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Monday, September 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:15 A.M.

Debate lingers over internment of Japanese-Americans

By Florangela Davila
Seattle Times staff reporter

Mary Dombrowski says sixth-graders, who will include her daughter, Mary Ellen Olsen, 11, are getting a one-sided take on local history.
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BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Kitsap County — This island's identity is inextricably linked with the World War II internment of its Japanese-American residents. Most locals are passionate in their feelings that it was grossly wrong.

It was here that 227 men, women and children of Japanese descent boarded a ferry at the Eagledale dock March 30, 1942, and were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the California desert, under the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And it was here that feisty newspaper editor Walt Woodward denounced their removal as a civil-rights violation. His was a lone newspaper voice in the first months after the internment began.

Local parent Mary Dombrowski is now part of a small, very different local chorus challenging school officials for narrowly teaching that the internment was the U.S. government's mistake.

"I would think if FDR thought it was important to do, based on the military intelligence, that he didn't make a mistake, no. I'm not going to second-guess FDR," she says.

"I have to be very careful about what I say because I have to live in this community."

Last year, Sakai Intermediate School received a $17,000 state grant to teach sixth-graders about the internment. The school created its "Leaving Our Island" curriculum, describing it as a two-weeks-long unit that would allow students to apply the history lesson to current events.

Students viewed an internment exhibit at the local historical museum, adopted "identities" of internees, interviewed island residents, built an incarceration barracks, wrote haiku, and explored possible similarities between the internment and today's homeland-security legislation.

Dombrowski, the mother of a soon-to-be sixth-grader, had received an e-mail last winter from the school about the unit and says that's when she became concerned.

"I wondered how wide the unit would be," she recalls. She called Principal Jo Vander Stoep and says she was told that only one point of view would be taught: The internment was a mistake.

"It seemed to me that was agenda-based, not fact-based," Dombrowski says. "I think it wasn't giving kids the full picture of World War II."
Dombrowski began talking to sixth-graders and their parents. Another parent, Caroline Smith, sat in on classes and went on field trips. The two-week unit, both mothers discovered, was actually presented over one month. Moreover, connections were made between the internment and today's USA Patriot Act.

"Although I hesitate to use such a loaded term, I firmly believe that the teaching unit in question rises to the level of propaganda," Dombrowski told the School Board last week.

Dombrowski, a slim, blond-haired woman who bears a slight resemblance to Meryl Streep, is a wife, mother of four, rental-housing businesswoman and part-time poet. She is also a history buff. She grew up in New England, minored in history and taught history and English at the Seattle Hebrew Academy in the 1970s.

When she and her family settled on the island, in a shoreline area once home to a fort used as a Navy communications center during World War II, Dombrowski collected each nugget of information about Fort Ward.

She learned that Fort Ward once housed a radio tower used to intercept coded radio messages from Japan. She learned how local farmers — European Americans, Native Americans — forfeited their houses and livelihood to make way for the fort.

"It was all there," Dombrowski, 51, says of that history. "But it's sort of like another story they want to tell here."

The internment, when more than 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals were forcibly removed from the West Coast, certainly should be taught, Dombrowski says. But as a Fort Ward resident — and the daughter of a World War II veteran as well as the wife of a 30-year Coast Guardsman — she argues that students would benefit from more context. What about hearing from someone at the Department of Justice or the FBI? she wondered. What about noting the contributions of the military or the sacrifices made by those who once lived at Fort Ward?

Dombrowski, in her brown jeans and linen shirt and almost-clogs, has that artsy/graduate-student look, particularly with a satchel draped across her back. The satchel is stuffed with letters to the school district, letters written back to her, a paperback written by Lillian Baker titled "American and Japanese Relocation in World War II: Fact, Fiction & Fallacy."

The book is controversial, as is a new book by Michelle Malkin, a former Seattle Times editorial writer, that defends the internment. Malkin's arguments have fueled Dombrowski's resolve that the internment is a complex, nuanced historical event and that the subject ought to be presented as such.

The more controversial a subject, the more it merits balance and a variety of perspectives, says Gary Mukai, director of the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, based at Stanford University. The program develops multidisciplinary curriculum.

"If I were teaching, I'd try hard to present it in a balanced way and let the kids figure it out," Mukai says. "I do believe, on a personal note, that it (the internment) was a mistake, but I would try not to advocate that."

At Sakai Intermediate School, named after local internee Sonoji Sakai, Principal Vander Stoep acknowledged the internment is presented with one point of view.

"We do teach it as a mistake," she said, noting that the U.S. government has admitted it was wrong. "As an educator, there are some things that we can say aren't debatable anymore." Slavery, for example. Or the internment — as opposed to a subject such as global warming, she said.

On a "kidspage" Web site about the internment, the Department of Justice notes that a congressional commission in 1980 determined the Japanese Americans were victims of discrimination and that President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to provide reparations as well as a presidential apology to the internees, evacuees and people of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property.

In the wake of last week's meeting, the school and the district, Vander Stoep said, will be reviewing "Leaving Our Island" for accuracy and bias and to make it more concise.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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