Mary Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” performed “When I Can” during the panel presentation to the Venice High School students.
Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument Committee members and former Manzanar internees Arnold Maeda and Mae Kakehashi joined fellow former Manzanar internees Susumu Ioki and Mary Nomura on a panel that spoke before approximately 150 juniors at the Venice High School World Languages and Global Studies Magnet on Feb. 15.
Maeda, 15 years old at the time of his forced removal from Santa Monica, Calif., and a junior at Santa Monica High School, recounted sleepless nights on his cot in the barracks, where he questioned how he, an American-born U.S. citizen, could possibly be imprisoned in a barbed-wire enclosure in the middle of the dessert, having broken no laws and given zero due process.
Maeda distinguished himself while at Manzanar, however, memorably performing in plays and musical comedy, getting elected senior class president of the Manzanar High School Class of 1944 and, after graduation, working as an orderly at the Manzanar Hospital and picking seasonal produce in Oregon.
Ioki, who was 13 when he and his family were incarcerated, wondered why people were wearing goggles when he arrived at Manzanar. He soon experienced the fierce windstorms that kicked up dust everywhere and into the barracks through cracks in the green wood floors and wallboards that shrank as they weathered.
Plucked from his freshman class at Venice High School in Venice, Calif., Ioki found himself promoted to the sophomore class at Manzanar High School, where he said he struggled to keep up with the curriculum and his slightly older classmates.
Kakehashi recalled that the dust abated as the internees themselves farmed the lands of the Manzanar camp, growing enough vegetables to feed themselves as well as to ship to other American concentration camps such as Tule Lake in Northern California and Poston and Gila River in Arizona.
In 1944, Kakehashi married her husband, Hideo, who was drafted into the U.S. Army while he was incarcerated in Manzanar, coincidentally on the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 — Feb. 19.[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Maeda … questioned how he, an American-born U.S. citizen, could possibly be imprisoned in a barbed-wire enclosure in the middle of the dessert, having broken no laws and given zero due process.[/quote]
She had graduated from Venice High School in the class of 1941 and worked in the Manzanar Hospital as a medical stenographer. Kakehashi recalled getting into a little bit of trouble the day she and her fellow stenos persuaded one of their truck driver friends to drive them some 10 miles beyond the barbed-wire fencing in order to play in the snow at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Nomura honed her singing talent with Manzanar High School drama and music teacher Lou Frizzell, who encouraged her to sing at various camp occasions, including the camp dances that featured the tunes of Tommy Dorsey, Jan Garber, Guy Lombardo and Glen Miller.
Through her musical talent, Nomura earned her nickname, the “Songbird of Manzanar.” During the Feb. 15 panel presentation, Nomura sang a song Frizzell composed for her, “When I Can,” known unofficially as the Manzanar Song, about the yearnings of young lovers who have no privacy in camp. Nomura was a 16-year old junior at Venice High School, exactly the same age of her audience at Venice High School, when she was forcibly removed and imprisoned in Manzanar.
VJAMM Committee member Phyllis Hayashibara began the program with a slide presentation on the VJAMM by Brian Tadashi Maeda, Arnold Tadao Maeda, Amy Takahashi Ioki, Mae Kageyama Kakehashi and the late Yoshinori Tomita. Hayashibara, a retired Venice High School social studies teacher, also distributed copies of the VJAMM dedication program to the students, courtesy of the VJAMM Committee.
Hayashibara remarked that the VJAMM all began with former Venice High School student Scott Pine. While a student in Hayashibara’s U.S. History class, Pine brought to her attention the April 2009 Free Venice Beachhead underground newspaper, which featured an article by Scott Ueda on the Japanese American internment, for a current events discussion.
This sparked a Service Learning Experience project that evolved into the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument, shepherded over the next eight years by the VJAMM Committee of Venice artists and activists, as well as members of the Japanese American community, most of whom had been incarcerated at Manzanar.
The VJAMM Committee dedicated the VJAMM on April 27, 2017, on the northwest corner of Venice and Lincoln Boulevards, to commemorate the site where 1,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, forcibly removed from Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu, lined up with only what they could carry, for transport to and incarceration in the American concentration camp at Manzanar.
The panel presentation was made possible through the efforts of Venice High School teachers Cris Vicente-Aguilar, Jennifer Barnhill and Trasey Nomachi, who coordinated the morning program.
Currently, the VJAMM invites service organizations, community youth groups and volunteers to wipe down the VJAMM and sweep up the sidewalk debris before its planned VJAMM commemoration ceremony on April 19.
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