Last Witnesses

In a collection of essays titled Last Witnesses, Japanese Americans were asked to recall the World War II past for present-day readers. Each generation, the book's editor writes, “must find its own way into this painful chapter of our history, one that has yet to be closed.” Published in 2001, some 60 years after the forced, mass removal and confinement, the collection contains writings by Japanese Americans who were asked to remember the past for future generations as the last remaining witnesses to the events that changed forever the lives of some 120,000 people. The book's editor writes in her introduction: “We witnesses and writers make an implicit compact with the young: you will read our stories and hear our voices—but not in silence. If the history of the incarceration is to influence the future, you must constantly renew its stories with dialogue, reflection, active engagement with the issues, and conscience. Only by honoring this trust will you succeed in making the event outlive its witnesses and outwit the eternal return of myth.”

[Sue Kunitomi Embrey was a pivotal figure in the historic, Manzanar pilgrimage. She was the daughter of Gonhichi and Komika Kunitomi, and grew up in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Embrey recalled life in Little Tokyo during the 1920s. “It was a segregated Asian ghetto of poor working people, small businesses, churches, temples, and Japanese language schools. It was a tightly knit community in which life was always busy, and cultural activities filled the evenings and weekends of those who longed for their homeland. For the young people growing up in Little Tokyo, there was a sense of strength and protection from a hostile world.” Embrey graduated from Lincoln High School shortly before the war, and following Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, and the mass removals of that summer, Embrey and her family were sent to Santa Anita assembly center and then, to Manzanar concentration camp. There, Embrey witnessed the Manzanar riot of December 1942, and she wrote for the Manzanar Free Press, a camp newspaper begun by nisei. Embrey received clearance to attend nursing school in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1943 with sponsorship from the YWCA but could not attend the University of Wisconsin because the institution was not open to nisei students. The following year, Embrey moved to Chicago where she found a job at the Newberry Library through the American Friends Service Committee. Embrey worked at the library until 1948, after the war, when she returned to Los Angeles to live with her mother. There she met and married Garland Monroe Ember, attended college, and received her master's degree from the University of Southern California. As an older, returning student, Embrey got involved in student activism and the fight for Asian American studies and justice for Asian Americans. Her concentration camp experience proved valuable in that demand for civil rights. Embrey joined the repeal campaign of Title II of the Internal Security Act (1950), which authorized the attorney general to put dissidents into concentration camps, and she worked on having Manzanar concentration camp declared a state historical landmark. It was under those banners that Embrey and others organized the first Manzanar pilgrimage.]

It was a cold and windy December day in 1969 when several hundred of us huddled together against the biting wind at the site of Manzanar to commemorate

the human tragedy that had played out on the desert floor of the Owens Valley more than twenty-seven years earlier. The event, the first of what were to become annual pilgrimages to the camp's site, was meant to publicize the beginning of a campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security (McCarran) Act of 1950. Under Title II, the president was empowered to exclude and detain anyone considered a threat to national security. It was appropriate that survivors of the camps be in the forefront of the campaign to repeal a law that would threaten the civil liberties of all Americans.

The Manzanar Committee celebrated our thirtieth anniversary pilgrimage in April 1998. At our request, each camp reunion and pilgrimage group raised a banner of its own creation in a roll call held before the interfaith religious services. It was a fitting memorial on the eve of the millennium.

My narrative ends here, but my journey continues. In the more than three decades of my involvement with Manzanar and my other community activities, I have reaped benefits I never expected. I have met extraordinary ordinary people and participated in wondrous events while traveling across America. Numerous individuals also involved with the preservation of Japanese American history have been my friends and mentors. I have been recognized for my support of working men and women and was one of thirty-five White House delegates to the United Nation[s] Mid-Decade Conference on Women, held in Copenhagen in 1980. During President Jimmy Carter's term in office, I was invited to a breakfast at the White House.

It has been a long journey of hard work, patience, and endurance, but it has also been one of fun and companionship. As I meet earnest young men and women who feel strongly about our nation and the ideals on which it was founded, I am optimistic about our future. With the vision of these young people, human and civil rights are being strengthened for future generations so that all Americans can share equally in the bounties of our country.

Source: Harth, Erica (Ed.). Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 14, 15, 168, 177, 184. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.