Protected by a white sun hat, Sachiko Louie smiled at the Japanese lanterns, cherry trees and wooden temple at Walerga Park and recalled the tense weeks she spent here in May 1942.
Louie and nearly 5,000 other Japanese Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, were ordered into a migrant labor camp to be processed for assignment to Tule Lake and other internment camps for the duration of World War II.
Louie and about 200 other people, including a half dozen who were once ordered to the Walerga Assembly Center in Old Foothill Farms, turned out Tuesday for the dedication of a new granite plaque marking the spot. The plaque replaced a tin one that had been covered with graffiti and defaced.
The plaque and other improvements to the historic site, including 18 new cherry trees and a wooden shade structure that resembles a Japanese temple, were paid for by a $150,000 grant from Sacramento County, said Sunrise Recreation and Park District Administrator David Mitchell. The district worked on the project with the Japanese American Citizens League.
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Walerga Park is a California Historical Landmark, but there’s nothing left of the old migrant camp where Japanese Americans from Sacramento and San Joaquin counties were sent – among the 120,000 Japanese Americans sent first to 10 temporary detention centers and then to incarceration in internment camps.
Louie and other former detainees offered vivid memories of their weeks in the Walerga camp, where they lived in shacks. The park now sits alongside Interstate 80, between the Madison Avenue and Greenback Lane exits. “I remember the day my older sister came to pick me up from kindergarten at Fourth and T streets, the FBI came to our home and the next thing I know we were in Walerga,” said Louie, 79. “I remember the latrines – one size fits all, over a hole in the ground – and I was afraid I was going to fall in.”
“I also remember the apple butter and orange marmalade we had for breakfast,” said Louie, a longtime substitute teacher and school volunteer in Sacramento.
Louie nodded in agreement when Rep. Doris Matsui, whose parents met in the incarceration camp at Poston, Ariz., where Matsui was born, said it’s important to reflect on the injustices of the past to ensure that American citizens never again be deprived of their liberty or constitutional rights. “Many of us, pillars of our communities, were forced to uproot our lives, men women and children, even infants,” Matsui said, adding that her late husband, Rep. Robert Matsui, was one of those infants.
“Bob was 4 months old and was judged a threat to his country,” said Matsui, D-Sacramento.
The 1988 Civil Liberties Act authored by Robert Matsui and then-Rep. Norman Mineta granted an apology and reparations to Japanese Americans locked up during the war.
“Memorials like this one provide us all with a better understanding of the burdens of our past generations,” Matsui said of the Walerga site. “This makes history come alive.”
Jane Matsuoka was hiding out with her family on King Island in the Delta when U.S. authorities found them and sent them to Walerga, where they spent about a month before being sent to Tule Lake. “I was really mad at the U.S. for doing that to us because when my dad said we were going to be sent to a camp, I said, ‘Oh no, the U.S. would never do anything like that; don’t worry,’ ” said Matsuoka, 91.
“I remember us getting in line for food and injections,” she said. “My mother, who has high blood pressure, got really sick because of the stress and had a stroke on the train to Tule Lake.”
One of her two brothers who joined the U.S. Army was allowed to visit his mom in camp, Matsuoka said. “He came in uniform, and we felt very proud of him.”
Walerga, a cluster of wooden shacks, was palatial compared to other California assembly centers, said Sacramento State archivist Julie Thomas. “Most of the centers were at fairgrounds or racetracks, and families of six were forced to live in stables they had to clear out themselves.”
Several speakers, including retired UC Davis professor Isao Fujimoto and Muslim civil rights leader Basim Elkarra, said memorials like Walerga could help protect American Muslims and Sikhs from being unfairly punished for terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But many of those incarcerated never wanted to talk about it, claiming their suffering should not be borne by their children and grandchildren, said Rev. Bob Oshita of Buddhist Church of Sacramento. “We are here to say thank you to those who endured the injustice and gave us the gift of no anger,” he said. “Because of their sacrifice, our lives are now better.”