George Kiriyama has returned before to Manzanar, the dusty high desert camp where he and thousands of other Japanese-Americans were sent to sit out World War II behind barbed wire.
But Saturday's Manzanar pilgrimage by about 200 students, Japanese community activists and former internees like Kiriyama will have special meaning.It's the first one held since the federal government started sending apologies and reparation payments to former internees. It also comes soon after the specter of Manzanar was raised when the FBI investigated Arab-Americans during the Persian Gulf war.
"People have to know that something like this should never happen again," said Kiriyama, who was 10 when he and his family were interned at Manzanar. "People should know the history - that American citizens were deprived of all that's American."
Manzanar, near Lone Pine in the Owens Valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, became a symbol of the war hysteria that led to the internment of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Most were American citizens. About 10,000 were sent to Manzanar.
Saturday's 22nd annual pilgrimage will be a time of reflection, of memories both good and bad.
"It's a lost four years you try to get back," said Archie Miyatake, who graduated from Manzanar High School in 1945. "But it's impossible. I think that's the only thing that goes through my mind. They were really lost years."
The internment program started in February 1942, two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that gave the military the power to relocate and intern "any and all persons" to protect the country from spies and terrorists.
Thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were rounded up from communities along the West Coast and shipped to 10 relocation camps, including Manzanar, 250 miles north of Los Angeles.
Nobody seriously fought the action.
"At that time we were naive. But we were isolated as a community," said Bruce Kaji, a Gardena businessman who had his 16th birthday on the train to Manzanar.
Although many had heard rumors about the condition of the camps, few were prepared for what they saw.
Manzanar comprised row after row of tar paper covered barracks on an expanse of newly graded dirt. Wind kicked up furious dust storms. It was brutally hot in the summer and icy cold in the winter.
But the camp soon became a bustling fenced-in community, the largest city at that time between Los Angeles and Reno, Nev. It had its own school system, athletic programs and internal government.
Manzanar High School published a yearbook and held a graduation ceremony. Internees got married, had children and were drafted into the military.
For all that activity, there's little left of Manzanar other than a stone guard shack, the camp cemetery and an auditorium being used to store road equipment. The barracks were torn apart for their wood, a rare commodity in the almost treeless valley.
A group of Japanese-American college students - angry over the treatment of their parents and grandparents and wanting to make a strong public statement - organized the first large-scale pilgrimage in 1969. It drew 200 people.
This year's pilgrimage is particularly timely, organizers said, because it comes amid objections to the government's questioning of Arab-Americans to prevent terrorist attacks during the gulf war.