Christianity was on trial: The Smeltzers stand with Japanese-Americans




Entrance to the Manzanar, Calif., internment camp, one of the sites where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II. This photo by Ansel Adams is in the public domain
Photo by Ansel Adams, public domain

Entrance to the Manzanar, Calif., internment camp, one of the sites where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II. This photo by Ansel Adams is in the public domain

The following is an excerpt of the late Mary Blocher Smeltzer’s story about how she and her husband, Ralph Smeltzer, aided Japanese-American families who were interned by the US government during World War II. The Smeltzers began teaching at the Manzanar internment camp and then worked to relocate Japanese-American families to Chicago and New York with help from the Church of the Brethren and Bethany Seminary. This story was included in the chapter titled “Japanese-American Resettlement Work” in the book “To Serve the Present Age: The Brethren Service Story,” edited by Donald F. Durnbaugh and published by Brethren Press in 1975:

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“Pearl Harbor Day--Sunday, December 7, 1941--is a day many of us remember in detail, including exactly where we were and what we were doing. At the time, Ralph and I were teaching school and living in East Los Angeles. For us, it marked the beginning of our interest and activity in the plight of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. Very soon public and military pressure began to mount ‘to do something about the “Japs” on the Coast.’ ...Demands for evacuation grew, encouraged by the Hearst Press, Caucasian vegetable and nursery growers, and Lt. General John B. Dewitt, West Coast military commander. National security then became the pretext for the evacuation of the 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast....

“The first Japanese Americans to be evacuated were those living on Terminal Island, a fishing colony located in San Pedro--the Los Angeles harbor. They were given a forty-eight hour notice in February, 1942, to dispose of their possessions and move out. Ralph took a day off from school to help. He had already been demoted from a regular to a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles schools because he expressed his conscientious objection to selling defense stamps. He was shocked at seeing army jeeps with machine guns patrolling the streets while looters were raiding houses from the alleys.... Within a few weeks all Japanese Americans in the Los Angeles area were evacuated, usually early in the mornings. We helped serve them breakfast at the train and bus stations, getting up at five o’clock, helping at the stations, then hurrying off to school.

“First stop for evacuees was an ‘assembly center’ such as Santa Anita Race Track, Arcadia, or the Los Angeles County Fair Grounds in Pomona. Horse stalls and hastily-built barracks were used to house them....

“Whereas the evacuees were taken from the metropolitan areas in the spring of 1942, those in rural areas were moved in the summer. While we were directing a summer work camp in Farmersville near Lindsay in the San Joaquin Valley, Japanese Americans were taken from that inland area now classified as Zone 2. Some Japanese-American farmers from the Coast had relocated there earlier expecting to be safe from evacuation. We organized efforts to provide food and transportation to the train station in order to make the leaving a little easier for the evacuees.

“Although the military leaders welcomed our help, veterans, legionnaires, and local police harassed us and even threatened our lives. The situation was so serious that all helpers were called together early on evacuation day to reconsider our plans and have a prayer meeting. We decided that Christianity was on trial in Lindsay that day, and we must go ahead. Our tormentors surrounded us at the train station, shook their fists, and hurled derogatory remarks, but did not harm us.

“Gradually all West-Coast Japanese Americans were put into ten War Relocation Centers in out-of-the-way places east of the Sierras, in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas. We decided to apply to teach school at the Manzanar Center northeast of Mt. Whitney near Lone Pine, California....”

-- A remembrance for Mary Blocher Smeltzer that outlined her long life of witness for peace and justice in the name of Christ was published in Newsline’s “Brethren bits” after she passed away in 2012. Her remembrance is the third item on the page at www.brethren.org/news/2012/brethren-bits-for-oct-18.html .

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