Ever Shamed, Ever Shameful

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt sentenced some 120,000 Japanese-Americans to prison for the duration of World War II. Today, on the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, Los Angeles County is marking the occasion with its first Day of Remembrance, which in turn made me remember my visit to Manazanar 4.5 years ago that I wrote about on November 13, 2007, here at Blogging.la:

Coincidental to Jason Burns’ November 9 post in which he referenced Manzanar in response to the disconcerting news of LAPD plans to target map Muslim enclaves in the city, two days later (returning from Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes) my wife Susan and I paid a somber and sobering first visit to the infamous place (on Highway 395 a few miles south of the ironically named town of Independence), referred to all politely as an “internment camp” or a “war relocation center,” or “reception center,” but with eight guard towers erected around the barbed-wired perimeter staffed with military police manning machine guns trained on the 11,000 men, women and children kept here against their will (more than 90% of whom were from the Los Angeles area), I’m in the mood to call it what it was: a prison. One that should forever be remembered as a testament to the freedom-destroying power of fear and an abominable insult to the United States Constitution and the civil liberties it guarantees us as citizens of this country. Pardon my righteous indignation.

The rest of my recollection is after the jump.

An American flag installed upon the fence surrounding the cemetery at the Manzanar War Relocation Center with the memorial obelisk at its center. The characters translate to “Monument to Console the Souls of the Dead,” and on the back the characters translate to “August 1943″ and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese.” Of the 150 people who died at Manzanar, most were cremated and 15 were buried here. Nine of those graves were relocated after the war, leaving the remains of six still on the premises.

Out here where I took the above picture it was easy to keep it together. But as I approached the monument and saw an origami necklace draped from one of the the posts with ribbons upon which were handwritten the words “peace” and “forgive” it got a bit tougher. Then along the tiered base of the obelisk were coins and trinkets that had been placed by visitors. Pennis, nickels, dimes, quarters. A fish hook pushed through a cigarette, a beaded necklace, a ring, a lighter, pebbles, a pine tree twig, a bit of abalone shell… nothing overly dramatic but all of it personal and touching and contrite.

From there I moved past each of the remaining rock-ringed gravesites, each festooned with more coins and artifacts, and the last one being one of the smallest. On its headstone were Japanese characters and beneath them it read in English “Baby Jerry Ogata” and that was it. Waterworks time as I wondered if Baby Jerry Ogata might not be dead if he’d not been imprisoned here. In place of an answer all I could manage was a weak “I am so ashamed and so sorry,” and as I spoke a strange thing happened. From out of nowhere a stiff cold wind like a small freight train destroyed the stillness and slammed into me, kicking up sand into my face as it barreled passed me and Baby Jerry Ogata’s grave. As quick as it arrived it dissipated, leaving me with the odd sensation of being simultaneously cleansed and dirtied. Forgiven and punished.