Poston: A personal essay

Photo of Poston internment camp
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen/Staff

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Today, Poston, Arizona is four hours from my front door. It’s one cool, air-conditioned drive through the desert from Los Angeles to a desolate stretch of highway just on the Arizona side of the Colorado River.

In 1942, to get to Poston, Arizona meant a full day by train from Union Station. It was a long, hot and uncomfortable ride through the Mojave and into the middle of nowhere.

It was especially uncomfortable when you were caring for your 10-day-old baby. It was even more uncomfortable when an armed guard would not let you and your baby take a seat. That train ride ended with a bumpy ride in an ambulance to a prison city that rises out of the desert along a desolate stretch of highway just on the Arizona side of the Colorado River.

In 1942, roughly 112,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in concentration camps when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Almost 70,000 were, like my great-grandparents, American citizens who watched as their civil rights were torn away like a bad joke. They were given days to gather only what they could carry before they were dispersed to various prison camps around the country.

My family was sent away from their homes without trial or due process. They were separated and scattered — a handful of the 10,046 incarcerated at Manzanar, some of 8,475 interned at Rohwer and, in the case of my great-grandparents, a few of the 17,814 jailed at Poston.

I knew the history of my family’s internment. I’d heard my family’s stories, seen museum exhibits and read books. We’d been to Manzanar before; it’s now a national historic site, a museum dedicated to remembering Japanese internment. There is an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum with posters and an old barrack from one of the camps.

I knew my great-grandparents and my newly born grandmother had been only one of many families forced into incarceration. There were familiar anecdotes from the war, artifacts from “camp,” as it is referred to casually. In a sense, however, all of this is only a history.

Last summer, my family took a short trip. We drove the four hours to Poston, Arizona to see it for ourselves, because Poston is different. The internment left an inescapable mark on those who experienced it — on 112,000 Japanese Americans — but the internment, in the numerical sense, at the large scale, is part of history in that it was words on a page, photos of a time and place I did not know.

Poston was different, Poston was personal. Poston is where my family was sent after they had been labeled enemies of their own country. Poston was where their lives were changed forever. My grandmother was born right before the evacuation order went into effect. She and my great-grandmother were allowed to stay in the hospital five extra days before they were driven to Union Station and sent to a concentration camp.

We went to Poston because it is still personal.

Poston was different, Poston was personal. Poston is where my family was sent after they had been labeled enemies of their own country. Poston was where their lives were changed forever.

We drove across the Colorado River at Blythe and then turned north, through long fields and past dirt roads and irrigation ditches. It was a smooth 102 degrees under the desert sun, and mountains reached toward that clear, round sky to the east and west. There was nothing but a two-lane highway, some trailers and the occasional old, weathered building.

Poston now is not much. It’s in a river valley, trapped between the water and the austere beauty of the desert. There’s a gas station, a post office and a fire station. Fields fed by waters from the Colorado stretch away and turn the desert green.

There’s a monument by the road, though. A towering sculpture with metal plaques marking the concentration camp, put up by those who had lived through it with the help of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, on whose reservation the federal government built a prison. There were paper cranes, names engraved into stone and metal, poems, memories and reminders of what had happened. The Colorado River Indian Tribes are in the process of building a museum to commemorate the event.

We kept exploring, looking for some material sign of the tar paper city that had housed 17,814 Japanese Americans during World War II. The desert was empty. We scrolled through maps and drove along dirt backroads, looking for something, anything, that remained. It seemed as if everything that had been the camp had been swallowed up by irrigated fields. As if Poston, the internment camp and prison, had been erased from the landscape.

But the place does not so easily forget. Ruins remain, the material past is not so easily banished.

We finally found a collection of buildings fenced in with palm trees. There were crumbling adobe structures with graffiti and murals painted over old plaster. Beams and chicken wire stuck out from holes in walls. Doorways sagged between broken cement walkways and long, abandoned, single-story structures. There were no plaques, no signs, just buildings abandoned and fenced off in the desert. We wondered if this really was a piece of Poston.

There was a great adobe structure near the center. Its roof was gone and its floor was littered with rusting nails and bits of charcoal. We looked at it in the beating desert heat, standing broken above the surrounding fields. It was quiet, empty, forgotten. But it was not nameless. On the outside of the southwest wall, words were etched into a stone.

Poston Elementary School. Unit 1.

This was it.

We looked at the rest of the buildings and considered their past. This had been a prison. This wasn’t a monument or an empty field, but a piece of the past left standing and forsaken. This is where thousands of families had been imprisoned. This is where my family had been imprisoned. We left when the heat finally chased us off, and we drove along dirt roads, past fields and canals and out to the twisting Colorado River.

It’s a curious place. The land is anonymous, and yet, it is filled with the atrocities committed by this country. The Poston concentration camp was built on the Colorado River Reservation — land that belongs to the Colorado River Indian Tribes now and has always belonged to them. In 1942, 71,000 acres were taken by the War Relocation Authority and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to imprison Japanese Americans. There’s a sense of dark irony in that oppression, to see layers of injustices manifested in one place, all perpetrated by a country that claims to be ours.

The only thing I could feel, looking over those fields, was sorrow. The only thing left for me in Poston, Arizona is a ruin and our memories. Say what you will, but the United States does a magnificent job of covering up its crimes. Only the work of Japanese Americans and the generous efforts of the Colorado River Indian Tribes have preserved pieces of the past. There was a prison the size of a city here; now waterbirds wade in the canals and fly over fields of green. Now camp is largely a memory.

But even as the buildings are torn down and the ruins slowly sink into the sand, those memories remain. Those crimes are never forgotten. Almost 80 years have passed since the internment, and those stories are still told. Two generations after the incarceration, I can still feel the sorrow, the burning resentment. Know this: We will never forget.

But even as the buildings are torn down and the ruins slowly sink into the sand, those memories remain.

Injustice doesn’t disappear. To say Japanese Americans are the United States’ only victims would be false. This nation’s history is one filled with sorrow that will never be truly forgotten. This story is just one of many.

The worst part, though, is that it’s still happening. There is still so much suffering, so much hurt. Children are being torn from their families and incarcerated in terrible conditions. Black folks are still getting killed by the police. Countless people still have their identities torn from them, their lives and futures taken and trampled and twisted beyond recognition. These are not new crimes, but they are still perpetrated nonetheless. Hateful atrocities are committed just as easily as they are memorialized and mourned.

It is a decision we make, in every word or action. When we choose to hate and fear to engender injustice and oppression, it has a price. It’s a price that can never be paid. The sorrow stays, even if its bones are buried.

Because hate never leaves.

The evidence can be erased, the landscape can be bleached and whitewashed, carpeted by a green growth. But the hate, its actions, its malice given form — it always has a price.

The sorrow stays forever.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].