Merced Assembly Center Memorial to be dedicated Feb. 20

Organizers said the public is invited to the dedication of the Merced Assembly Center Memorial at the Merced County Fairgrounds at 3 p.m. Feb. 20.

The words "To Remember Is to Honor" will be written on top of the Wall of Names when the memorial is unveiled. Beneath the words will be six plaques, listing as many names of former internees as organizers could find.

In 1942, according to organizers of the memorial, 4,669 people of Japanese ancestry were interned for the duration of World War II. Their journey began at the Merced Assembly Center.

"This monument pays tribute to those who endured the internment experience and then came back to carve their niche in their communities," Bob Taniguchi, one of the organizers, said in a news release.

About 150 former Merced Assembly Center internees will be at the dedication and will be honored.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It called for the removal of West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry. The Merced Assembly Center was operated by the Wartime Civil Control Administration. The site was where local people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned from May through September 1942.

Research by Lindsay Davis in old editions of the Merced Sun-Star revealed that the construction began March 26, 1942, according to the organizers' news release.

It took 11 days to complete the construction of the barracks and community buildings. More than 1,000 men, including students from Merced High School, erected more than 250 buildings. The work of the Merced community in the building of the assembly center was viewed as "wholehearted cooperation given the United States by the citizens and authorities of Merced County," according to the Sun-Star.

The Japanese Americans imprisoned at the center came from Merced, Livingston, Turlock, Cortez and from Northern California communities, including Sebastopol, Yuba City, Yolo, Walnut Grove, Colusa, Winters, Modesto, Woodland, Santa Rosa, Chico, Marin and Courtland. About 1,000 of the prisoners were school-aged children, the news release said.

The Merced Assembly Center detainees were shipped to Granada, Colo., where many stayed for up to three years in Amache, one of the 10 more permanent "relocation centers" built for the confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II.

While their families were imprisoned, numerous young men enlisted or were drafted into the U.S. military.

After the war, Japanese Americans became integral components of many communities. In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized for the unconstitutional imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans and granted them redress.

In the spring of 2008, Rep. Dennis Cardoza asked the Livingston-Merced and Cortez chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League to work on a monument to commemorate the 4,669 detainees of Japanese ancestry who spent their summer of 1942 at the Merced Assembly Center.

A documentary recording the work of the committee formed to do that, as well as stories of internees, the education of teachers and the building of the memorial is being completed.

Members of the Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee include Taniguchi, Marlene Tanioka, Jeanette Ishii, Grace Kimoto, Sherman Kishi Thais Kishi, Lucy Okuye, Ed Nakade, Janet Fujimoto, Tom Nakashima, Adrienne Iwata, Ernie Yoshino and Patti Kishi.

Members of the Merced Assembly Center Advisory Committee include Cardoza, Kathleen Galgiani, Ben Duran, Steve Kang, Robert Haden, Lee Andersen, Mike Gallo, Jonas Vangay, Ida Johnson, Sarah Lim, Deidre Kelsey, John Kirihara, Jan Mendenhall and Jim Cunningham.

The Merced County Fair Board consists of Cunningham, Shannon Picciano, Barbara Matheron, Carol Sartori-Silva, Gary Carlson, Bert Crane, Mark Erreca Jaime Farao, Deborah Lewis.

"The past was the unjust interment of these innocent people," Taniguchi added in the news release. "The present is to commemorate this event, and the future is to educate."

That will be the theme of five storyboards that surround a suitcase sculpture. The suitcases represent transience. The young girl sitting on top of them adds the human element.

"We should all vow to protect the rights of all Americans regardless of race and religion," Taniguchi said.

The Merced Fairgrounds is located at 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Merced. For more information, contact Janet Fujimoto at (209) 723-8588.