DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Colors of Confinement

Unless you lived in the 1940s, when you think of World War II and that era, the images you form in your mind are probably in black and white since that is the way most pictures capture the period.  So when you first encounter the Kodachrome pictures of  Bill Manbo, the colors startle, especially when you consider Manbo's subject - he was documenting the incarceration of his family and thousands of others who were in barbed wire surrounded camps simply because they were Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Manbo's poignant, powerful pictures form the focus for Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, written by North Carolina jurisprudence and ethics professor Eric Muller. Muller recently appeared at the National Archives to discuss Manbo, the book, and one of the darker periods of freedom in American history.

Manbo's story is similar to those of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He, his wife, and his young son Billy, were rounded up and taken from their home after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing that all people on the West Coast of Japanese ancestry be incarcerated. Manbo's family, along with his father-in-law's family, were first placed in the Santa Anita (racetrack) assembly camp. They were then transferred to the Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming, one of 10 such temporary facilities built to house the Japanese-Americans. From 1942 to its closing in 1945, the Heart Mountain Camp was home to 14,000 people, making it the 3rd largest city in Wyoming at the time.

During his years in the camp, Manbo satisfied his interest in photography by taking dozens and dozens of pictures of people and the stark landscape they now were forced to call home. Initially housed in plywood and tar paper shacks, the residents, used to the mild weather of California, were forced to endure temperatures that could dip as low as 13 degrees below zero.

However, despite their circumstances, the internees began immediately to try to reconstruct as much of a normal life as they could. "They wanted to preserve the dignity of the family," Muller said. "The color of Manbo's pictures show the resilience of the group and contrast with the bleakness of the camp where they had been placed. He used his camera to capture things that were beautiful or interesting to him."

But, of course beyond the beauty, the pictures also document years of a people subjected to surveillance and captivity, simply because they were considered of suspect loyalty. Eventually, authorities loosened the restrictions and internees were allowed to leave for work. Manbo went to Cleveland. His father-in-law Junzo, traveled across the country to southern New Jersey where C. F. Seabrook was building a farming empire using Japanese-American workers. However, Junzo's plans for a life at Seabrook Farms were cut short when his wife became ill and he had to return to Heart Mountain, where he and his wife became among the last to leave when the camp closed in 1945.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
My old school: The Seabrook Class of 1951, the year before I was born
The decision to incarcerate Japanese-Americans had a tremendous impact on my life, as I lived during my formative young years in the Seabrook community that Junzo visited. Initially, C. F. Seabrook employed hundreds of Japanese-Americans to work his fields and giant frozen food plant. Later, the Japanese-Americans were joined by Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and other Eastern Europeans (we called them DPs) displaced by the ravages of World War II. In fact, growing up I wondered if there was something wrong since we were the sole family on our block who spoke only English at home. I played with friends with last names like Niji, Ogata, Ishuin, Taniguchi, and Furishima. Of course, I spent time in their homes and they in mine. I trace my love of ethnic food to the strange, wonderful smells in their kitchens. I even received an award for citizenship from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) at my 8th grade graduation. Ironically, however, despite my closeness to the situation, I never learned of the shameful American history behind the Japanese-American concentration in my community until I studied  at Villanova University. If you would like to learn more about my early home community check out these web sites: Seabrook Farms, NJ, Seabrook at War, The Spinach King, and the Seabrook Education and Cultural Center.

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