Nishi Family Returns To Manzanar To Help Rebuild Historic Bridge At Merritt Park
May 31, 2011 4 Comments
Patrick Alvarado volunteered, along with his father-in-law, Henry Nishi, who was imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II, to build a replica of the historic bridge that connected the pond at Merritt Park to the rest of the garden. He details his family’s experience during the first phase of the construction in the following story.
MANZANAR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE — During the weekend of May 21-22, 2011, the son of Kuichiro Nishi, Henry Nishi, and his family, traveled to the Manzanar National Historical Site with an engineer contractor in tow. The purpose of the trip was to begin rebuilding the bridge that connected the center of the pond to the rest of Merritt Park.
This journey really began almost seventy years ago when American citizens of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and incarcerated in “War Relocation Centers” across the Western and Central United States.
Henry, his mother, and sisters were among these citizens who were forced to surrender their businesses and leave their homes. Kuichiro was detained by the FBI and imprisoned at Fort Missoula in Montana at the end of 1941 and would not join the family at Manzanar for nearly a year.
When Kuichiro was finally reunited with his family in June 1942, he began planning a Japanese garden to provide a place for the Manzanar community to come and find some peace during a time of turmoil. For ten months into 1943, under the stalking scrutiny of the watchtowers, with a crew of six men and volunteers from the Manzanar community, Kuichiro built a Japanese garden that was later photographed by Ansel Adams during his visit to Manzanar.
After the garden was completed, Kuichiro erected a dedication representing his intent of the garden:
To the memory of fellow Japanese Immigrants who, although ushered to this place with the breaking of friendly relations between the two countries, have come to enjoy this quiet, peaceful place (in Tamura, Anna Hosticka. “Gardens Below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese American Incarceration Camps.” Landscape Journal. January 2004: 10)
The garden was originally named Rose Park. It was later renamed Pleasure Park, and then renamed again to Merritt Park, after Ralph P. Merritt, the Manzanar War Relocation Center Director.
It was not until 2008, when Henry and his family traveled to Manzanar to volunteer in the excavation of Merritt Park, that Henry saw the garden in person for the first time, 65 years after his father created it. Until then, Henry had only seen photographs of the garden (see New At Manzanar National Historic Site: Merritt Park Excavated).
Return to Manzanar
Henry’s family returned once again in May 2011 to continue the restoration efforts of Merritt Park by starting the reconstruction of the foot bridge.
Henry and his family, including wife Amy, son Robert, daughters Carol, Sherry, Iris, son-in-law Patrick, and family friend Brian, arrived with engineer contractor Barry Amos, before noon on Saturday May 21.
The first task was to remove the temporary bridge which was much too heavy to move, so Amos, Robert, and Patrick had to dismantle the bridge by removing each piece and carefully remove every nail.
Laying the Foundation
Amos, Robert, and Brian used an auger drill to bore four holes where the main posts of the bridge would be placed, two on each side of the bridge. The crew had to drill pretty deep in order to provide a sturdy anchor for the rest of the bridge, as each post weighed over a hundred pounds and measured about six feet tall with only two feet being exposed above ground.
Once the holes were drilled out, the crew had to lift and carefully place each post as closely as possible as they appeared in the photographs. The photographs only provide perspectives on one side of the bridge so Amos had to estimate a match on the other side.
The family returned the next morning to install two long logs as “stringers,” which were used to span the bridge providing the foundation and support for the bridge walkway.
A documentary film crew from the Japan Public Broadcasting organization NHK had arranged to film Henry and document the initial construction of the bridge. They arrived early and started with having Henry walk in a nearby meadow with the Eastern Sierras as a backdrop and then asked him a few interview questions before joining the family in preparing to move the first stringer into place.
The approach to install the first of the stringers must have been similar to what was done in 1943. The crew placed two, 4 x 4 planks across the span and placed a few logs across on the planks. The crew then hoisted one end of an 18-foot stringer on to the first “roller” and inched it across the span. The stringer had a natural curve and, therefore, a natural tendency to turn on to one side. Additionally, the logs weighed an estimated 850 pounds or more. As such, the crew had to push it across the planks a few inches at a time, constantly correcting its course, until it was positioned across the planks.
Once the stringer reached the other end, the crew had to prepare to turn the log into place. As Amos and Robert pondered some potential solutions, 93-year-old Henry jumped right in to dig out a receiver for one end of the stringer while the camera crew took the opportunity to film one of many contributions Henry made in recreating his father’s vision.
Once the first stringer was firmly in place, the family took a break while John Kepford of the National Park Service Maintenance Division went to retrieve the other log with a backhoe. During the break, the NHK crew took the opportunity to interview Robert, Patrick, Iris, Henry, and Brian on their feelings about the project, what it represented, and what it meant to them to be part of this historical milestone.
After the interview, fellow internee, 89-year-old Arthur Ogami and his wife, Kimi, were brought over by their son. The NHK crew filmed them speaking to each other about their experiences in Manzanar and about camp life. Arthur had been an orderly at the hospital and had contributed to the construction of the hospital garden, Merritt Park, and other gardens at Manzanar.
Kepford arrived with the second stringer loaded on a backhoe and suggested using a harness to secure it in place.
Now you might think this method would be faster and easier, but actually, it required a lot of thought and maneuvering, and installation turned out to be as difficult as the first stringer for different reasons. The crew had the benefit of experiencing both an old method and a modern method of installing the two stringers.
To install the second stringer held by the backhoe, Patrick and Iris had to pull on one end of the stringer to guide it and keep it from straying. At the same time, Amos and Robert had to cut the stringer in certain places, and dig out some of landing area to prepare it to fit exactly into place.
The NHK film crew took a final filming shoot with Henry pondering the bridge, and then took a group photo of the family with Burton and his wife Mary, using the bridge in the distance on the right as a background.
The restoration of Merritt Park wouldn’t be possible without the support of the descendants and extended family of Kuichiro Nishi, donations made to the Friends of Manzanar, and the time and labor contributed by Manzanar volunteers. The completion and preservation of Merritt Park and other historic landscaping and structures within the Manzanar National Historic Site greatly benefit from individual donations and contributions.
Patrick Alvarado has been part of the Nishi family for more than 25 years, and has had a strong interest in the history of Japanese Americans. In addition to his family connection to Manzanar, as a Mexican American, Alvarado feels a particularly strong connection through the story of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican American who voluntarily went to Manzanar and was incarcerated with his Japanese American friends from Belmont High School in Los Angeles.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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