World War II is fast becoming a faded memory for many of those who lived through that time in our nation’s history. However, for 175 invited guests from the Class of 1945 attending the 70th Manzanar High School Reunion recently held in Las Vegas at the California Hotel and Casino, the memories of that time are still very real.
Joining the 8 graduates of the Class of ’45 were 5 classmates from the Class of ‘43 and 9 classmates from the Class of ‘44. For these 22 former high school classmates who shared the experience of incarceration at the Manzanar Relocation Center during the war, it was a special occasion to celebrate life and their shared experiences.
The Japanese Relocation Centers were established after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The attacks created fear and hysteria in the United States, and especially true for those those living on the west coast. It also brought out the worst kind of bigotry in many American citizens towards those of Japanese or Asian ancestry. The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the largest and best known of the ten concentration camps with 10,000 incarcerees held behind its barbed wire fence. The camps were established throughout the country to house those accused of nothing more than having Japanese ancestry and, by extension, falsely accused of having a loyalty to Japan that most simply did not feel. Being “American”—being “a good, loyal citizen”—was in fact a great source of pride and heavily promoted within the Japanese American community…and it still is.
There were conflicting emotions among those that shared the experience of the camps. Families were deprived of basic human rights and 80% of the approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent, both American citizens and immigrants sent to the concentration camps were loyal to the United States. On an unprecedented scale in U.S. history, Japanese-American citizens were deprived of their constitutional rights. Many of those sent to the camps who are still alive today—seventy years after the camps’ closings in 1945—were only children then. Their experiences and memories are often of fond remembrance of the many friendships and experiences they shared behind the barbed wire of the camps.
Grace (Oda) Anderson, Vice Chairperson for the 2015 Manzanar Reunion Committee, noted that, “Many of us were children or other family members.” At least 61 of those attending the reunion were detained in the Manzanar Relocation Center during the war.
In addition to graduates of Manzanar High School at the reunion, there were 22 others that attended school at Manzanar. At least three of those attending were born at Manzanar. There were also many guests from other camps. The ages of those at the reunion ranged from 22 to 99 years-old and came from California, Texas, Washington, Michigan, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.
Shizuko Fujioka (née Sakihara) was a graduate of the Manzanar High School Class of ’45. (Her story was published in The Sheet on April 24). “Shiz” as she is affectionately known as by family and friends, was accompanied at the reunion with her son, Robert, and her daughter, Margaret. Shiz’s daughter Margaret is the mayor and first Japanese-American member of the Piedmont City Council. Shizuko’s late-husband, Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka, who accompanied “Shiz” to many of the reunions over the years going back to 1964, was incarcerated as a child at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
Ninety-nine-year-old Sechico Hiroyama was the oldest person to attend the reunion. Sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center near Lone Pine, Calif., from Terminal Island when she was 27 years old. Hiroyama sat next to 87-year-old Harumi Sylvia Yamashita, who as a young girl, was also sent to Manzanar from Terminal Island. The artificial island located between San Pedro and Long Beach, Calif., was home to about 3,500 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans prior to World War II. On February 9, 1942, the FBI imprisoned all adult Issei males (immigrants from Japan) on Terminal Island, followed by the forced evacuation and eventual placement of the rest of the inhabitants, after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.
Anderson noted that this year’s Manzanar Reunion in Las Vegas included many first-time attendees. There were plenty of opportunities to socialize during the mixer on Monday night and the banquet held on Tuesday night. The ranger staff at Manzanar Historic Site, accompanied by Bernadette Johnson, superintendent at Manzanar, gave an update on improvements and future plans for the national park site and a PowerPoint presentation/visual tour of the Manzanar site given by Alisa Lynch Broch, Chief of Interpretation. A tribute was also given to past and present Manzanar Reunion Committee members.
Reunions such as the 70th Manzanar gathering are increasing important as time, age, and failing health have greatly reduced the numbers of internees. While many of that generation have passed on, those remaining are often accompanied by family and friends. They are also joined at the reunions by historians and other supporters honoring those forced to live behind the barbed wire of the concentration camps and unprecedented deprivation of their constitutional rights. All of those involved are determined to make sure that something like this never happens again to any U.S. citizen.
Addressing concerns of those attending this year’s Reunion, the Manzanar Reunion Committee is fairly certain that it will again host another reunion next year.