Honoring those who left, those who stuck by them

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BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — Kay Nakao was 22 and remembers the "sinking feeling" of her family being forced to leave their home on six days' notice, taking only what they could carry.

Junji Yukawa was 14. He remembers "the sadness of leaving our school and our friends."

But Hisa Hayashida Matsudaira was only 6 and didn't realize the weight of the event. "For me, it was an adventure — and my very first train ride."

Those memories and others were all evident here yesterday — 60 years to the day that 227 Bainbridge Island residents of Japanese descent were marched down a road where guards with rifles and bayonets led them to the ferry Kehloken to begin a 3 1/2-year forced exile.

Several hundred people — including about three dozen who were on that ferry ride — gathered yesterday to unveil a plaque on a two-ton granite stone and hear about efforts to create an interpretive center to remind future generations that what occurred here should never happen again.

"As we marched down this road, we were in shock. We didn't know where we were going, how long we would be there or if we'd ever come back," said Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.

The island residents were among the first of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — most of whom were American citizens — removed from their homes on the West Coast under President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, born of the fear and suspicion after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It's been pushed to the back. It's been something we've tried not to remember," Kitamoto said.

But in recent years, many have decided that calling attention to the internment could reduce the chances of a similar act in the future. Several speakers mentioned anti-Islamic sentiments that swept the country after Sept. 11, including some calls for rounding up Americans of the Islamic faith.

"As the years roll into decades we are resolved never to forget," said Gov. Gary Locke, who attended the ceremony, lending a hand as the cloth was peeled away from the 4-foot-tall granite marker.

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, said there's been a hesitancy by some to acknowledge the wrong of internment, for fear it would lessen the country's appreciation for the men and women who helped the U.S. prevail in World War II. But Inslee said the two are not mutually exclusive. Inslee, promoting congressional legislation that could lead to an interpretive center here, said the message would not be anti-American, but "a commitment to the future, a commitment to learn from the lessons of history."

Efforts to build the memorial have come from the Japanese-American community and the North Kitsap-Bainbridge Island Interfaith Council, working together as the Bainbridge Island World War II Nikkei Internment and Exclusion Memorial Committee.

Japanese immigrants, including many who started strawberry farms, were some of Bainbridge Island's pioneers.

To connect with the past, those gathered yesterday were informed periodically what the evacuees were doing at those very moments on March 30, 1942 — when they walked down this stub of Taylor Avenue, boarded the waiting ferry, departed from Bainbridge and arrived in Seattle.

Once in Seattle, they were taken on a five-day train ride, with the window blinds shut and no announcement about where they were going. The destination: Manzanar, a remote camp in California's Mojave Desert. Most spent about a year there before being transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho.

After yesterday's ceremony, some of the Japanese Americans present said it was particularly gratifying that the event was an expression of the community at large, not just those who had directly suffered in the relocation.

"It was a very meaningful moment," Nakao said, "to see that after all these years, so many recognize that what happened was wrong. It's the opportunity for everyone to learn from what happened."

Those honored at yesterday's ceremony included the late Walt and Milly Woodward, publishers of the Bainbridge Review, recognized as the only newspaper in the country to consistently oppose the internment. The paper also published contributions from "camp correspondents" to keep locals informed about their neighbors.

White luggage-style name tags hung from those present yesterday, similar to the tags worn by those bound for the internment camps. The back of these new tags, however, carried the inscription on the memorial plaque, reading in part:

"We dedicate this site to honor those who suffered and to cherish their friends and community who stood by them and welcomed them home. May the spirit of this memorial inspire each of us to safeguard constitutional rights for all."

The inscription closed with the name an interpretive center would bear: "Nidito Nai Yoni — Let it not happen again."

Jack Broom can be reached at 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com.