75 years ago, FDR signed an order to round up Japanese people and put them in camps during World War II. Now, Joe Moeller went with a group of people on a pilgrimage to Manzanar – one of the internment camps east of Fresno. Their goal is to make sure the past is not forgotten.


By JOE MOELLER | May 4, 2017

East of Fresno on the other side of the Sierra is where one of 10 World War II relocation camps was built. It is called Manzanar.

Manzanar housed Japanese-Americans who were thought to possibly be aiding the enemy. The camp closed after World War II came to an end.

75 years after Manzanar’s construction, some survivors revisited the site.

KSEE24's Joe Moeller was there for their pilgrimage to Manzanar.

“I remember my mother telling us we are going to camp. I thought at the time, ‘oh camp.’ Then she said we got to get you different clothes. I started realizing this camp wasn't like any camp that I was familiar with, said Mas Ouki, a man who spent three years at Manzanar.

Manzanar sits in the lifeless area on the east side of the towering Sierra Mountains.

It was a camp built 75 years ago, but now it is a national historic site.

To understand the story of Manzanar, and why it was put in such a remote place, you must look back to December of 1941.

I remember my mother telling us we are going to camp.

Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor is when Manzanar's story began. It led to the U.S.’s involvement in World War II.

After that, Japanese-Americans were treated differently.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Japanese-Americans were considered a threat after that.

Those living on the West Coast had six days to grab the items they could put in a suitcase. They were loaded onto trains and buses and transported.

Manzanar was one of 10 war relocation camps built west of the Mississippi.

Roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in the internment camps; 62 Percent of them were American citizens.

More than 11,000 people were forced to live in Manzanar – each with their own story to tell.

The cemetery remains in place, and replicas were built.

75 years after the executive order was signed – survivors, family, and others returned for a pilgrimage to revisit history and to commemorate what happened.

“To all persons of Japanese ancestry, we will never forget when our people were forced to assemble like cattle for an unknown destination for an indefinite amount of time,” event speakers said in unison at the pilgrimage.

In the crowd there were several Japanese-Americans who spent years of their lives behind barbed wire on this very land.

“I worry that most people don't know about what happened to us. It was very desolate,” Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig said.

"We will never forget when our people were forced to assemble like cattle for an unknown destination for an indefinite amount of time."

The stories of Manzanar linger in their minds. Most can recall the day they got off a bus.

“When we arrived that evening here at Manzanar, people were lined up along the roadway,” Ouki said. “People looked like me just silently watching us as we came in.”

Herzig – just 17 years old – was a newlywed when she got here.

She recalls the room that she was forced to live in with two other families.

“The room was 20 feet by 16 feet, and the only thing in the room was army cots with straw mattresses,” Herzig said.

She gave birth at the camp and said it was difficult trying to raise a family.

“Our rights were taken away; that is what I missed most,” Herzig said.

Ouki – a veteran and retired teacher – said his freedom was simply gone for years of his childhood.

It is a story that seems so unrealistic, but he wants people to know it happened.

"I looked like the enemy, I was treated like the enemy, and I was imprisoned here at Manzanar for three and a half years."

“In 1942, because I looked like the enemy, I was treated like the enemy, and I was imprisoned here at Manzanar for three and a half years,” Ouki said.

Years later in 1988, President Ronald Reagan formally apologized on behalf of the American government and signed the Civil Liberties Act.

It financially compensated those of Japanese descent who were forced into the 10 camps.

The pilgrimage to Manzanar is a way to not forget what happened.

“We mark the 75th year of the signing of the Executive Order 9066 that basically took away my mother's, and hers and their aunt’s civil rights and constitutional rights; they were American citizens,” said Bruce Embry, co-chair of the Manzanar committee.

"This was wrong, but it is what happened."

Embry said Manzanar is a dark place in our country's history, but it is also shaped thousands of Japanese-American's lives.

Ouki said, “It is a place that has become such a part of my life that when I am done and gone and my ashes are in a wooden box, part of it is going to be here – right at Block 27, Barrack 12, Apartment 1.”

This year’s pilgrimage was bigger than usual. Organizers said there is a reason for that in today’s world – so history doesn’t repeat itself in the next generation.

"I looked like the enemy, I was treated like the enemy, and I was imprisoned here at Manzanar for three and a half years."

“Muslims should have the liberty to have ability to be unapologetically Muslim,” an event speaker said.

They say a lesson is to be learned from the stories at Manzanar.

“We find ourselves feeling troubled. The political and social climate in our country feel familiar,” Embry said.

75 years later, the snow-capped mountains and desolate land may look the same, and although Manzanar has changed, the story of what happened has not.

“Manzanar enshrines the best and worst of America,” Embry said.

Ouki said, “This was wrong, but it is what happened.”

 

120000

Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps

11000

11,000 people were forced to live in Manzanar

9066

Executive order number signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942

Manzanar National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service)

Our Pilgrimage: The Manzanar Committee

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