust out here.''
We lived one family to a unit, four units to a barracks, with knotty walls separating us from our neighbors. There was little privacy. Furtive love affairs were conducted in the shadows of barracks and in empty office rooms. Family quarrels were stifled and swallowed. The latrines were the worst: rows of toilets back to back, one long trough for washing, a shower room with six shower heads. The modest met each other coming and going in the early hours of the morning.
We waited in line everywhere: at the mess hall with our tin plates, at the post office, the clinic, the showers, at the canteen, in the blazing sun and cold rain. It got so that wherever a crowd gathered, people automatically got in line.
Rumors flourished. Aside from the sordid gossip, there were terrible stories of the war (most of us had relatives in Japan) and of friends who had disappeared. A family friend, a bachelor, was among the early arrests.
No one knew where he was sent, and no one followed up on his disappearance. Later we heard he died. He'd strayed too near a barbed wire fence and when a sentry called, ``Halt!'' he either didn't hear or chose not to hear and was shot in the back. A friend had a friend whose father saw it happen.
Some say they had a great time in camp. There were softball games in dusty summer evenings, movies in the firebreak (we carried our own collapsible chairs), talent shows - someone always sang, ``Don't Fence Me In'' - dances, Sadie Hawkins nights, and even here, forsaken as we were, Boy Scouts worked for their merit badges and on holidays marched proudly with Old Glory fluttering high in the yellow air.
There was always someone to love, someone to hate, someone to envy. Lifelong friendships were made, as well as lifelong enemies. And there were the flaming desert sunsets and incredible mornings - cool and crisp, forever promising renewal.
People, especially our children, ask us now: ``Why did you go so docilely?'' (Like the questions asked of Holocaust victims: ``Why did you go like sheep to slaughter?'') We did, that's all. There were some who said, ``We must be 200 percent loyal. We must cooperate like true Americans.''
Others urged, ``Let's fight to the last ditch. This is fascism!'' A small group of young men protested individually and spent the war years in prison. Some 40 years later two were exonerated. One died before his vindication.
We know now that powerful groups lobbied to push the Japanese and Japanese-Americans out of rich farmlands and booming flower and produce markets on the West Coast. We also know that plans to incarcerate us were in the making before Pearl Harbor. And we know that there was not one saboteur among us.
By the following February, everyone over 17 was required to fill out a questionnaire that was to pave the way to freedom. ``Leave Clearance,'' it was called. Buried among the questions were two:
27.Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
28.Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
These needed only yes-and-no answers, but the 27th asked our young men to join a combat team and fight for freedom while their families remained impounded. The 28th asked our immigrant parents, who had always been denied citizenship, to forswear allegiance to their native Japan, in short, to become people without a country. The impact of these questions was such that young men were identified as yes-yes and no-no boys.
The yes-yes were committed to register or volunteer for the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Raised with the principles of honor and obligation by their Japanese parents, these boys went on to bring fame and honor to the 442nd, making it the most decorated regiment in the US Army. The casualties were horrendous, but the mission - to prove unqualified loyalty - was accomplished.
The no-no boys refused to register while their families were incarcerated. They were exiled to yet another camp - the first step toward expatriation. The courage it took to make this stand should not be underestimated.
The questionnaire tore families apart. Ours was not an uncommon family experience.
We had come to Poston, Arizona, together, the six of us. We lost everything in Oceanside, California, but the two armloads we carried to camp. The evening we arrived, my father squatted on the dusty barracks for a long time, shoulders hunched, arms folded, his head deep in shadow. I can see him now.
But this wasn't all that was to happen to my father. With the leave clearance, my sister left for Arkansas to marry a soldier. I went to Chicago to pursue the American Dream (to work in a candy factory), and my brother, a no-no boy, went in search of another American Dream - the liberty-or-nothing dream. He was shipped to Tule Lake, in California, the camp for expatriates and dissidents. My father, mother, and six-year-old sister remained in Poston.
After the devastation of Hiroshima, a chronic illness of my father's returned and flared. When everyone was ordered to leave camp, my mother asked him, ``Where will we go?'' My father never answered.
I returned for the funeral (my sister was already there), but my brother couldn't get a leave permit from Tule. In a few days we left Poston - among the last to go. My mother held my father's ashes on her lap and remarked that they were still warm.