Dark time in American history: Gila River Internment Camp exhibit

On Fred Korematsu Day (January 30, 2020), my husband and I visited the Chandler Museum in Chandler, AZ (300 S. Chandler Village Dr.) and viewed the solemn exhibit “Gaman: Enduring Japanese American internment at Gila River“:
Gila River Internment Camp, photo taken by Frank Fujii, from Chandler Museum website
This camp was one of two WWII internment camps in Arizona, caused by E.O. 9066 signed on Feb. 19, 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt, which forcibly removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from California/Oregon/Washington and part of Arizona into 10 large “relocation camps” in America. The other Arizona camp was at Poston, north of Lake Havasu, also in the desert.  2/3 of the internees were US Citizens, the rest were legal permanent residents, and 1/4 were children.
The Gaman exhibit visually shows the dreary life in the desert camp, with make-shift furniture and poor living conditions, along with memorabilia from the camps (including art work done by the internees), and video interviews of some of the internees. Particularly moving is the long wall with the names of the 16,655 internees who were forced to live there between 1942 and 1945, until WWII ended.
photo courtesy of Tiffani Egnor, Education Coordinator at Chandler Museum
Close up of the wall of internee names, photo courtesy of Tiffani Egnor
I was able to locate the names of two Gila River internees I personally met after WWII, as they were the Nisei (2nd generation) fathers of Sansei (3rd generation) friends of mine:
Larry Iwami of Hilo, Hawaii and Dr. Robert Omata of Millersville, Md.  They didn’t speak much of the internment experience, except to tell me it was a dark time for them, an injustice.  Mr. Iwami told me they even had to build their own swamp coolers to endure the hot desert experience at Gila River in Arizona.
“Gaman: enduring the seemingly impossible with patience and dignity” is what greets the visitor at this camp exhibit as you walk in. Japanese Americans used to say “shikata ga nai”–it can not be helped – when talking about this internment by the US government on US soil. That was quiet acceptance and gaman of this camp destiny.
I played a role in this Redress Movement as a Sansei attorney, by being US Senator Dan Inouye’s Legislative Aide, at his Capitol Hill office, who pushed through the legislation to create the National Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (the name which I created one day, while working with some staff interns). This Commission investigated this “grave injustice” in the early 1980’s, leading to the reparation of $20,000 per internee in 1988.  Seeing the Commission mentioned on the wall of this exhibit, gave me shivers of my own gaman experience in D.C. facing racism and nay-sayers, who tried to get me fired and stop this legislation from passing.
Visit this exhibit (closing on April 19, 2020) and learn about this civil rights tragedy in American history, right here in Arizona.  Many internees were “broken” people after the internment, but most thankfully survived and succeeded.
Not many Arizonans know where the Gila River Japanese American Internment camp was (near Exit 175 on the I-10) on the Gila River Indian Reservation, south of Phoenix. I have been there 3 times with the Southern AZ Japanese Cultural Coalition, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) which hosts Gila River Monument Clean ups & memorial visits twice a year.  There is a large white monument with pillars, on a butte above the camp site, with a smaller monument with a plaque. Next monument clean up will be on March 28, 2020. Check for details on the
JACL Arizona website: http://www.jaclaz.org/.
Our Southern Arizona Japanese Cultural Coalition, of which I have been the Editor for 7 years, gets inquiries from camp descendants about how to visit (permission is required from the Gila River Indian Reservation) or the date of the next Monument clean up.  Our website, www.southernazjapa.org.
Learn from this Chandler Museum exhibit, so that we don’t repeat this discriminatory history towards a group of innocent, minority Americans.  The Japanese Americans during WWII were given inadequate notices to evacuate, and never given any trials or found guilty of any crime, prior to or after being relocated and interned.
Postscript:  My Nisei father Francis Sueo Sugiyama (a US Citizen from Hawaii) was expelled from USC Dental School after the Pearl Harbor attack (due to his ethnicity). In 1942 he was one of the 500 “lucky” ones who got a “voluntary pass” signed by Western Defense Command General John DeWitt and fled Los Angeles to Chicago, before the massive camp round up. He worked & took classes in Chicago and eventually got re-admitted to Dental School at the U of Maryland in Baltimore (1946 graduate).  And he spoke of this injustice to me as a teenager.
And my UA professor husband Albrecht Classen, being a Native German who lectures on the Nazi Holocaust and the Berlin Wall, wrote this poem after visiting this exhibit:


 The suffering

of the Japanese-Americans

from 1942 to 1945

has been inscribed

in five and seven and five syllables.

Just as in Auschwitz

the name tags

more than one hundred thousand times

lie in front of our eyes.

The shamefulness


against our fellow citizens

sings in the verses

five, seven, five.

Do not forget them.

Showing tonight on Feb. 19, 2020 (77th anniversary of the signing of E.O. 9066 by US President Franklin Roosevelt) at the UA Campus Student Union Memorial Center, Kachina Lounge, a recent documentary on the Japanese American Internment camp experience
“And Then They Came for Us”. Free admission, with discussion afterwards of which I will be a participant.  6 to 8 p.m. sponsored by UA Asian Pacific American Student Affairs (APASA) office and their Community Council (on which I have been a member for 3 years).

Finally, I just received notification that a haiku I wrote has won Outstanding Haiku at the upcoming annual Arizona Matsuri (festival) in Phoenix on Feb. 22 and 23. It will be on display at the Haiku Booth:

“Strong Issei people

Jailed in camps in the desert

Shikata ga nai.”

(Issei are first generation Japanese Americans, the immigrants from Japan.  Shikata ga nai translates to “It cannot be helped”.)

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1 thought on “Dark time in American history: Gila River Internment Camp exhibit”

  1. About 50 students/staff/faculty/community members at this film showing and post discussion. Always difficult to see this film relating the injustice done to my people, esp. star George Takei who faced discrimination after camp as well. Discussion afterwards was wide-ranging with comments about the racist detention going on now to migrants, whether it’s safe to register your race with US Government, life in the camps, what it meant to join the 442nd/100th battalion with families in the internment camps. I mentioned the permanent exhibit at Japanese Am National Museum in LA as well as the Chandler Museum one. Question about the distribution of this film (someone saw it on PBS). Mention about Gordon Hirabayashi recreation site up on Mt. Lemmon, with info at Special Collections library. Descendants of internees at Jerome Arkansas and Gila River were present and spoke of their ancestors. Upcoming Tsuru for Solidarity event was promoted as well, see Upcoming Events for Feb. 21.

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