I was a Volunteer

From AFSC's Oral History Project

AFSC staffer Esther Rhoads was in Philadelphia and they telephoned her after immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She said, "I'll take a plane out today," and she did. I've never forgotten it. She was tremendous, and she found an abandoned Presbyterian school building in the heart of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. She got hold of it, opened it up as a hostel, got a mattress-factory person who donated his fleet of trucks. And when [the U.S government] evacuated the area's Japanese Americans on 24-hours notice--the Terminal Island fishermen, they were the poorest of the poor-- Esther Rhoads was there at the door of that hostel, bowing and greeting them in their own language, and serving soup and sandwiches and rice. That made a tremendous impression on me. I was eager to go to teach at Manzanar (one of 10 "relocation centers") and applied for the job with AFSC.

At Manzanar we lived in the same barracks as the internees, exactly, and at first we slept on the floor because they didn't have beds for us. Eventually the government bought a hotel in San Francisco, and shipped beds out to Manzanar. The residents in the camp didn't have regular mattresses; they just had cots with canvas bags filled with straw.

My students all wanted to have a yearbook [with pictures]. For them, this represented what you do when you're a senior. But we couldn't get film. And we had some great photographers in that camp. The greatest one was Toyo Miyataki. But he couldn't have a camera because no internee was allowed to keep a camera.

So I told these two men that visited from a nearby Civilian Public Service camp about the film--one of them was Bob Brill [my future husband], and then I never thought any more about it. And along came four rolls of film from New York City! His parents lived in New York and he knew where to get film and he wrote to his parents and said, "Would you send them to Miss Ely?"

When I saw those four [rolls of] film I was absolutely thrilled. I went tearing across the firebreak to Toyo Miyataki and I said, "Look! It's like gold!"

[And camp director] Ralph Merrit got out Toyo Miyataki's three cameras and said, "Here, use them!" Ralph would bend the rules. He was a friend of Ansel Adams and he invited Ansel Adams to come to the camp. That's how we got that great photographer to make photographs of Manzanar.

Anyway, we had a yearbook and I wrote the best thank you letter I could to Robert Brill and inside of a year we were married. I think Manzanar was the greatest two years of my life. It’s gone on to bear fruit ever since and I’ve been active in Quaker things ever since.