The Japanese Internment Camp was just southwest of town. Since it was a weekday during the school year, there were a few buses there and school children were being led around the desolate site. Only one of the original buildings remained. The camp covered about 10,000 acres. Evidence of the structures was represented by exposed weathered concrete foundations framed by six equal square blocks with straight and narrow dirt roads which looked like a giant tic tac toe design branded on the land. Knee-high dry shrubs dotted the landscape. The common appearance of dead fallen trees littering the site combined with the aged and decayed foundations made the place feel like a graveyard. The three visitors walked slowly among the building ‘footprints’ which evoked permanent chalk-line silhouettes at a crime scene.
The school children, heading back to the buses, were walking in the opposite direction of the three visitors. As the children’s voices became more distant, the visitors only heard the sound of the fall wind along the high plain. Browned brush dotting the barren soil contributed to the site’s harshness. Mary Ellen looked across the landscape and felt its emptiness. The camp opened in August 1942 and had as many as 7,300 people. It closed in October 1945. Almost all of its occupants had been from California.
Mary Ellen sat down on a concrete foundation and closed her eyes. Gradually, the images came to her. She witnessed cruel winters and oppressive summers. The faces of the detainees showed sorrow, not pain. She shared the sorrow and the sense of betrayal with those people. She wondered if the unjust treatment of the Japanese-Americans had been based on the risk of sabotage by sympathizers to the Empire of the Rising Sun. She then reasoned it had been predicated on something more sinister and less logical. She often wondered the same about how her people had been treated.
As the scenes and the faces faded, she opened her eyes again in the bright daylight. The last of the school children had departed. She looked about fifty yards ahead to see Deborah and Louis walking away from the main dirt road towards a lone memorial site, about three hundred yards southwest from the edge of the camp.
The pair approached a small cemetery framed by low trees. Behind the cemetery was a stone monument with three white metal benches around it. There, stood a flagless aluminum flagpole. The wind caused the loose lanyard to hit the pole making a weak clanking sound like a broken bell. The cemetery existed for the burial of children. Mary Ellen followed Deborah and Louis to the monument.
The monument of rough unpolished granite was a four-sided pylon, slightly tapering to the top with a Japanese pagoda-style cap. Engraved were the names of the Japanese Americans from the Camp who had volunteered to fight in Europe during World War II. The inscription on the pylon indicated the memorial was dedicated to thirty-one Japanese-Americans who died in battle, and another one-hundred-twenty who died while being detained. During the war, second-generation men of Japanese ancestry were drafted and assembled to form the 442 Regimental Combat Team. It was the most decorated unit of its size in American military history. The two veterans and the Native American woman held hands and looked at the first names: “John, Victor, Frank, Leo, Peter, Ned, Arnold, Lloyd, Calvin, George, Robert, Harry, Bill, Joe.” Across the prairie scape, the dry brush was leafless, dormant, and silent.
“Look, there are two people with same last name on this side,” whispered Deborah out of respect.
Louis nodded. “I think there are two common last names on the other side too. Such a poignant but significant part of our country’s history. A remnant of the not so distant past where our country’s leadership fell into the darkness of fear and hatred, and because of its remoteness, few Americans will ever know about or visit this place. This was such a big mistake: an injustice to innocent people and their children. Thank you for bringing us here, Mary Ellen.”