Japanese-Americans Fight to Preserve Wartime Internment Camps

As survivors of the camps age, their cause becomes more pressing .

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Photo Gallery: Manzanar: Journey to a Dark Place

MANZANAR, CALIF—Ernie Takahashi knows his past is around here somewhere. "I think this is it," says Takahashi, 63, as he stumbles through the eastern California sagebrush, his shirt flapping in the high desert wind. He walks up to a small wooden post, pounded into the sun-blasted landscape on the edge of Death Valley. Stenciled into it are the words "Block 27." Takahashi, a Sacramento optometrist, smiles beneath his sunglasses. Until now, he has never seen his first home. He searches for some evidence of his existence on the dusty ground. Above him, the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas soar over 14,000 feet. At his feet, there is nothing but sagebrush. "Well, I guess this is it," he smiles, looking back at his wife. "I can't believe it."

The wind was blowing, too, on March 27, 1945, when Takahashi's pregnant mother was taken from this same spot at the Manzanar internment camp to the camp's maternity ward. She and her husband, both Japanese-Americans who had been living in a farming community in California's Central Valley, were among the nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—most of them American citizens—who were forcibly removed to the camps after Pearl Harbor. Ordered to leave their homes with only what they could carry, they were sent by train and bus to 10 internment camps scattered across remote areas of the country, small cities enclosed by barbed wire.

For years, the internees struggled to survive in these desolate places, not knowing when they would be released. The Takahashis were married in Manzanar in 1944, but when their son, Ernie, was born the next spring, his father wasn't there to meet him. Responding to the wartime manpower shortage, he had been released from camp to take a job at an ammunition depot in Utah. Meanwhile, two of Takahashi's uncles were serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American unit fighting its way through Europe. Takahashi's mother must have appreciated the terrible irony, knowing she would spend the next few months the same way she'd spent the past three years: scraping out a living in Block 27, Building 5, Apartment 4.

Takahashi's experience, lost in the glow of a just war of liberation, is one of the darkest chapters in American history. Eugene Rostow, a prominent legal scholar during World War II, called the internment "our worst wartime mistake." Twenty years ago, the U.S. government officially apologized to Japanese-Americans for the way they had been treated, authorizing payments of $20,000 to each living survivor. But that wasn't the end of the camps' story. During the fight for redress, the Japanese-American community, long known for its stoic silence about its wartime experience, found its voice, pouring its stories into books, plays, and documentaries. Last month, Takahashi traveled to his birthplace on one of several organized pilgrimages to internment sites taking place this year.

As the last of those who remember camp life reach their 70s and 80s, their efforts to commemorate their experience have expanded: Former internees are determined not just to preserve the stories of internment; they also are trying to save the camps themselves. In 2006, President Bush signed a bill authorizing up to $38 million for a grant program to preserve the camps. But nearly two years later, swamped in election year politics, the funds have yet to be appropriated. The delay worries internees and historians alike. Soon, says Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of Asian-American studies at ucla, "these physical sites are all we'll have left to remind us."

"Military necessity." Decades later, the story of internment stands as the unrivaled cautionary tale of the flimsiness of the Constitution during wartime. On Feb. 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forcible removal of all ethnic Japanese living on the Pacific Coast. Worried about invasion and convinced that Japanese immigrants might be loyal to Japan, Roosevelt insisted the decision was a matter of "military necessity." Anyone with any Japanese ancestry had to register for relocation. The white population stood by unmoved. "If making 1,000,000 innocent Japanese uncomfortable would prevent one scheming Japanese from costing the life of an American boy, then let 1,000,000 innocents suffer," wrote Henry McLemore, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.