It is one of the darkest stains on our nation’s tradition of liberty and freedom for all. I’m referring to the forced internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first of the internment camps was created at Manzanar, in the Owens valley of California, not too far from the towns of Lone Pine and Independence. It was here that the story behind a new documentary film entitled The Manzanar Fishing Club took place.
The first 10,000 internees were brought here, mostly from the Southern California area. Many were from the Japanese community that had sprung up around the fishing industry located on L.A.’s Terminal Island. That community was razed after the residents were forcibly relocated. Not too long after Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese, roughly 2/3rds of whom were U.S. citizens were being held behind barbed wire fences, with armed guards and machine-gun equipped towers keeping them within a one square-mile area.
The area is beautiful and filled with streams and lakes. So some of the residents of this concentration camp (to call it anything else is to ignore reality) decided to risk their very lives, sneak out beneath the barbed wire, and go fishing. There were beautiful, strong-willed trout in those lakes and streams and the men (mostly) of the camp sought more than just a tasty alternative to the mass-produced meals served in the Manzanar mess hall. They sought the freedom of hours spent outside of barbed wire fences. Hours spent among nature, engaging in the challenge of negotiating difficult terrain, and finding ways to fish the local waters.
The location of Manzanar was chosen because it features strong physical barriers to keep the internees close at hand. Mountains on two sides, including the Sierra Nevada. Some of the lakes they fished were high up in those mountains and some of these dedicated fisherman scaled those heights to fish.
The story of how some of the first residents of the camps were actually volunteers is told quite well, and with excellent photograph representation of the people and places involved. The interviews are compelling and you can almost see the scenes being described by both the people who actually lived at Manzanar, and by the descendants who heard the tales told by their ancestors and are relating their experiences because they themselves are no longer with us.
The perspectives of a renowned historian, along with two people who work at the Interpretive Center that maintains the history of the site aid greatly in telling this fascinating tale of men who sought out the challenge of fishing as a way to combat the awful life of being confined for having done nothing wrong save being born of a particular ethnicity. None of these people committed any crimes. They sought freedom through the vaunted U.S. legal system and were denied relief at every turn.
This documentary is focused on the story of the fishing and the fisherman and only touches on the legal battle. It also barely makes mention of the fact that 20 of the internees at Manzanar volunteered to fight on America’s behalf in Europe as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Brigade, a unit of Japanese soldiers which was among the most decorated units in history. Even then, prejudice against Japanese kept some of those soldiers from being properly honored with the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, a terrible oversight that has only begun being rectified in recent years.
This is the sole flaw I can find with this documentary on the fisherman and the fishing at Manzanar. That the rest of the story was left out of a film that is only 74 minutes in length seems an oversight. The credits are lengthy and among those thanked is foundation that bears the name of Fred Korematsu. He was a Japanese-American who fought against being detained and while he lost before the Supreme Court in 1944, ultimately he prevailed. He was presented the Medal of Freedom in 1998 by President Clinton.
But this is only a minor oversight. The 74 minutes that we get are amazing footage of a very compelling story. Don’t miss it.