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At Internment Camp, Baseball or Boredom

October 16, 2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Locked away from the world by the U.S. government, the prisoners of the Manzanar internment camp passed the hours with the most American of games.

The 10,000 Japanese-Americans taken to the Owens Valley camp lived in cramped barracks in a single square mile fenced in by barbed wire. The firebreaks between buildings provided enough room for baseball diamonds.

``That was the major sport,″ said Jack Kunitomi, 88, a member of an older team called the Has Beens during his first summer of internment. ``Before the evacuation there were leagues all over California. It was very important for the young people. What else could they do, besides work?″

The National Park Service is restoring the main auditorium built by the internees, to be unveiled in April 2004 as an interpretive center with exhibits and theaters. But a rebuilt baseball diamond won’t be part of the celebration _ a decision that some former internees say overlooks one of the mainstays of life in the camp.

Kunitomi’s team played softball for lack of baseball equipment. Players eventually ordered equipment and formed more than 80 baseball teams that played each other and even teams from nearby high schools.

Kunitomi, a retired teacher living in Monterey Park, said a restored diamond would help children visiting Manzanar understand the boredom of life in the camp, as well as internee determination to keep active.

It would also underscore how much they continued to embrace the United States and its traditions, even as the country locked them away for fear they would aid Japan in World War II.

``It was very important to the young people because they needed something to boost their morale,″ said Kunitomi’s sister, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, 80, of Los Angeles. ``There was nothing else.″

Embrey now leads the Manzanar Committee, a group that pushed for preserving the camp and organizes an annual trip to the site. Tucked between the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley, Manzanar was one of 10 camps nationwide where 120,000 Japanese-Americans were detained during the war.

Kunitomi was allowed to leave the camp every winter, first to pick sugar beets in Idaho, then to serve as a U.S. Army translator.

The most vocal advocate of restoring the camp’s main diamond was never an internee, and isn’t Japanese-American. Author and playwright Steve Kluger, who has written about baseball in novels including ``Last Days of Summer,″ said he had been a gay rights activist for years when he began pushing for the diamond.

``If you’re a discriminated-against minority you’ve got to fight for each other,″ he said.

Kluger hopes that someday Japanese-American teams will again play local high schools at Manzanar, and has helped raise $23,000 to rebuild the diamond.

But Manzanar site superintendent Frank Hays said the Park Service can’t take money from everyone who wants a historic monument changed. He agrees that baseball was an essential part of camp life, but said a memorial is no place for games. Remnants of the diamond remain, he said, and shouldn’t be disturbed.

``When you can actually see the real history, that’s what’s so attractive about historic sites,″ Hays said.

He said he too would like to see children playing baseball to celebrate the games at Manzanar _ but outside the camp.

Both sides agree the other means well, but that hasn’t prevented each from pushing for its vision. Kluger went this week to Washington where he said he found two members of the House of Representatives willing to override the Park Service and build the diamond.

``Right now it’s the shell of the park,″ Kluger said. ``It has conscience, it has good intentions. What it doesn’t have is heart.″


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