A Little Research, Writing Helps Open A Pathway To A Family’s Manzanar History
May 18, 2016 9 Comments
by Susan Muto Knight
Former Manzanar incarcerees, Takio (Tak) and Masako (Ma) Muto and other Muto family members were among the over 11,070 incarcerated Japanese Americans, government ordered, to leave their homes and businesses behind in the spring of 1942, to live in an isolated location in the Owens Valley of California, between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains, called Manzanar, during World War II. Their civil rights were taken from them, even though Tak and Ma were born in California and loyal, productive American citizens. Their joyful future plans as newlyweds were also taken away and instead, Tak and Ma found themselves incarcerated in a strange barren, desert camp, surrounded by armed guards, barbed wire fences and guard towers with searchlights, ordered to live in the hastily built, wooden barracks with little to no privacy and very little protection from the harsh weather conditions. The sign on the entrance calls Manzanar a relocation camp but in reality it was a concentration camp environment. Their story is one of the many thousands of stories of those who endured Manzanar, a dark chapter in American History.
The country was fueled by fear and hatred against all people of Japanese ancestry, whether or not they were American citizens, like my parents, because our country was at war with Japan. Newspapers, movies, magazines, as well as the government, all took part in demonizing the Japanese people and in turn, made the incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent possible.
It is of great note to know that not one case of espionage was ever found to be true among any Japanese Americans, according to official government records.
My Dad was from a large family, one of nine children, and his family was scattered in various camps throughout the country. At Manzanar Dad’s family included his parents, one brother and three sisters. Two of my uncles were not incarcerated—my Uncle Sam, who was a graduate from the University of California, Davis, and was doing research work in Utah, and my Uncle George, who was in the United States Military, stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. George was not incarcerated because of his military post, but how ironic that he was a U.S. soldier and at the same time, his family was incarcerated at Manzanar.
My Mom’s family, her parents and one brother, were sent to Granada, the camp in Colorado. So, Mom was separated from her family through the entire war years.
My parents seldom talked about Manzanar with their children, my sister Carole, brother Kurtis, sister Donna, and myself. Like so many from the camps, they felt the pressure of a society that had silenced them. However, they would occasionally talk about bits and pieces of their experiences to the family, such as the lovely gardens Dad and his father, my grandfather, created in Manzanar.
Overall, us kids sensed, through their unspoken feelings, that their experiences at Manzanar were things not to talk about openly to others. But through the years, I would keep Manzanar in my mind as a family secret but at the same time, I would read books, attend lectures and watch movies about Manzanar as a way to educate myself. It was a topic that brought sadness to my parents to talk about and so I avoided asking them too many questions about that painful time in their lives.
Both my parents have passed away, my Dad in 2001, and Mom in 2013. But something remarkable happened and I felt it worth sharing. After so many years have passed, I recently found a wealth of Manzanar family history on my Dad, Mom and grandfather. The newly revealed insight into their struggles and their remarkable accomplishments has astonished me.
The recent path of discovery of our family history began right here on the Manzanar Committee’s blog. The chain of events began when I stumbled across an article on this blog last fall, while researching my father’s name to assist a local historic site in recognizing his accomplishments as President of the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce in the 1960’s. The press release entitled, New At Manzanar National Historic Site: Bridging Generations, named my father as one of the co-creators of Merritt Park, along with Kuichiro Nishi. I was amazed by this discovery and immediately shared the news with the rest of my family.
I contacted the Manzanar Committee and their blog editor, Gann Matsuda, was instrumental in helping me post a story about my parents (see An American Family’s Story Through The Manzanar Years). He also connected me with archeologist Jeff Burton of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Jeff has been leading much of the work at the site in recovering and restoring many of the artifacts of former Manzanar incarcerees, which includes my Dad’s and grandfather’s gardens and stone work, and working with the Nishi family to recreate the Merritt Park garden.
I relayed the information regarding Merritt Park and the Nishi family project that recreated the garden to the rest of my family. My niece, Michelle Warth, and her family, traveled to Manzanar to meet with Jeff and they also met with park rangers, Mark Hachtmann and Alisa Lynch. In December 2015, within weeks of hearing this news. My niece stated: “We were given a very warm welcome by all and an extremely generous, thoughtful, personal tour of my grandfather’s and my great grandfather’s gardens and both of their former barrack grounds, as well, and a touching tour of Merritt Park by Manzanar staff member David Goto.”
Mark Hachtmann provided Michelle with information on how relatives can obtain copies from the U.S. National Archives in Washington D.C.—files of their family members who were incarcerated. These government wartime files were kept on each Japanese American that was incarcerated during the war.
Michelle took the initiative to order and purchase Dad’s war file and has shared them with me. We were taken aback by the lengthy file kept on my Dad, over 150 pages which include many handwritten letters Dad wrote to Ralph Merritt and Mr. Merritt’s letters in response to my Dad. The file also contains many basic forms and questionnaires that each incarceree had to answer regarding any links or activities related to Japan. Neither Dad or Mom had ever been to Japan and no links were found in Dad’s file.
The handwritten letters my Dad wrote to Ralph Merritt and others in his war file were very insightful into his struggle to help and protect his family. Dad was trying to help my grandfather from losing his 20-acre flower farm in the San Fernando Valley. Due to their incarceration, the farmland stood idle and eventually ten acres of the farm was lost by the time they were allowed to return home. Dad’s letters were well written, professional and polite, but as the correspondence continued between Dad and Mr. Merritt, we could see the frustration building in Dad’s words. At one point, Dad wrote that he was going to hold the government liable for their loss of the family’s property. Mr. Merritt responded and asked what Dad meant by “holding the government liable.”
One of the pages in Dad’s file displayed a shipment record for personal property sent in boxes that contained family household items that Dad and grandpa tried to ship to Manzanar. The comments on the shipment list by the receiving station noted that each box had been opened and its contents were noted as scarred and marred. That brought back a sad memory for me since I recall long ago Dad talking about some boxes that they shipped to camp that arrived with all their items smashed and broken.
In Dad’s war file, he also spoke about the hardship they encountered working on a potato farm in Idaho. This work outside camp allowed Mom and Dad, along with their newborn baby who was born in Manzanar, my sister Carole, to leave Manzanar in June 1943. The Idaho farm experience is another one of the few memories Mom and Dad talked about with us kids in later years. Apparently, the family that owned the farm they worked at shocked my parents when showing them the living accommodations they provided to Dad and my Mom, who was expecting their second child and their baby girl, my sister. Their living quarters would be one of the farm’s pigpens, literally, and it would remain their only housing while my parents worked hard labor on the potato farm while they were on work leave from Manzanar. My Mom would eventually give birth to her second child, my brother Kurtis, under these harsh conditions.
While visiting the Manzanar National Historic Site for the annual Pilgrimage this April, with my family, I took a photo of my parent’s front barrack entrance (see above) which Jeff Burton, pointed out to me, and to my niece, Michelle, during her previous visit to the site. Jeff, and others at the Manzanar site, take great care in preserving such artifacts of former Manzanar incarcerees. It amazed me that so much of my father’s and grandfather’s rock and cement landscaping still remains after all these years due to the work of the skilled cultural resource team at the site. A cement path my father made while incarcerated remains around the border of where my parents’ barrack once stood. The cement is very thin and shows Dad must have been able to order only a very scarce amount of materials while living within Manzanar.
Inscribed in the cement border my Dad made around his barrack is the date, 4/15/43. Government records show that was the date my Dad and Mom were issued an “authorized release” from Manzanar. My Dad’s war file shows the date of their “release clearance” was June 7, 1943, the day they headed to Idaho to work on the potato farm. My father must have been so excited over the news of their approved April 15 authorized release date that it inspired Dad to pour some left over cement to write the date at the entrance of their barrack.
On my recent visit to Manzanar, I reflected on the thought that Dad and Mom were incarcerated at this very piece of land that I stood on for the first time. I thought my Dad’s inscription was his way of saying, “yes, we were here.”
The Manzanar site has also taken great care to reconstruct, with the original stones, and preserve the stone lantern my grandfather, Kiichiro Muto, created by his barrack, circa 1943.
Jeff provided me with contact information to reach the Nishi family and I have since exchanged letters of appreciation with the family and have learned more about their extraordinary story.
In the end, learning all these new insights into the experiences of my Dad, Mom, grandfather and family at Manzanar has had a profound affect on me. It has brought an even greater appreciation and understanding than before of their legacy at Manzanar, and the sacrifices they made for their family and future generations. It also inspired me to want to share their story with others in the hope it can contribute to greater public awareness of the history of Manzanar and how it affected the lives of so many incarcerated Americans, like my family, whose lives would be changed forever.
Thank you Manzanar Committee and the Manzanar National Historic Site for remembering my family and all the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and endured the Manzanar years.
Artist/illustrator Susan Muto Knight, the youngest of the Muto’s four children, is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Knight, who made her first trip to Manzanar during the 47th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, 2016, writes from Carlsbad, California.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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