New exhibit on WWII incarceration taking shape at M.I.S. Historic Learning Center

LIVING AT TANFORAN ­— The Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center in S.F.’s Presidio now features a re-creation of a horse stall barrack based on Mine Okubo’s family stall. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The National Japanese American Historical Society recently announced the completion of a new simulated horse stall barrack at its “Dislocation and Divergence: Real Stories of E. O. 9066” permanent installation at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, located at Crissy Field in the Presidio of San Francisco.

Following the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, the American government ultimately incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of whom were American Citizens — in U.S. concentration camps. Many Issei and Nisei were imprisoned in temporary assembly centers, including those located on the grounds of the Tanforan and Santa Anita racetracks in Northern and

Southern California, respectively. The new installation at the historical society’s M.I.S. Historic Learning Center (formerly Building 640) features a recreation of a horse stall barrack from the Tanforan Assembly Center modeled after renown artist Miné Okubo’s stall during her incarceration.

Based on drawings from Okubo’s “Citizen 13660” and other historical records from the period, Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of NJAHS, said the organization recreated Okubo’s horse stall to introduce visitors to the living conditions at the racetrack. They went so far as to add drip stains on the walls to simulate horse urine. The recreation, however, is still a work in progress.

“We asked some of the Nisei and they asked, ‘Where’s the horse manure?’” Tonai said.

Tonai said she had considered asking interns to create mud pies to cake the walls, but was warned against using any organic materials in the exhibit, lest they attract rodents or insects. She said she will discuss how to move forward with the exhibit’s fabricators.

Aside from Okubo’s experience, Tonai said she also drew from Army veteran Tsuneo Gary Kadani’s memories of visiting his family at an assembly center. Kadani, who was part of the first class of Nisei service men to train at Building 640 to form the top secret Military Intelligence Service, disobeyed his superiors to drive out to Salinas to see his parents when he learned they were incarcerated at an assembly center.

“When he got there, they wouldn’t even let him in the camp. You know, here he was in full uniform and they wouldn’t let him in,” Tonai said. Kadani, however was able to meet with his parents at the fence where his mother begged him for bleach because of the terrible smell. “He went out to get the bleach, but he would tell us that was the saddest day in his life to see his parents like that.”

The exhibit features a 1940s glass Clorox bleach bottle to supplement Kadani’s story.

Along with the bleach, the exhibit also features other artifacts from the camp era, including marbles excavated from the Topaz concentration camp in Utah by Toru Saito. Tonai said Saito dug up his old collection of marbles before the site became a protected historic landmark in 2007.

Saito, 81, was 4 years old when he was incarcerated at Topaz. He excavated the marbles in 1995, 50 years after he had left the camp, he told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. He said the wooden boards of his front porch were still embedded in the ground so he knew where his barrack was.

“Something told me to dig in the lower right hand corner,” Saito said. “So I dug down about six-to-eight inches, and there were these 26 marbles that I had hidden underneath the porch.”

Saito reflected on his childhood when he uncovered the marbles.

The new exhibit “Dislocation and Divergence: Real Stories of E.O. 9066,” at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center in San Francisco. photo by Tomo Hirai / Nichi Bei Weekly

“I didn’t know the ins-and-outs of the Constitution and why we were there. I was just a kid. I had a lot of fun and we did a lot of things a 4-year-old would do,” he said. “You know, but there were no swings or slides that kids would use to play, … those were our childhood gems, you know? We were little kids. We played with marbles and that’s all we practically had to play with.”

Besides the horse stall barrack, the exhibit also features an updated map of locations where Japanese Americans were incarcerated.

“We took this opportunity to remake the map and put in a bunch of camps that they didn’t know about back then,” said Max Nihei, the collections manager for the historical society. The original map, created in 2000, did not feature the recently rediscovered citizen isolation centers on the mainland or the detention facilities located on Hawai’i. “They’re still finding more, so on the thing we wrote ‘as of June 2018.’”

Tonai said she hoped to make the exhibit engaging for children. Annually she estimated a couple thousand people visit the site through various activities and trips. The horse stall features an interactive iPad display, including an excerpt of Okubo’s “Citizen 13660,” along with historical photos from the camp era, and a computer station next to the map linked to the historical society’s collections database, the Densho Encyclopedia and Ancestry.com.

With the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program grants Tonai’s organization received, she said she hopes to add to the permanent exhibit with more exhibition materials on Executive Order 9066 itself, media that helped fuel and normalize anti-Japanese sentiments, Gen. John L. DeWitt’s orders formally initiating the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and the aftermath of the incarceration, including the Fred Korematsu coram nobis case.

The Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center is located at 640 Old Mason St. across from Crissy Field at the Presidio of San Francisco. The interpretive center is open to the public on weekends from noon to 5 p.m. General admission is $10 and free for NJAHS member and children 12 and under. The site is also open for tours with free education programs available for teachers.

For more information, visit https://www.njahs.org or call (415) 921-5007.

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