It is important to understand Merced’s history and role in the imprisonment and forced removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes without any due process. If you learn from the past you can affect the present and future.
Story by Adrienne Iwata of Densho Encyclopedia
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb 19, 1942. This order authorized the imprisonment and forced removal without due process of law of West Coast United States residents of Japanese ancestry. Families were forced to abandon their homes and bring only what they could carry to temporary detention facilities that were euphemistically called “assembly centers.” These detention facilities were places where residents of Japanese ancestry were “rounded up” before being sent inland for longer-term incarceration. One of these facilities was the Merced Assembly Center.
The 4,669 residents of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated at the Merced Assembly Center came from the central California communities of Merced, Livingston, Turlock, Cortez, Sebastopol, Yuba City, Yolo, Walnut Grove, Colusa, Winters, Modesto, Woodland, Santa Rosa, Chico, Marin, Napa and Courtland. The largest represented group was from the Merced area.
The Merced Assembly Center was located at the Merced, Calif. Country Fairgrounds and operated by the Wartime Civil Control Administration. Articles published in the 1942 editions of the Merced Sun-Star newspaper show that construction began on March 26, 1942. It took eleven days (24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts) to complete the construction of the barracks and community buildings. Over 1,000 men, including students from Merced High School, erected over 250 buildings. Cattle and horse barns were revamped for the housing of the prisoners. There were approximately 200 tar paper barracks (each 20 by 100 feet and each divided into units for five families), eleven mess halls, five laundries, forty shower areas, and thirty toilet areas. The detention facility was fenced in with barbed wire 4 ½ feet high. One hundred sixty soldiers guarded the prisoners. About 1,000 of the 4,669 prisoners were school-aged children.
Assembly Center Life
Harry L. Black was appointed by the Wartime Civil Control Administration as the Assembly Center manager. The administration and prisoners recognized that there was a need for organization and cooperative efforts to get the facility set up and to make life as “livable” and “bearable” as possible for the incarcerated families. Barrack prisoner representatives were elected and heads of departments were selected under the direction of the administrators.
Temporary schools were set up for the approximately 1,000 school-aged children. There was an infirmary, general store, library, lost and found. Police force and fire departments were quickly organized. Maintenance, kitchen, health, safety, sanitation and other crews were formed.
The prisoners set up art classes, knitting classes, concerts with local talent, film showings, talent shows, dances, athletic activities (softball, judo, sumō, etc.). Buddhist, Seventh Day Adventist, Protestant and Catholic Church services were held. There were several deaths, wedding and births. The Mercedian newspaper was published twice a week and covered policies, procedures, general announcements, births, deaths and non-controversial topics.
The Merced Assembly Center was closed on Sept. 15, 1942, (five months after opening). While some inmates ventured inland to do sponsored seasonal agricultural work or participated in the student college resettlement programs, the vast majority of imprisoned families were transported inland by rail car to the desolate Amache (Granada), Colorado, camp where they were incarcerated for the duration of World War II. From Amache, many resettled in inland states, and some of the young men and women prisoners were drafted or enlisted into the United States military. Most eventually returned to Central California.
Remembering Merced Assembly Center
The Merced Assembly Center Site is registered as Historical Landmark #934. A plaque was placed by the Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Livingston-Merced Japanese American Citizens League in 1982. Nothing remains of the original detention center; it is now part of a parking lot at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
In the spring of 2008, Congressman Dennis Cardoza, (D-18th District) requested the Livingston-Merced and Cortez chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League to work on a memorial to commemorate and honor the 4,669 Americans of Japanese ancestry incarcerated at the Merced Assembly Center located in the Merced County fairgrounds. The Commemorative Committee and its advisors with the support and help of many people worked two years on making the memorial a reality. The fairground’s board was very receptive and gracious and granted 600 square feet of space in a prime high traffic spot. The fundraising project kick off took place at the annual Day of Remembrance dinner on February 21, 2009.
The Merced Assembly Center Memorial, titled “To Remember Is to Honor,” was unveiled and dedicated on February 20, 2010. The Memorial Commemorative Committee continues to work on projects to educate the public about the incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry at the Merced Assembly Center during World War II. The Committee has completed a documentary film The Merced Assembly Center – Injustice Immortalized, with the intent of airing it on public television, submitting it to various film festivals, and distributing it for use in the classroom.