The San Francisco Presidio Trust opened “Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration,” April 1 inside the Presidio Officers’ Club. The museum exhibit commemorates the 75th year since the U.S. military issued 108 exclusion orders leading to the forced incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.
The year-long exhibit opened at 50 Moraga Ave. on the Presidio’s Main Post, with special events and a panel discussion on the factors leading up to the wartime incarceration.
While the wartime experience of Japanese Americans has been told before, the Presidio’s latest exhibit delves into the former military base’s unique role within it. In March of 1942, about a month after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt began signing a total of 108 exclusion orders from his corner office located in Building 35 at the Presidio’s Main Post. Each of his orders designated an area containing about 1,000 people of Japanese descent to be forcibly removed from their homes and businesses, starting with Bainbridge Island in Washington state March 24, 1942.
“Exclusion” opened April 1, the 75th anniversary of the fifth exclusion order, which affected the Presidio itself.
The exhibit displays a copy of the fifth order stapled on a telephone pole the Presidio Trust installed in its museum.
“This is one of the first elements of the exhibit that a visitor will see in the hallway outside of the gallery itself,” said Eric Blind, director of heritage programs and sites at the Presidio Trust. “It’s kind of like an immersive experience … to give people a sense of what this would have felt like if you woke up for work one day, walked out and you saw this on a telephone pole in your neighborhood. What would you have felt if you were Japanese American? What would you have felt if you weren’t?”
Inside, the exhibit features the factors that led to the signing of Executive Order 9066 as well as DeWitt’s exclusion orders, including aspects of “fake news” that affected the public’s perception and the legal and military arguments the government made to justify the incarceration. All the exhibits are centered around a wooden desk meant to evoke the power exercised by Roosevelt and DeWitt.
“What happened to DeWitt’s desk is kind of lost to history, but this is kind of a period replica that would … give people that sense that it is an individual, a series of individuals that made these choices,” Blind said.
A glass wall, with the map of the United States etched in, depicts the various assembly centers, War Relocation Authority concentration camps and the Department of Justice camps used to incarcerate Nikkei during the war. It looks out to another frosted glass window depicting the some 109,000 names of former wartime inmates, which are organized by the camp they were first incarcerated in when incarceration began.
While the exhibit was put together by the Presidio Trust, the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and the National Japanese American Historical Society — both tenants within the Presidio — advised and shared materials for the exhibit.
“Because they really wanted the public to explore all facets of the decision, I was very adamant to make sure (the exhibit) said it was wrong and start from there,” Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the historical society, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “You don’t argue that slavery was justified. What happened was wrong. Start from there and peel off the layers and investigate what happened and why.”
Alongside “Exclusion,” the historical society is holding its own exhibition of “Children of the Camps” at its location at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center at 640 Old Mason Street on Crissy Field of the Presidio. “We tell the story from the perspective of the people who lived it. We wanted to make sure that, that story and those images … reveal the emotions at the time too,” Tonai said.
Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Korematsu Institute, also said she and her staff helped advise the Presidio on the exhibit. “The Presidio asked us to be a consultant. We had to make sure it was historically correct and use the word ‘incarceration,’” Korematsu said.
Korematsu said she wanted her organization to be based in the Presidio, noting that her father had once been held at the former military base after his arrest. She said she has loaned the Presidio an award given to her father by the California state Senate as well as his pipe, both of which are currently on display.
Also featured at the Officers’ Club is Judy Shintani’s “Pledge of Allegiance,” an American flag made from scraps of wood taken from the remains of a barrack originally from the Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camp. Shintani said she collected the wood from a farmer who owned the barrack when he offered to give away pieces to those who were formerly incarcerated during the war before he burned and discarded it. According to the Presidio, the wooden flag will be on display through Sept. 27 then traded out for Shintani’s other work the “Deconstructed Kimono” from Sept. 28 through March 27, 2018.
The Empty Office
While not officially part of the exhibit itself, the Presidio Trust also opened up DeWitt’s office to several dozen people on the opening day. Located further down the Main Post in Building 35, the infamous office is now part of the Bay School of San Francisco, a private high school. According to Barbara Berglund, historian at the Presidio Trust, the second floor corner office is kept empty as part of the leasing agreement to the school.
About a dozen visitors, including Jane Katsuyama, who was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz. as a toddler, filled the room.
“You just wondered, what kind of person could be sitting there. What his thoughts were, that he could sit there and make an order that would obviously impart such hardship on so many people,” Katsuyama told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Well you know, the thing about that room, it’s interesting they didn’t have any furniture in it or any papers. Because it was so devoid of any sense of humanity.”
Berglund said the room, while preserved for the Presidio to use, is located inside a high school and not easily made accessible to the general public. The room is open to visitors a few times a year, though she hopes the new exhibit will help fuel more regular tours in the future.
James Osborne, interpretive ranger at the Presidio, also said the office faces some challenges in becoming furnished. “We don’t have a floor plan the way DeWitt had it, everything is speculation,” he said. “I’m not sure if I would be an advocate of refurnishing it. You’ll then have to hold it to 10 people (in the room). We had 30 in there just now and it was a good thing it was empty because it was pretty tight.”
The opening day panel, entitled “Perspectives on World War II Japanese American Incarceration,” featured Dr. Stephen Payne, command historian at the Presidio of Monterey’s Defense Language Institute and Foreign Language Center; Donald Tamaki, an attorney who represented Fred Korematsu during his reopened U.S. Supreme Court case in the 1980s; and Richard Reeves, author of “Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II.” The panelists approached the incarceration through the lens of the military, the law and press, respectively.
“Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration” will run through March 2018 at the Presidio Officers’ Club and feature more related programs throughout the year. The Presidio Officer’s Club is open Tuesdays to Sundays 10 a.m. To 6 p.m. and is located 50 Moraga Ave., on the Presidio’s Main Post. Admission is free. For more information call (415) 561-4400, e-mail Heritage@presidiotrust.gov or visit www.presidio.gov/exclusion.