TRONA, Calif. — Martha Shoaf began her teaching career at Manzanar and she never stopped sharing the lessons she learned at the Japanese American internment camp. A memorial service was held last Saturday at the Trona Community Church for Shoaf, who passed away on June 3 at the age of 92.
Throughout her life, Shoaf would share her memories of Manzanar, showing photos she took as an idealistic young teacher. The resident of Trona, a small town in Inyo County, traveled frequently to the Manzanar Interpretive Center to give talks on her experiences. She also attended a War Relocation Authority reunion in May 2004 and shared her memories with the WRA kids.
“Martha was very proud that the final photo in our film ‘Remembering Manzanar’ was one she took with her little Brownie camera. It’s of a school play with Manzanar kids dressed in colonial garb and holding a 13-star flag. Through her lens and through her life, Martha celebrated her fellow Americans,” said Alisa Lynch, chief of interpretation.
“Martha was a teacher in Manzanar from 1942 to 1944, yet she spent her whole life teaching about it. She also came back many times over the years to present public programs and touched many lives.”
Born in Los Angeles on June 28, 1919, Shoaf graduated from UCLA in 1942 and, upon hearing that there were teaching jobs at Manzanar, set about getting her teaching credential.
“They looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses, but I got to go,” Shoaf recalled in an oral history conducted in November 2002.
Shoaf was a student in the quad in front of Royce Hall on the UCLA campus when she heard President Franklin Roosevelt declare war with Japan. She felt concern for her Japanese American friends.
“I had Japanese friends and when they left, you know, there was kind of a void there … I was upset about the whole thing,” said Shoaf. “I didn’t think it was fair, didn’t think it was fair then, don’t think it is fair now. But these things happened and when they left I just felt, ‘Well, I have to do something.’ And that’s one reason why I wanted to go to Manzanar.”
Shoaf arrived at Manzanar in February 1943 and immediately moved into a barrack covered with tarpaper. At the camp she taught fourth grade, and would visit nearby Lone Pine to buy butcher paper and crayons for the children.
“The children would talk to me and they would ask questions like, well, could I leave the camp? And I said, ‘Yes,’ and they’d say, ‘Won’t the soldiers shoot at you?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And that rather surprised them because I think they thought that … since I lived in the camp, that I would have been treated the same,” said Shoaf.
After Manzanar, Shoaf moved to Trona and later traveled the world, teaching in Austria, Germany and France. She returned to Trona to teach fifth and sixth grades before retiring, and remained active in local community organizations.
Lynch remembered that a former student brought flowers to Shoaf during one of her talks at the interpretive center.
“He presented her with a bouquet and expressed his gratitude, and that of his classmates. We all got tears in our eyes witnessing such an outpouring of gratitude 65 years later, for a woman who fought to come to Manzanar because she felt that what was happening here was wrong,” said Lynch.
At the conclusion of her oral history, Shoaf read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The interviewer asked if America has learned the lessons of the Constitution through experiences like Manzanar.
“I hoped we learned about them. I really desperately hope we did. I don’t ever want to see this kind of a situation happen again. It’s just wrong,” Shoaf said.
Shoaf is survived by her niece Patricia O’Hagan and husband Mike of Cupertino, her nephew Ronald Penton of Belmont, grand-nieces Courtney O’Hagan and Ashley O’Hagan of Cupertino, grand-nephews Michael and Jamie O’Hagen of South Carolina, godson from Manzanar Wyn Nielson, traveling buddy Tom Daniels, and “adopted son” Steve Peterson.