The cool early-morning air rushed inside as I opened the door. The freshness reminded me that fall was here. Among other things, fall in Fresno means that the Big Fresno Fair is near. The food, fun, exhibits, rides and entertainment always provide a smile for adults and children.
As much as the fair has fun memories, the fairgrounds, not too long ago was not such a fun place for Japanese Americans. Thousands of Japanese Americans from the Central Valley passed through the fairgrounds in 1942 on their way to internment camps. The common number used is that 5,344 local Japanese Americans were incarcerated on those grounds for approximately five months.
Inside the Chance Avenue gate stands a memorial in remembrance of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were uprooted from their homes and imprisoned in internment camps. A total of 10 of these camps were established during World War II.
Although I had heard about these internment camps while growing up, my first full documentary I watched regarding the topic was from Valley PBS. The station aired the documentary “Silent Sacrifice,” which shared this dark chapter in our country’s history. A sign on the doors of a business shown in the documentary still haunts me. The sign said, “Japs keep out, you rats.” These harsh words were aimed towards a minority, almost all of whom were American citizens.
Watching that documentary reminded me of a story I read in the Armenian newspaper Asbarez. In 1922, a fire broke out in the city of Smyrna when Ottoman Turkish soldiers attempted to deport the Greek and Armenian populations. Seeing this, the crew of a Japanese ship, who happened to be at the port of the city doing business, dumped their cargo into sea and allowed the Greek and Armenian refugees in, taking them to Japan and into safe grounds. Four other ships at that same port, from different countries, did nothing. Countless lives were saved because of the courageous move by the ship’s captain and workers.
Wanting to see an actual memorial dedicated to the treatment of Japanese Americans, I took the scenic route after our trip to the north end of Fresno to shop for a few delicacies. I pulled into the Pinedale Assembly Center at 625 W. Alluvial Ave. I asked my sister to stay with the kids in car, as they were being rowdy after our several stops. Once they get a little older to understand, we’ll go again.
Surrounded by beautiful palm trees, I found a few wooden benches and information plaques. It was a Saturday morning, so there was not a lot of traffic on Alluvial. The peaceful sound of the water fountain, mixed with the light wind, created a calming feeling. The fountain’s description read “Fountain of Remembrance” and it was based on stone symbolizing the completion of a difficult journey.
At that moment, I realized that the spot I was standing near was once a lumber yard operated by the Sugar Pine Lumber Co. From May 7 to July 23, the location was the place where Americans of Japanese ancestry were confined. The end of the description on one of the plaques stayed with me on my drive home. It read, “May such injustice and suffering never recur.” I am hopeful that we, the greatest country in the world, remember those words and the pain caused to the Japanese Americans before taking similar action against other groups in the future.
Sevag Tateosian is host and producer of Central Valley Ledger on 90.7 FM KFSR Fresno and CMAC Comcast 93 and Att 99.