It was dark and drizzling as Elise Kam, 10, raised her pencil to the bronze. "N-O-B-O ..." she scratched out, letter by letter.
"Noboru Taguma," she finished.
Taguma, 84, is Kam's grandfather and one of 4,669 Japanese-Americans who were forced into unroofed barracks at the Merced County Fairgrounds in 1942. Kam, from Union City, trekked to Merced on Saturday with four generations of her family, to watch the unveiling of a new memorial to honor the plight of interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was Taguma's first trip back to Merced since he left the assembly center for a more permanent relocation camp farther east.
Martha Tanji also created a relief of the name of her husband, Taro. He has died, but Tanji made the trip from Gardena in Southern California for Saturday's event. She and her family were held at Tulare Assembly Center all those years ago. "I think this plaza is a wonderful thing. It's history," she said. "I'm sorry my husband is not here still, but I'm glad they're recognizing him."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
June Abe Kawamura traveled to the dedication from Sacramento. She was interned at the assembly center with 10 of her family members, the first family listed on the bronze plaques now posted out front. Abe Kawamura was 7 years old when she was at the assembly center; Saturday was the first time she'd returned to Merced. "This is very meaningful. It brings back so many memories," Abe Kawamura said, pointing to her family members' names on the wall.
"It is bittersweet because my parents are gone," she continued, biting back tears. "And they're the ones that really suffered."
Eight hundred audience members watched as the bronze plaques and large statue were unveiled. More than 150 former internees were on hand. Folks traveled to the event from cities across the country, perhaps the indication of a sort of diaspora that occurred among internees, who weren't allowed to return to the West Coast for some time, even when they were freed from the camps.
"My father went to Chicago, when he could move east, and started attending technical school," recalled Jeanette Ishii, after the event.
"My father went to Chicago, too. Everyone went to the Midwest, at least at first," her companion in conversation said.
Ishii was emcee for Saturday's unveiling. Her family was interned at the Merced Assembly Center, and her father died Monday, just days before his name was revealed among the sea of bronze letters. "I decided to continue doing the event because of him," Ishii said. "I think this is very special and I think he would consider it very special. For me, and to many of the families here, to see my father's name etched on the wall, is to see his sacrifice etched into the history of our country."
Ishii spoke of her father's U.S. military service, and her story was similar to many of those in attendance. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry. Japanese-American men joined the military as a way to prove their patriotism and get out from behind the barbed wire they were imprisoned behind.
During Saturday's ceremony, Japanese-American veterans who served in the military intelligence service as Japanese interpreters and the Asian American 442nd Combat Infantry Regiment were honored.
"While their families were behind barbed wire, more than 33,000 young Japanese-American men enlisted or were drafted in the U.S. military. They joined the military effort to demonstrate their loyalty and service to the United States," Ishii told the crowd. "It was because of their heroism that they made America a more tolerant country."
Across the fairgrounds Saturday, internees met up with folks they hadn't seen for years. The stories they recounted ranged from melancholy to joyous. They recounted the troubled looks on the faces of their parents and the cramped, unprivate quarters they shared at the fairgrounds. But they also remembered eating dinner with their friends every night, organizing dances and playing baseball.
"I remember the rain. It rained," said Grace Yamaguchi Kimoto, 81, who was interned at the age of 13. "The clay soil shocked me. I was getting taller and taller because it was sticking to my feet."
Yamaguchi Kimoto said her experience at the camp was undoubtedly different from older Japanese-Americans.
"Being a young kid, you really didn't know what was going on. Everyone had a different experience, depending on their age," she said. "I was at an age where I ran around and made a lot of friends at the assembly center."
"Shockingly, they were all Japanese," she quipped, with a sly grin.
Kimoto served on a committee with 13 other Japanese-Americans to create the assembly center memorial. Over the course of two years, they raised $250,000 to build the plaza.
A $25,000 National Parks Service grant was awarded for the site, but most of the money came from local donations, said Bob Taniguchi, co-chairperson of the group that organized the plaza. "For some reason, Americans, Mercedians, have gravitated to this story," Taniguchi said. "That is why this exists. We got a lot of encouragement and a lot of help from our local residents."
Taniguchi said he became involved with the planning committee after a meeting with Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who felt the previous plaque commemorating the site was inadequate. Cardoza said he learned about the fairgrounds' history from Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.
Honda, 68, lived in the Merced Assembly Center as a young boy. Honda was a baby when his family was taken to the assembly center, but he attended Saturday's event in honor of his deceased father and 93-year-old mother. He talked about learning the history of the center himself, as he grew older: "We pieced these things together from the comments of our parents. The subsequent generations just kept asking 'what happened?'" Honda said. "And so we learned that this kind of action by the government can never happen again."
Merced Mayor Bill Spriggs also addressed the crowd. "In 1942, that was probably your first time in Merced. And I'm sure you weren't welcomed here then," he said. "Well, today, I would like, on behalf of all the citizens of Merced, to welcome you."
Dale Smith, the Canadian-born sculptor who created the central statue at the memorial, also attended and addressed the crowd. Afterward, he posed with 4-year-old Mia Furuichi Fong, the girl who served as a model for the memorial.
As Mia posed in her flowery dress, several members, and generations, of her family looked on. "This is as close to full circle as you can get," said grandmother Judy Furuichi. "This was very important. It's so emotional for everyone. It must really bring back some memories that really hurt, but it's wonderful to have a public monument."
Judy Furuichi was born at an internment camp in Topaz, Ariz.
After the unveiling, nearly 1,000 community members attended a formal dinner.
"Where's my table?" one elderly former internee asked between buildings at the fairgrounds. "Oh, that's not for me, that's for the high-falutin' people," she said, as she passed right by the dining hall.
No, a passerby explained, "that's all for you."
Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.