Jackson Thomas Byrne (who goes by J.T.) wasn’t much of a history buff when the competition first came along, and who can blame him: He was only in sixth grade.
But in seventh grade, he took on the challenge and aced it.
On May 7, Byrne was named a co-champion at the annual California History Day competition, which draws about 2,000 competitors. He was recognized for a documentary he made about Nisei baseball leagues – in Japanese, “Nisei” means second-generation Japanese-American – and how baseball provided a lifeline for the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II.
The baseball diamonds the Japanese-Americans had played on in the Nisei leagues, Byrne says, were swapped for sandlots at the camps, where they kept playing.
Byrne, a rising eighth-grader at All Saints’ Day School in Carmel Valley, heads to the University of Maryland, College Park on June 12, where he will enter his documentary into the 2016 National History Day competition, where he’ll be one of 94 entrants in the documentary category.
If not for Byrne’s youthful voice, his historical documentary is indistinguishable from the production quality of what one might see on TV.
Byrne did have help along the way from teachers, as all students do, as well as journalistic advice from his mother, Marilyn Getas, a former anchor at KSBW. But that is not to take away from what he’s accomplished on his own.
Byrne’s documentary is 10 minutes long – the mandated length for entries – and begins with his thesis: In the internment camps, makeshift baseball games gave Japanese-Americans a sense of purpose, and provided a vital distraction from their plight. With crisp editing of historical footage, Byrne traces the history of Japanese-American baseball. He interviews Maya Miyamoto, a 94-year-old Carmel resident who was raised in Monterey, and who recalls playing in local Nisei league games on Sundays when the sardine boats didn’t go out. Though Miyamoto’s older brothers were off fighting for the U.S., he and the rest of his family were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Byrne was amazed by how positive Miyamoto’s spirit remained.
Every seventh-grader at All Saints is required to participate in National History Day, which is actually a year-long educational program that primes students on research skills, and requires they create something meaningful – whether it be a paper, exhibit, performance or documentary – out of what they discover. As he prepares to go to the national competition, Byrne spoke with the Weekly about how his love for baseball helped him connect with history, and why what he learned is important to remember. Stayed tuned for updates on Byrne, and watch his video after it’s made public, at www.mcweekly.com.
Weekly: How did you decide what you wanted to do your project on?
Byrne: We got the [competition’s] theme in May of last year: “exploration, encounter and exchange.” And that’s pretty broad, so you have some options. I love baseball so much and that’s my passion, so I was just surfing around [online], looking for the history of baseball and Jackie Robinson, and then I came across this link about Nisei baseball. As I kept looking, I noticed [Japanese-Americans] played baseball in the internment camps.
What were the most interesting things you discovered in the process?
I didn’t know that the Japanese were even interned during World War II. I was able to go Manzanar, preserved as an internment camp today. It’s right next to the Sierras, and the conditions were dusty and cold, and it’s very small. You’re in the middle of nowhere, and for them to be taken away from their homes… going there really made me feel what was going on.
Did Maya Miyamoto, the internee you interviewed, seem scarred by being interned?
No. He said the experience itself was very hard, but he always found something to do and make it like normal life.
Why is this history important?
With my topic, the one thing that every internee I’ve talked to – every person that was interned – is they do not want this to happen again, and that’s what they are fearing right now. If people were to look back in history, they could realize, “Wow, look what happened, we can prevent this from happening again.”
CORRECTION (6/9/16): An earlier version of this story innacurately stated that Bryne's mother was KSBW anchor Erin Clark. The Weekly regrets the error.