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Poston Memorial

Desert silence speaks volumes

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posted November 3, 2020
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About 10 years ago I was visited by a client at my office while working for Sports Leisure Vacations.

Miyoko Yamada was someone I knew pretty well. “Miyo” traveled mostly to watch her beloved San Francisco Giants play baseball and to visit casinos. She also signed up for a longer, annual tour called Laughlin, Las Vegas and Tonopah, a six-day tour by motorcoach.

Miyo had just returned home from that trip and wanted to see me. I didn’t think she wanted to share a complaint about the trip, as Miyo didn’t complain. She politely suggested.

Miyo sat across from me in my office and told me what a great time she and her pal Yoshiko “Yo” Kobata had during the tour. During a side trip to see the London Bridge in Lake Havasu, Arizona, she asked the motorcoach driver how far they were from a town called Poston. The driver informed her it was a short drive of about an hour. She asked me if it might be possible to visit Poston the next time we planned the tour.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s in Poston?”

Miyo took a few seconds to answer. “I lived there for a time,” she said.

“Well Miyo,” I began, “I’m not sure I can send the coach another two hours roundtrip to see your old town. Maybe if others were interested … .”

“Oh, I can get at least eight or so to come with me,” Miyo interjected.

I was perplexed. “OK Miyo, why would they be interested?”

“We all lived there. They would want to come, too.”

I sensed she wasn’t telling me everything. Finally she said, “It was where we had to live during the war.”

Suddenly it all came into focus for me. Poston was an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Miyo told me that a few years earlier, Yo’s brother Ted, whose family was also interned at Poston, had organized a group to build a memorial at Poston, and she wanted to see it with others who had lived there. Miyo had met her future husband, Mitsuo, while she was there. “Mits” had volunteered for service in the U.S. Army while his family remained at Poston.

I told Miyo I’d look into it, and that made her happy. After she left, I did some research online. What I found was heartbreaking. Obviously I had known about the internment of Japanese Americans during the war, but I didn’t know the shame still carried by those who experienced it. They didn’t talk about it.

It was the children and grandchildren of the internees who were keeping the memories alive through websites and online groups. It was no wonder Miyo hadn’t gone into detail with me. I could only imagine how hard it was to come to my office with her request.

I also discovered Poston was composed of three camps built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, so it was more or less a prison within a prison. Ted Kobata and other internees had worked with the tribal council for permission to build the memorial, and the tribe was more than willing to help.

After talking it over with the owner of my company, we included the visit in the next year’s tour, and we had about a dozen former internees and their family members join the trip. When she returned, Miyo visited me at the office and was in tears, thanking me for what we did. She had me in tears, too, and I promised her that someday I would visit the memorial.

In late July, I drove to Poston as I traveled between Barstow, California, and Phoenix with my daughter Kendall. We visited the beautiful outdoor memorial, and we sat and thought about Miyo, who passed away last year.

While there, we were approached by a member of the tribal fire department named Delbert, whose station was next door to the memorial. Delbert and I chatted awhile about my experience with Miyo, and I learned his uncle had been a Navajo code talker during the war. And, he explained, while the code talkers were in training, their family members who spoke the Navajo language, including Delbert’s grandmother, were “sequestered” as part of the code talkers secretive mission. Much like the Japanese Americans internees.

Delbert pointed west to a grove of palm trees about a mile from us. “There are actual buildings that are still standing over there. It’s my understanding they are some of the only internment camp buildings remaining anywhere. There’s a chain-link fence around them, but you can drive around the perimeter.” Kendall and I headed over and got a great view of the buildings and former barracks where the families lived, in addition to a coyote that was seemingly keeping vigil over the site.

As we walked outside the fence and looked into the compound of dilapidated buildings, I thought about the people who were forced to live here. I thought about their sounds of anger and anguish swallowed by the surrounding landscape of dirt, rock, and chaparral. I thought about the silence of our country as these citizens were rounded up and forgotten.

But I also thought about the bravery of those who returned to build the monument 50 years later: A memorial of justice and peace that speaks forcefully through the silent desert.

Kevin Murphy, CTP, is the owner of Open Roads Tour & Travel Solutions, a California-based receptive operator for the western U.S. and Canada.

Top photo: Poston Memorial Monument
Photo by CC Flickr/chrul: bit.ly/3j09W9m