By KAREN YOKOTA
MERCED—The weather forecast predicting to be a downpour of rain, didn’t intimidate people from showing up to witness the remarkable unveiling of the Merced Assembly Center dedication memorial on Feb. 20. The wooden benches were packed with more than 800 people who suited and showed up, prepared with umbrellas. Luckily, it didn’t start raining until the end of the dedication. Families were overjoyed with the finished monument – people crowded around the Wall of Names searching for their parent’s, grandparents’ or their own names. “This is amazing,” says Ann Nakashima, who traveled from San Jose to celebrate her father-in-law Tom Nakashima, who was at the Merced Assembly Center more than 65 years ago.
In 1942, 4,669 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without specific charges or trials at the Merced Assembly Center from May to September. About 1,000 of the prisoners were school-aged children. The families were told to abandon their homes and bring only what they could carry and report to the center at the County Fairgrounds, located in the central San Joaquin Valley, before being relocated to Granada, Colorado, at Amache Camp, one of the 10 concentration camps.
The Japanese American internees who were imprisoned at the Merced Assembly Center came from the local area, Merced, as well as Livingston, Turlock, and Cortez. From the northern California communities, people came from Sebastopol, Yuba City, Yolo, Walnut Grove, Colusa, Winters, Modesto, Woodland, Santa Rosa, Chico, Marin and Courtland.
Jeanette Ishii was the emcee for the dedication ceremony. Ishii’s family was interned at the Assembly Center and her father passed away Monday, prior to the unveiling. “I decided to continue doing the event to honor him,” she said.
442nd Combat / MIS Honored
In the early part of the ceremony, Japanese-American veterans who served in the 442nd Combat Infantry Regiment and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) were invited to stand before the audience and received a standing ovation. “While their families were behind barbed wire, over 32,000 young Japanese-American men enlisted or were drafted in the U.S. military,” Ishii said in her speech. “They joined the military effort to demonstrate their loyalty and service to the United States. It is because of their heroism, they made America a more tolerant country.”
Brief remarks and speeches were made by Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs; Supervisor 4 Deidre Kelsey, Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani (D-Livingston), Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-18th District), Congressman Mike Honda (D-15th District), Sculptor Dale Smith, the Honorable John Kirihara and Sherman Kishi, Internee and MIS.
The Nikkei Student Taiko Group from UC Merced gave a remarkable Taiko performance midway through the ceremony.
Congressman Dennis Cardoza was instrumental in creating the memorial. Cardoza grew up in Atwater, CA and many of his friends were Japanese American. Sixteen years ago, when Cardoza was elected to the State Assembly, he met Mike Honda and they clicked – they became instant friends. Honda shared his story about his internment camp experience as a child.
“Years passed and I went looking for the small bronze plaque at the Fairgrounds and couldn’t find it,” he says. “It wasn’t right.”
About two years ago, Cardoza knew about grant money that was allocated to preserve historical sites and thought that there should be a memorial commemorating the Merced Assembly Center internees. He planted the seed to Congress and the rest is history.
And We Meet Again
Internees reunited with friends they hadn’t seen in years. For some, the last time they saw one another was 65 years ago. Fred Fukusawa, 83 years-old from San Lorenzo, CA, jumped on Amtrack to see if he could reunite with people from Amache. “I didn’t find anyone that I recognized, most of the people that are my age have passed on,” he says. “I’m glad I came to this event – it’s nice to see how close-knit and generous the Merced group is and I’ve met new friends tonight.”
Internees reminisced and “talked story” ranging from somberness to laughter, remembering harsh times such as with no privacy in the barracks, but also remembering dinners with their friends, and playing baseball and basketball.
“I remember my sister, Takako “Pat” Tanioka Paul, she was just about to graduate from Merced High School. We were asked to evacuate to the Assembly Center before her graduation date so she never graduated,” says James Tanioka. “I remember Pat being very popular with the fellows. My parents didn’t let Pat go out unless she had a chaperone, so I was her chaperone. I had the chance to see all of these different events as an 8 year-old. I watched baseball and basketball games – each block had different teams and they would play each other.”
Eight-hundred fifty people attended the Day of Remembrance dinner that was held after the unveiling to observe the 68th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. There were 101 tables with nine seats, a delicious meal catered by Fernando Palomino, and the theme that evening was reiterated in many different forms – through speech, video and through sharing stories: “Let’s teach the public what happened -- so that it will never happen again.”
Thais Kishi, from Livingston, CA, was the emcee for the event. “I’m so proud of this community – it’s very unique,” she says to the audience with enthusiasm. “I’d like more people to learn about rights for citizens, for injustices that might take place. I heard that there are people that didn’t know about this internment story until tonight.” She highly encouraged people in the audience to share their stories with one another. “It’s important that we collect these stories and preserve them to educate people so this never happens again,” she states.
Cardoza and Honda gave brief speeches that were limited to three minutes each. Cardoza scratched his 20-page prepared speech and spoke from his heart stating that the majority of the speech prepared was about the history of the internment experience. “I don’t need to talk about this because you experienced it,” Cardoza says. “You know what it’s like first hand.”
Honda shared in his speech, “The point of tonight is that you’ve chosen to put together a memorial and worked together as a community. You’re leaving behind a physical representation of history past so that children of the future can understand much more clearly what happened in the past.”
Excerpts were shown from “Reflections of the Merced Assembly Center,” a documentary produced by the (METV) Merced County Office of Education Television. “This was produced as another form educational material to be used locally in our school systems,” Thais Kishi stated. The documentary will be available in the near future. The documentary features brief interviews with the internees with powerful music and graphics.
Keynote Speaker for the evening was John Teteishi, who spearheaded the JACL’s redress effort when he launched the JACL’s national campaign to seek redress for the U.S. government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans in America’s concentration camps in WWII, spoke about the Redress movement.
“My biggest challenge was to get the Nisei generation to talk about their experiences because they lived their lives by keeping quiet. That’s how they protected themselves,” he says. “It was important to get the Niseis to speak about their experiences to educate the young people so there was an awareness.”
Bob Taniguchi, last to speak was applauded and cheered with a standing ovation for his hard work, dedication and leadership for spearheading this memorial. “This event is solely about the internees,” Taniguchi says. “The past was the unjust internment of these innocent people, the present is to commemorate this event and the future is to educate our children.”
Members of the Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee include Bob Taniguchi, Marlene Tanioka, Jeanette Ishii, Grace Kimoto, Sherman Kishi, Thais Kishi, Lucy Okuye, Ed Nakade, Janet Fujimoto, Tom Nakashima, Adrienne Iwata, Ernie Yoshino and Patti Kishi.
Members of the Merced Assembly Center Advisory Committee include Dennis Cardoza, Kathleen Galgiani, Ben Duran, Steve Kang, Robert Haden, Lee Andersen, Mike Gallo, Jonas Vangay, Ida Johnson, Sarah Lim, Deidre Kelsey, John Kirihara, Jan Mendenhall and Jim Cunningham.
The Merced County Fair Board consists of Cunningham, Shannon Picciano, Barbara Matheron, Carol Sartori-Silva, Gary Carlson, Bert Crane, Mark Erreca Jaime Farao, Deborah Lewis.
Share your Local Story of Internment
Were you or any of your family members among the thousands imprisoned in the Merced Assembly Center during World War II? The Merced Assembly Center Committee is seeking local stories and photos from former internees or friends who watched over internee property. Contributions will be maintained by the committee for future generations to develop an understanding of this time in history.
For more information, please visit http://mercedassemblycenter.org