By T.W. Burger
The little paper cranes were everywhere. Some were laid carefully on the graves, others tied by brightly colored bits of yarn to the barbed wire fencing. They fluttered in the wind of this California desert, festive in spite of the concentration camp setting.
In Japan, the crane symbolizes the wish for a long and happy life, or a wish for good fortune. If someone is ill, the children in the family of that person will make one thousand origami cranes and present them to the sick person.
I was there sometime in the late 1990s.
Yesterday, the headline on my computer screen took me back.
“16 House Republicans vote against bill to promote education on internment camps,” it said.
On March 16, The Hill reported the vote on a bill to create a National Park Service history network to “connect historical sites associated with the mass internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor launched by Japan's military,” The Hill stated.
In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive orders authorizing the detention of 70,000 US citizens of Japanese descent and 42,000 Japanese resident aliens. They went to camps like Manzanar with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were mostly farmers, fishermen, old women, children.
There was no evidence of Japanese American espionage before or during World War II, yet the FBI and the military had been compiling lists of Japanese Americans since 1932, after Japan’s invasion of China.
Most on the list were teachers, businesspeople, and journalists. Even with all those doubtful inclusions, the list totaled only about 2,000 names out of a community of nearly 130,000, more than 60 percent of whom were born in the US.
So much for the Constitution.
Some non-Japanese Americans questioned the constitutionality of the government's actions. But the general in charge said: "A Jap is a Jap," and that was that.
The current good news is that the bipartisan House bill passed H.R. 6434 with a margin of 406-16. All the no votes came from the GOP, including several members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
The Republicans who registered their opposition were Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Michael Cloud (Texas), Louie Gohmert (Texas), Bob Good (Va.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Andy Harris (Md.), Clay Higgins (La.), Trey Hollingsworth (Ind.), Doug LaMalfa (Calif.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), Mary Miller (Ill.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Matt Rosendale (Mont.), Chip Roy (Texas) and Van Taylor (Texas), according to The Hill.
Too many want to make our past seem squeaky clean, a miracle from Heaven, ordained by God himself.
Phooey. All human achievements – and failures, for that matter – are DIY projects, with uneven joints, leaky roofs, and angles that go awry.
Manzanar was and is one of those uneven joints.
It is no secret that We The (White, Christian) People have historically done a lousy job of dealing with groups other than our own, and an equally bad job of relating those histories and learning from them.
There is not a nation on Earth that has a clean past.
As I stood at the little grave, smoke from nearby wildfires smeared the clarity of the desert air. The constant wind abated the 100-degree heat but filled the air with dust and bits of dried sagebrush.
Manzanar is a place of great shame. The shame was ours, and still is.
The child's grave at my feet was the only one with a real headstone. On the mound of sand lay a tennis ball, a baby blanket, a few bright tiny toys, two hearts twisted out of rusty barbed wire, nickels, and pennies. The pennies, I saw, had holes cut in the center in the shape of an angel. The obliteration of Lincoln's face seemed fitting, since what happened there is so contrary to what we like to think Lincoln stood for.
The wind kicked up. I tried to keep the blowing sand out of my camera.
There were instances of German espionage agents working and performing sabotage on the east and the west coasts of the US at that time. There was no attempt to round up Americans of German descent. But rabid racism boiled up in the days after Pearl Harbor, and hate, then and now, was not to be denied.
Manzanar housed 10,000 people in hundreds of barracks, each divided into six one-room apartments, with little shelter from the heat of summer or from the winter storms, or from the relentless sand.
Each block of ninety apartments shared bath, latrine, and mess buildings. The sewer systems rarely worked properly, and the camps routinely reeked.
The little paper cranes seemed to be everywhere. I wondered how many had blown away across the desert floor. I wondered how many there were in the beginning. There had to have been thousands. There were not enough.
I knelt at the little grave with the stone marker. "Baby Jerry Ogata," it said in English. The grave was four feet long.
"I am so very sorry," I say. The wind whipped my words away. In the sand next to the pennies with the angels cut into them I placed a penny of my own, with the face of Lincoln facing skyward. I did so with no particular hope in mind.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.
He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose."