JAs Fight for Memorial at Former Pinedale Assembly Center

By Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, Pacific Citizen Executive Editor

Published February 3, 2006

The dilapidated warehouse located on the northwest side of Fresno, Calif. may not look like much for the everyday passersby but for Jim Hirabayashi the building holds historic significance not only for his family but for tens of thousands of Japanese Americans.

For almost three months following the start of World War II this location was home for Hirabayashi, then 15, along with his parents and three siblings. The area was then known as the Pinedale Assembly Center, a temporary holding area for 4,823 JAs. Eventually they would head to Tule Lake, one of ten internment camps scattered across the Western States.

“It was kind of strange to be locked up. It was hot and dusty,” said Hirabayashi who still remembers the train ride to Pinedale, his first-ever. “Right away our family life just broke apart,” he said, noting the lack of privacy and the dissolution of the core-family environment he had been used to.

Today, the owners of the warehouse want to tear it down to make room for office buildings. But before demolition can begin, the local JA community wants the area declared a California Historical Landmark and have asked owner Granum Partners and the city of Fresno to help remember the former Pinedale residents by building a permanent memorial.

“It’s very important that this memorial be something that teaches the future generation of what happened and why,” said Hirabayashi, 79. His older brother Gordon is well known for refusing to be interned and taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court. “This memorial is important because of the historical lesson on racism — it isn’t over by a long shot.”

The JACL Central California District and the Central California Nikkei Foundation have formed the Pinedale Assembly Center Memorial Project Committee and attended a Jan. 10 Fresno City Council meeting to discuss the proposed California Historical Landmark status for the former assembly center. The Fresno Historic Preservation Commission has already approved the nomination of the site to the local register of historic resources.

The city council will revisit the issue Feb. 28 after Granum Partners asked for an extension.

“The memorial is a reminder that in times of national stress there is a tendency to value civil liberties less and make compromises,” said Dale Ikeda, a Superior Court Judge, and chair of the memorial committee. He noted the similarities between the JA story and the events following the Sept. 11 attacks. “The issues are still relevant.”

The proposed Pinedale Memorial has garnered the support of several city councilmembers including District 2 Councilman Brian Calhoun whose area encompasses Pinedale.

“I think it’s a good idea. All the parties involved want — I want — a memorial to be there,” he said. “We want this to be a very nice place … a part of the past, yet a celebration that we’ve moved well beyond that.”

But so far community members and the property owner have not been able to agree on several issues, including where the memorial will be located and how large it will be.

“We’re looking for a compromise,” said Calhoun, who is hopeful that an agreement can be reached by the time the city council meets again in February.

The owners had offered a memorial within a 90-foot traffic turnaround and $25,000 with the condition that the memorial site be operated by the city of Fresno. But committee members rejected the idea believing the turnaround area would cause a traffic hazard and does not allow passersby a chance to appreciate the memorial.

The committee wants a .5-acre of land adjacent to the turnaround for the memorial and $100,000 for landscaping and interpretive materials for the memorial. Architect Irv Miyamoto and landscape architect Paul Saito have volunteered their services for the project which will use materials from the current building.

“We can’t deal with the developers directly but we are willing to do this project with the city,” said Ikeda, who indicated that talks with the developers have thus far not been fruitful.

Al Solis, planning consultant for Sol Development Associates, has been contracted by Granum Partners to work with the city to come up with an acceptable memorial.

“We’re working on a compromise to meet everyone’s expectations,” said Solis, who noted that architects from both sides are currently working on a proposal. “We’re letting the two sides work it out.”

From May 7 to July 23 in 1942 more than 4,800 JAs, largely from Oregon, Washington, and Sacramento, made their way to the Pinedale Assembly Center. The building was eventually established by the U.S. Army as an Army and Air Force base on Aug. 1, 1942, and was also the former location for the Sugar Pine Lumber Co.

Dr. George Suda, 90, had just gotten out of Dental College when he entered the Pinedale Assembly Center with his parents and sister.

“It was a desert, a place where no one should be living,” recalled Suda. “There was nothing but squirrels and rabbits, basically a hunting ground.”

Jack Hata, 84, remembers the exact day he was taken to Pinedale with his mother. “It was May 17, 1942 — my 21st birthday,” he said. His father was interned separately.

Suda would eventually end up at the Gila River camp and Hata spent time in Tule Lake. Both men agree that a Pinedale Memorial is a good idea.

“I think it will be nice,” said Suda. “People still don’t know anything about this story.”

Added Hata, “I think it’s nice that a city is willing to put up a memorial.”

The idea for a memorial and entry into the local register of historic resources is not unprecedented. In 1992 The Fresno County Fairgrounds, also a location for a temporary assembly center for JAs during WWII, was approved as a California Historic Landmark and today a memorial sits on the former site.

In addition the Manzanar camp was approved as a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and there is currently a proposal to approve the same status for the Tule Lake camp. Late last year HR 1492, the Camp Preservation Bill, was unanimously approved by the House. The bill would designate $38 million in grants for the preservation of the internment camps and the various assembly centers, including Pinedale.

Although Ikeda is hopeful a decision on the memorial will be made at the Feb. 28 council meeting he believes they may be heading towards a lengthy process.

“There will be some sort of memorial but the question is what scope,” he said. “Personally I want at least a groundbreaking by Feb. 19, 2007, if not a completed project.”