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Papa rarely talks about his experiences at Fort Lincoln because of his humiliation at being accused of disloyalty. Other men experience this sense of helplessness and rage, and these feelings eventually culminate in the December Riot, which takes place one year after the Pearl Harbor attack. In the months before the riot, the mess hall bells ring often to signal meetings to demand better food, better wages, and even outright revolt. Some meetings lead to beatings or assassination threats. On the night of December 5, 1942, a group of men attacks Fred Tayama, a leader of the Japanese American Citizens League.
The next day, the camp authorities arrest three men for the attack and send them to jail ten miles away in the town of Independence. One of the men is a cook known for trying to organize a Kitchen Worker’s Union and accusing the white chief steward of selling food from the camp’s warehouses on the black market. His arrest triggers a riot, but Papa refuses to participate. He keeps the family inside their barracks during the riot, and Jeanne can hear the lynch mobs roaming the camp, shouting slogans. Papa calls the rioters idiots, but Mama defends them, saying that they don’t want to be treated like animals. The authorities agree to bring the cook back to camp, but by 6:00 p.m., there are 2,000 rioters and the camp security force has disappeared. One group of rioters goes to free the cook, and the other goes to the hospital to finish off Fred Tayama. One group throws rocks at a unit of military police, which responds with tear gas. The Japanese flee. In the chaos, the police open fire with machine guns, killing two Japanese and injuring ten others. Late that night the mess hall bells begin to toll, and Jeanne sees the camp searchlights for the first time. The bells toll all night and do not stop until noon the next day.
Jeanne’s brother-in-law Kaz is foreman of a reservoir maintenance crew that must leave the camp on the night of the riots. They are issued ax handles to protect themselves if the rioters discover them cooperating with the administration. They drive to the reservoir, check the water, and set up camp in a small shack where each crew must spend its twenty-four-hour shift. Kaz, lying in his cot, thinks he sees something go past the window. Suddenly the door flies open and four military police storm into the room. They back the Japanese up against the wall at gunpoint, thinking that they have discovered a group of saboteurs. The young sergeant asks what the Japanese are doing, and Kaz explains that they are the reservoir crew and are outside camp on official orders. The sergeant is suspicious of them and asks why they have ax handles. Kaz explains that the ax handles are for protection and suggests that the sergeant go back to camp to verify the story. The reservoir crew and the military police stare at each other in fear until the sergeant returns with clearance thirty minutes later.
“The Mess Hall Bells,” one of the most violent episodes of the memoir, questions why it takes so long for riots to happen within the camps, given the inhumane living conditions. Wakatsuki depicts the Japanese as subordinate: they obey every order issued by the government and go willingly to the interrogations. There is little evidence of force on the part of the U.S. military. However, the December Riot shows that many of the Issei men were not content after having been detained in other camps. Rather than channel their anger at the oppressive forces of the U.S. government, they focus it upon each other as they rush to identify inu. In striking back at the inu they suspect of betraying them, these uprising Japanese Americans begin behaving, ironically, like dogs themselves, roaming in bands and calling for blood. They are justified in their anger, but it is difficult to sympathize with them because what they are doing to each other is as unjust and cruel as what the U.S. government has done to them.
Until this point, fear plays a relatively minor part in Wakatsuki’s story, but “The Mess Hall Bells” and “The Reservoir Shack: An Aside” focus on the buildup of fear between the Japanese and non-Japanese Americans. The events in both chapters occur at night, with one group’s ill feelings about another leading to a tense confrontation. In “The Mess Hall Bells” shouting mobs roam the camp like wild dogs searching for traitors, and Jeanne, locked in her barracks by her father, can only imagine what is going on from the sound of people rushing past and gunshots. The searchlight, which Jeanne sees for the first time that night, and the haunting mess hall bells, which toll until noon the next day in memory of the dead and wounded, contribute to the eeriness of the scene both for us and the characters. Similarly, in “The Reservoir Shack: An Aside,” the military police’s mistrust of the Japanese reservoir crew results in a standoff between the two units. Because of fear, none of the men on either side can communicate, and without communication, the men can only stand frozen against the wall, staring. The fact that the two sides can only stare at each other in silent fear shows how much fear has become an obstacle even to simple human interaction between whites and Japanese.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Farewell to Manzanar!