Behind a temporary plywood wall at the Merced County Fairgrounds on Friday afternoon, volunteers touched up paint, scraped concrete clean and laid out 1,000 intricately folded paper cranes -- a symbol of longevity, fidelity and healing.
Many of the workers were Sansei, or third-generation Japanese-Americans. They were putting the final touches on a monument to memorialize the plight of their parents, grandparents, and some of their older peers, during World War II.
For one fateful summer in 1942, 4,669 Japanese- Americans crowded onto the Merced County Fairgrounds. They lived in shoddy barracks with little privacy. They owned only what they could carry.
The United States forcibly interned more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast during World War II.
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More than 250 buildings were set up at the fairgrounds for the internment camp here. 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, according to a news release from the organizing committee.
Those detained in Merced were held for three months at the fairgrounds before the government transported them to a larger relocation center in Colorado, where many stayed for the entire war.
Until recently, the only marker of Merced's role in the internment story is a small plaque, installed at the fairgrounds in the 1970s.
Lucy Kishi Okuye, 79, lived in the camp as a young girl. "I think it's wonderful. Just how I pictured it, beautiful," Kishi Okuye said of the memorial. "When people come to see it, I hope they will remember what happened and never let it happen again."
The monument, yet to be seen fully by the public, will be unveiled this afternoon at a 3 o'clock public ceremony.
As a preview, the memorial plaza features a statue of a young Japanese-American internee with a pile of suitcases marked with her family's camp identification number. A wall of plaques with the names of all the people interned at the fairgrounds is at the back of the plaza. The concrete walls and benches are cast to look like wooden walls.
Several local leaders, including Congressman Dennis Cardoza, and more than 150 former internees, will be at the afternoon unveiling. Several hundred Merced residents reserved spots at a dinner program after the dedication.
The Merced County Fairgrounds is located at 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Merced. The dedication ceremony is open and free to the public.
Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.