Internment still a taboo topic

They are lined up like schoolchildren on picture day. The women are vintage-photo pretty in skirts, blouses and 1940s hairstyles. The men sport white shirts, and some wear neckties. No one looks trapped. No one looks angry.

The photograph was taken at Minidoka in southern Idaho, one of 10 internment camps built in the United States after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were detained in camps after being forced to leave their homes and sell property at huge losses. President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was fueled by fears that Japanese-Americans might commit treasonous acts during World War II.

Mae Tomita has no pictures like the 1943 image archived in the University of Washington Libraries’ special collections. She has no mementos of life in tar-paper barracks, behind barbed wire and under armed guard.

She has memories, but even those have faded.

At 79, Tomita lives in the present. She goes bowling. She likes to read and is a fan of romance novelist Danielle Steele. On a chilly afternoon last week, she served tea and stoked the fire in the Snohomish-area home she shares with her grown daughter, Kathryn Watanabe.

"A lot of people my age are still mad, they’re bitter. It’s all over, forget about it. I have," she said of her camp experience. Pressed for details, she’ll revisit the past.

"My family was living in Oregon," Tomita recalled. "I was 19 or 20, through school and working in Portland. My dad was a truck gardener.

"My folks had been renting land. They had a cow, a horse, a truck. They had to practically give it all away," she said.

Before being shipped by train to Idaho, her family spent months at a temporary center at Portland’s Pacific International Livestock Exposition. Nearly 60 years later, she can’t shake its odor. "They had whitewashed it, but when it rained, you could smell the animals."

With the resilience of youth, she said, "I guess we just took it. We took it with a grain of salt.

"Our folks didn’t talk about it," Tomita added. "I thought it was kind of terrible they put us in there. I had never even been to Japan."

While Tomita doesn’t dwell on the past, she’ll tune in to "Conscience and the Constitution," an hourlong documentary airing at 10 tonight on KCTS, Channel 9. (It will be repeated at 3:30 a.m. Dec. 18.)

Written and directed by former TV news reporter Frank Abe of Seattle, the film tells the story of the largest organized resistance to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, a history lesson left out of textbooks.

In 1944, 85 men interned at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming refused the draft. The resisters weren’t willing to fight for their country unless the U.S. government restored their rights as citizens and freed their families.

The government prosecuted them, and their stance caused a painful split in the Japanese-American community as the resisters were ostracized as traitors.

As this civil disobedience played out in courts, some 26,000 Japanese-Americans saw wartime action in Europe and the Pacific in the segregated and highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Tomita’s ex-husband, Stanley Watanabe, was among those who served in the military.

"Young boys wanted to go serve to prove they were Americans," Tomita said. "A lot did go. And a lot didn’t come back."

Most Americans might guess that the largest draft-resistance trial in U.S. history was related to the Vietnam War. "Conscience and the Constitution" is an enlightening look at a previous generation’s resistance, and an action considered cowardly by some but courageous by others.

Sixty-three went on trial for draft evasion. They were sentenced to three years in federal prison; half were sent to Leavenworth, Kan., and the rest to McNeil Island in Washington. Later, 22 more internees resisted.

On Christmas Day 1947, President Harry Truman pardoned the draft resisters. And in 1988, the U.S. government apologized and awarded Japanese-American internees $20,000 each.

Abe, whose father was at Heart Mountain, said his film is about two responses to injustice: "collaboration or resistance."

War’s end didn’t heal all the hurt. In her cozy living room, Tomita said the worst time came after she left Minidoka.

"After the war, my husband and I would go out to eat, and we never could get waited on. One girl had the guts to tell us they didn’t serve our kind of people.

"I was hurt," Tomita said, the fury still fresh in her voice. "I was mad."

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