By John Sammon
A new Valley PBS film titled “Silent Sacrifice, The Story of Japanese American Incarceration in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Beyond” will be a documentary like no other, recreating the moments, the shock and the horror, when Japanese Americans lost their freedom.
“These were called assembly centers,” said the film’s producer Elizabeth Laval. “This is where the prisoners were taken for the first six months of their imprisonment. They were made to sleep in horse stalls and chicken coops.”
The two-hour documentary is set to premier Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. on PBS (Public Broadcast Service) Channel 18 in Fresno covering the Central San Joaquin Valley. Later the film will be available for PBS stations nationally. In addition a learning curriculum for teachers and students grades 7 to 12 at no charge including lesson plans, videos and activities will made available through PBS Learning Media based on the film.
In 1942 when the U.S. Government imprisoned 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens living along the West Coast including children and the elderly for supposed disloyalty, the prisoners lost their property and jobs and most of their belongings except for the few items they could hurriedly pack in a bag.
The incarcerated were taken first to temporary holding pens near the communities where they had lived called assembly centers. Later they would be taken to more permanent, larger, barbed-wire-enclosed camps in remote areas of the country such as the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northeastern California, Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, Poston War Relocation Center in Southwestern Arizona and Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.
The film recounts what life was like for the prisoners at temporary confinement sites in the Central San Joaquin Valley communities of Merced, Fresno, Pinedale and Tulare, and then later incarceration at the major internment camps. Most of the temporary assembly imprisonment centers were located at what had formerly been community fairgrounds except for the Pinedale location, which was an abandoned lumber mill.
Laval, who has worked on the film since its inception two years ago, said seeing it completed has become a passion.
The film will consist of the first-person accounts of camp survivors and scenes recreating their confinement.
“As we conducted interviews with the former camp inmates we kept discovering little nuggets of information,” Laval said. “One that is memorable is a woman who was in the camp at Poston. She looked at the bleak landscape out of a barracks window and realized her brutal confinement. But there were Top 40 songs playing on a nearby radio and she could hear Roy Rogers (cowboy star) singing the song, “Don’t Fence Me in.”
Former prisoners interviewed include the married couple Saburo and Marion Masada, today in their 80’s, as well as camp inmates who later served in the U.S. Army in World War II fighting in Europe. The Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an infantry regiment, became one of the most highly decorated units in American military history.
“Members of the 442nd liberated prisoners of a German concentration camp,” Laval said. “That was ironic. Here they were fighting for a country (U.S.) that had imprisoned their own families.”
Some of the documentary segments have former camp prisoners off-screen recounting their experiences while actors act out the scenes. Laval said the recollections of survivors who were children in the camp at the time are among the most poignant.
“The remembrances of people who were children in the camps were poignant because they watched their parents suffer,” Laval said. “Some of the parents died in camp and many never recaptured their former lives.”
In one scene an imprisoned woman whose mother had died in camp tightly clutches to her bosom her mother’s ashes in a coffee can, given to her by camp officials after cremation. The daughter expected a card inside the can with her mother’s name on it. Instead when she opened the can the card read, “Jap woman.”
Laval said interviews for the film provide new insights and understanding of the camp experience.
Her production team considered using a celebrity Asian American for a narrator but discovered a new talent, Brynn Saito, a 22-year-old poet, writer and educator whose voice Laval heard at a Haiku (Japanese poetry) event held in February on the campus of California State University Fresno.
“This is her (Brynn’s) first time doing narration, but when you hear her voice it’s like she has the ability to bring you back in time,” Laval said.
Laval had worked on historical projects previously as a volunteer creating story boards and memorials today visible at the sites of the former assembly centers in Pinedale and the Fresno Fairgrounds.
She was born in Fresno.
“I grew up in Fresno and attended the University of Santa Clara and UC San Diego,” she said. “I studied international relations.”
Laval journeyed to Japan to study the language.
“I got a work visa and got a job with Dentsu, that’s a Japanese advertising agency,” she said. “There were 6,000 Japanese employees and myself.”
Laval’s work in the 1980’s involved the coordinating of a variety of sporting events worldwide, bringing in athletes and providing liaison between sports governing bodies.
In another capacity she opened the first office for an international professional men’s tennis tour, the Association for Tennis Professionals (ATP) in Sydney, Australia.
Laval returned to the U.S. in 1993 because of a family illness. She later married and had children. After her husband passed away she went to work for PBS in 2012 as a chief development officer of fund-raising. Programming on PBS was soon added to her responsibilities and she was promoted to senior vice president of content and development.
“People at the time didn’t know much about the World War II assembly centers in Pinedale, Merced, Fresno and Tulare,” she said. “I was asked to become a part of the creation of memorials at the sites. The organizers thought I would be a good fit with my history background.”
Her great grandfather was Pop Laval, a noted photographer of the early 1900’s whose photographs documented Fresno, the San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I had been doing history for my great grandfather’s nonprofit the Pop Laval Foundation,” she added. “Pop Laval from 1910 to the 1960’s took thousands of photographs including 100,000 glass negatives. These needed to be collected and digitally preserved.”
Elizabeth Laval is also the author of five books on San Joaquin Valley history and the sport of golf among others.
Silent Sacrifice was partly funded by a grant from the National Park Service however Laval said additional donations from the public are needed.
She said preserving the collected memories of the camps’ former victims has never been more important than now. Survivors are reaching the age where they are passing on with each day.
“There is no better way to learn about the past than from those who directly lived it, but a lot of the people we had wanted to talk to for the film had already died,” Laval said. “We need to know what happened when our government made such a bad decision.”
Many of those interviewed in the film are in their 90’s yet remain clear-headed in their recollections. Formerly reluctant to talk about their experiences because of the pain, more now are coming forward feeling it isn’t right to remain silent.
“In the film some are talking about their experiences for the first time,” Laval said. “We hope that what happened to them never happens to anyone again. It’s time to break the silence.”
Laval credited the talent of film director Jeff Aiello for making Silent Sacrifice possible.
“He (Aiello) is a professional film maker and it was his vision that made it all come alive,” she said. “We’ve had hundreds of people involved it’s been a real team effort.”
People interested in the film or who wish to donate may go to the website at www.valleypbs.org/sacrifice. A trailer film segment is available for viewing. After the Valley PBS airing on Feb. 22 the entire film will be uploaded and available for viewing at the above website.
Caption: Top photo: Shot with smoke stack in background is Sab and Marion Masada in Jerome, Arkansas. Bottom photo: Smiling at camera is Zack Allen (sound), Kiyo Sato, and Jeff Aiello (director). Photos courtesy of Jill Aiello.