How much more do we know about the conditions at the Tuna Camp because of Merrill Scott’s private photographic documentation?
Born in Cucamonga, California in 1896, Merrill was hired by the U.S. Border Patrol to be superintendent of the Tuna Camp from December 1941 to October 1943. Merrill was a Methodist and a firm believer in human rights. In WWl, he was a soldier. Upon discharge, he worked for the railroad, and also at the Port of San Pedro, and then went on to be assigned by the INS to work at the border in Calexico.
When transferred to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station he immediately helped to organize and attempted to make life easier for the detainees. Most importantly, he recognized the dilemma of the German, Italian and especially the Japanese people. Because of his compassionate nature, he also felt compelled, even though it was against all the rules, to record through pictures the living conditions the detainees were forced to live in. Unlike other superintendents, Merrill treated the detainees with respect and kindness and in turn the detainees respected him. It was these photos offered by David Scott and Merrill’s family which connected official documents to the real situation. Though the Tuna Camp was a temporary location, it was imperative to provide comfort and stability to an exiled, but innocent, group of immigrants, many of which were not allowed by law to be citizens because they were Japanese.
To illustrate this attitude are the words of a friend, Herbert Nicholson, who quoted Scott: “Nicholson, I could open this camp at any time and say, ‘Gentlemen, you may go home to your wives and your families and come back tomorrow evening by five o’clock …and they would all get back by five o’clock, and they wouldn’t do any damage while they were out.” He goes on to say, “But I have to have Sarge, an old retired soldier, with a pistol at the gate, and they insisted on building towers with a fellow and a gun on top for these perfectly loyal Americans”. Scott had seen the meanness and contempt of some of the guards and the extra high barbed wire fences.
Friendships between the people at the camp and Merrill Scott grew during the internment time, real friendships based on respect and understanding. There are many incidents that were reported showing cooperation between Scott with the various needs of the men. Letters to and about Merrill Scott from the internees all contained words of this nature: “I had no bitterness because I had seen the true American spirit in the camp among the internees and the officers and I was happy to be treated with justice.” (Kenji Nakane) The night before Kenji was transferred to Poston to join his family, Merrill Scott & staff gave Kenji and others leaving for Poston, a party. After Scott spoke he asked Kenji to speak and all Kenji could say was “Damn it, you are a good bunch”.
After the Tuna Camp closed, Scott was assigned to the Kooskia Detention facility, a former work camp in Idaho, which was, before the war, a 200 man Federal prison for inmates convicted of crimes against U.S. laws. By 1943 the now INS camp held Japanese men from internment camps who had volunteered to serve at Kooskia as paid workers, under the Geneva Convention, on a much needed highway. The former camp commander had treated the men badly and Scott was sent to replace him and boost the morale of the workers. The volunteer workers had become so disillusioned with the officers at the camp who treating them as if they were prisoners. When Scott became the superintendent, morale greatly improved. Mr. Scott seemed to know every internee by name, had direct and personal contacts with every one of them and they held him in the highest respect and esteem.
A letter to Scott signed by several men in the barracks of the Tuna Camp summarizes the attitudes of the group. “Your very kind and most considerate care of us all is deeply appreciated by every member of present group in this camp. We are unable to express adequately our heart-felt gratitude for your thoughtfulness. Though, unfortunately the nations are at war, we still are blessed with the democratic way of life, which does not exist in any other country, and which we have deeply experienced in this camp. The fact that true spirit of democracy manifest itself among your officials, confirms our faith in that way of life.”