I was raised in Oceanside, California at the height of the 80‘s Cold War nuclear fears. To the north lay Camp Pendleton and to the south, numerous military installations; Miramar, North Island, and the Naval Training Center to name a few. I recall the aircraft hangars along the west side of I-5 as we traveled to downtown San Diego. I listened in awe of the stories of small town Oceanside during WWII, the lookout towers along the oceans edge, constantly scanning the horizon for signs of Japanese submarines. Like so many others, my grandfathers were both involved in WWII, one served in the Pacific, one worked to build the initial structures that make up Camp Pendleton today. And as most from the Greatest Generation, they never spoke of their experiences, only short subtle recollections as I grew older, but never anything that would truly communicate the horrors of war they must have experienced. Country served. Sacrifices made. Stories untold.
These weren’t the only sacrifices made or stories untold. I’ve always remembered my first grade teacher, Ms. Nagata, for the simple fact that she let me explore learning with the zest of a curious, excitable, six year old. I loved math, I loved numbers and I thoroughly enjoyed the work books filled with problems awaiting answers. She allowed and encouraged me to work through the book at a pace that fed my hunger, all the while checking to make sure I was doing the work correctly and understanding the necessary concepts. Thirty years after leaving Ms. Nagata’s classroom I experienced an admiration for her as a person far beyond any math lessons. You see, Ms. Nagata’s family is Japanese and faced imprisoned in the internment camps of WWII like thousands others of Japanese decent. For decades I lacked the knowledge to the depth of the warm welcoming smile I recalled each morning of first grade.
A little piece of history I didn’t learn from a history textbook at any grade level, rather I was first introduced to this history by the photographs of Ansel Adams. Ansel Adam’s image, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, CA, 1944; the large granite boulders backlight by the setting sun and towering Sierra Nevada range in the distance was my first introduction to the internment camps. His images focused on the Manzanar Camp, one of 10 throughout the Western United States. There were other images as well and a published collection of photographs entitled Born Free and Equal, Ansel’s statement on the terrible injustice he saw occurring. I suppose at age 16 I still didn’t grasp the depth of this historical event or period in our nations history. Though Manzanar became a place I hoped to visit one day, in my mind it was still about retracing the steps of an admired photographer; not a first grade teacher or complete group of people identified and imprisoned only by their heritage.
The stories of the Greatest Generation and the movies depicting the horrors and heroism of WWII have become quite prevalent over the past decade. They are stories of tremendous sacrifice and service to our country, deserving to be told so that future generations will be reminded of what others who walked before them sacrificed for them today. I believe, there is a story yet to be told in its entirety, that of the Japanese internment camps. Possibly it is due to the lack of attention those who suffered through it have raised, as many felt it was part of their duty to country. Even those that were born in the United States and held complete citizenship made the sacrifice to willingly board the buses and trains that carried them from their homes and business to remote areas throughout the West. Possibly the remoteness of these camps have kept them hidden from the mass public. Possibly the fact that once the prisoners were freed, the camps were quickly cleared of any signs of the saddening history, the guilt of our own shame.
I visited Manzanar in the Spring of 2010, as my family enjoyed Spring Break exploring Death Valley and the Eastern Sierras. I had read more about this historical site and thought I had a greater understanding, but as often occurs in life, real life experience brings about a change within our soul. One building remains on the 500 acre site that housed 10,000 men, women and children from 1942 – 1945, of which two-thirds were born in this country. The gymnasium where teenagers once enjoyed dances and socials as an attempt to forget the binds that held them. Today this gymnasium serves as the museum for Manzanar National Park. The grounds still hold relics of internment, one remaining guard tower, monuments that were created by its temporary inhabitants and the bones of once beautifully designed Japanese gardens. You could sense the souls still hovering in the crisp afternoon light cascading over the towering Sierra peaks. The voices that told the stories of life at Manzanar brought chills throughout my entire body. I felt warm tears roll down my own cheeks as the now aged American told of his life in Manzanar, his memories as a child, “It was like summer camp, all the time, so many children.” But his tears flowed as he spoke of his father, an American citizen, a man that owned a business, a home and loved his country, that had all of it stripped from him because of his ancestry.
The photographs included in this post are from the Manzanar site. The afternoon at Manzanar became more about the emotions and experiences than the photographs. The images serve as reminders for me, they hold greater meaning to me personally because of what they represent. A soul changing day, experienced with my wife and children, all our lives changed. An untold story heard by the four of us and digested deep within our souls.
Yes, I realize, sadly, this is not a first in the history of mankind, unfortunately its an all to common occurrence in the history pages of our planet. Is love or fear the almighty of feelings? Both have the power to spread like wildfire when the winds are stoked and can be used as rationalizations for our actions. In the end, we all must look within to answers these challenges, which drives our heart and soul, love or fear?
In closing, my mind drifts to the words of Bono, the lead singer for U2, just another artist, like Ansel Adams, who continues to bring social injustices and concerns for mankind to the publics view. In a concert in Italy in 2005 shortly after the terrorist bombings in London, Bono introduces the the song Miss Sarajevo, a song dedicated to the horrific ethnic cleansing that occurred following the fall of the Soviet Union. To quote my favorite Irish lad in his intro, “We would like to turn our song into a prayer, the prayer is; we don’t become a monster in order to defeat the monster”. Let us all keep an eye on the past so that our future is free of monsters.