By Mike Dillon
It’s been a year since my slender book, “Departures: Poetry and Prose on the Removal of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans After Pearl Harbor,” was published by Unsolicited Press in Portland.
I wrote most of “Departures” in the first half of 2016, during the rise of Donald Trump. Here we go again, I thought—the racist tropes, the hail storm of lies, and whipped-up fear. To lift a phrase from “Departures,” the “boundary stones of the thinkable” were rolled downhill, cheered on by a large chunk of the American electorate.
And now here we are, smacked by another emergency, with a man at the helm whose definition of leadership is “otherizing” selected groups of human beings.
I once was naïve enough to think, somehow, to some degree, we as a nation had said goodbye to all that. The Greeks knew better, though. They knew the faultline running through human nature — which they called hamartia—is perennial.
On March 30, 1942, my grandmother and my mother stood among other well-wishers near Eagledale dock on Bainbridge Island to witness their Japanese American friends and neighbors march aboard the ferry Kehloken under bayonet guard.
During the crossing, Captain Wyatt, up in the Kehloken’s wheelhouse, wept. The people below were bound for Seattle, where a shuttered train would take them to an unknown destination—Manzanar, a barbed wire camp in the central California plateau with guard towers and machine guns pointing in. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans were the first to be taken from their homes in the West Coast exclusion zone.
Similar scenes were to be repeated up and down the coast.
The day my mother died of cancer peacefully at home in July 2013, my brother and I got in the car and just drove. Without thinking about it, we ended up at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on the south side of Eagle Harbor. It was here the events on that long-ago day in March unfolded.
Without saying it, we knew we’d brought our grief to the right place. We followed the curved memorial wall fashioned out of old growth red cedar, granite and basalt, reading in silence the five terracotta friezes telling the story of what happened here. Among the inscribed words found at the site: Nidoto Nai Yoni: Let It Not Happen Again. And these: “May the spirit of this memorial inspire each of us to safeguard constitutional rights for all.”
This is where the Island’s heart was broken. The Memorial has helped mend it. In that place, on the day my mother died, I knew I had to write about it in my own way.
A beautiful, indispensable history already existed: Mary Woodward’s “In Defense of Our Neighbors,” about her parents Walt and Milly Woodward, owners of the Bainbridge Review during the War who stood up for the Island’s Japanese Americans for the duration. Besides her parents’ heroism, Mary Woodward’s book chronicles the moral strength of the Bainbridge Islanders who looked after the abandoned farms, took care of lingering legal matters, and not least, outnumbered a vocal minority who did not want their former neighbors to return home when peace came.
The legacy of the Review’s brave, lonely voice among West Coast media helped inspire me to enter the community newspaper business.
The book I wrote is not a literal history, but something wrought from a personal perspective, relying on family stories, historical sources, and my own memories of growing up on the Island in the 1950s and 1960s. I wanted to create a modest account that would intensify critical points along the narrative arc, vivid as the memory of stained glass windows in a cathedral.
The aim was to help, in some small way, to fight historical amnesia. Remembering the past includes not just the worst people can do, but to honor those moments reflecting the better angels of human nature when the chips are down.
Since “Departures” was published, I’ve encountered plenty of people fully aware of the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans. I’ve witnessed genuine grief in their eyes and in their voices. I’ve also encountered unbreakable indifference.
In a time of crisis, the boundary stones of the thinkable have a way of getting moved. This is the time to be vigilant about how others are being treated and not “otherized.”
It’s easy to think what happened on March 30, 1942 is long ago and far away. To walk the deep silence of the Exclusion Memorial is to understand—it is not.
Mike Dillon is former publisher of Pacific Publishing Co. in Seattle.