Opinion Columns & Blogs

Internment a black mark on our history

This Sunday marks the 70th anniversary of one of our country’s most shameful episodes: FDR’s signing of executive Order 9066 that led to the internment of some 120,000 West Coast American citizens of Japanese descent.

From Washington state to Arizona, if you had at least one-sixteenth Japanese in your blood and you lived within a designated distance of the coast, you were given anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months to either sell your home and furnishings or find someone who would look after your possessions.

In this county, those possessions included farms and farming equipment.

There were those county ranchers and farmers who, in an example of benevolence, held their neighbors’ land and homes in good stead. Such was the case with Oliver Talley, Pete Bachino, Ernie Vollmer, Vard Loomis and other men and women of conscience and principle who, for their efforts, suffered discrimination.

Unfortunately, it’s also true that there were those who simply took some of the finest farmland in the world. Some would sell the land back to the very individuals from whom they stole; others told returning internees, “Tough luck.”

There are still apologists who say the affected Japanese-Americans were moved into relocation camps for their own safety. Maybe, but I don’t buy it.

As it turns out, Roosevelt, sensing deterioration of Japan/U.S. relations, asked for a secret assessment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in November 1941. The investigator reported that two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans were not only American citizens born in the U.S., but were “overwhelmingly loyal” to the United States. “There is no ‘Japanese problem’ on the West Coast,” he told Roosevelt.

And then came Pearl Harbor.

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, the guy in charge of the internment program, said: “It makes no difference whether he’s an American citizen, theoretically. He is still a Japanese, and you can’t change him.”

Really? And what about those citizens of German descent who called themselves the German American Bund and openly held pro-Nazi prewar rallies, packing places like Madison Square Garden?

Were Italian-Americans singled out?

In both cases, to a lesser degree. If you were German or Italian born, and not a citizen of the U.S., you had to register with the government.

But were these two nationalities routinely rounded up as U.S. citizens and sent to relocation camps in some of the cruelest climes in the U.S.?

Some were, but generally no. In the final analysis, abridging an American citizen’s civil liberties was an act of craven racism and fear (not unlike current-day Islamophobia and abrogation of constitutional rights, such as suspension of habeas corpus, by the Patriot Act).

So they were shuttled off to thin-walled barracks in places with names such as Tule Lake, Manzanar, Topaz, Poston and Gila. With few exceptions, the camps were in high desert locales that were bitter cold in the winter and ovens in the summer.

Surrounded by barbed wire topped by guard towers with machine guns pointed inward, the one defining ingredient that most internees have recalled about these self-contained camps is the amount of wind-blown dust that would coat everything — inside and out.

The late Nami Sanbonmatsu, née Kobara, was sent to an internment camp along with her family, while her husband, Mitsuo, enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Years after Nami and her family were interned and returned home, was Mitsuo angry with the government? No. Was he angry with any neighbors who took their friends’ and families’ property?

No, and here’s how I know. Oliver Talley, Mitsuo, my father and another man, a guy who stole Japanese-American county farmland during World War II, were a regular foursome at the San Luis Obispo Country Club. And if there’s one good thing that came out of that shameful episode in American history, it’s that the friendship of these four men says volumes about the power of friendship, if not the healing supremacy of forgiveness.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.