Visited: May 2016
This post is a continuation of Alabama Hills and Lone Pine.
Tucked away in the Owens Valley, just north of the Alabama Hills is Manzanar. This place served as a camp under the Executive Order of President Franklin Roosevelt who instructed to take whatever “reasonable action..deemed necessary” concerning the evacuation of Japanese Americans and to set up “military areas,” now known as “War Relocation Centers” (WRC).
Manzanar was one of these camps. At its peak, Manzanar held over 10,000 people.
What We Saw:
Doing some research before our trip, I wanted to know more about the history of Manzanar so I could delve deeper into the experience during my visit.
I learned that Japanese Americans were transported to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks and fairgrounds in: California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. One of those facilities was my local fairgrounds! The same fairgrounds that I attend every summer with my family was used to assemble Japanese Americans before their lives were changed forever. If you are from the Western States of America you should consider looking if any of the location sites were near you.
Housing & Community
Most of the internees at Manzanar were bused in, carrying only one bag per person.
The first internees arrived to a camp that was not yet set up for them. The first day was spent making their own beds out of straw and bags. It wasn’t until a few weeks later as more people arrived the camps barracks were put up with basic necessities. The barracks were simply large wood rectangles covered with tar paper. There were no dividing walls and the residents had to put up sheets for privacy. The bathrooms and showers were communal with men, women, and children sharing the facilities.
With their own hands, the people of Manzanar built from the ground up: a modern hospital, an elementary and secondary school with an auditorium. They set up a factory that created camouflage net factory for the war effort. There was a newspaper office, a post office, and beauty shops. They started to transform the desert environment by building a cattle ranch and a hog farm; as well as converting the surrounding area into farmland and Japanese gardens. There were also boys and girls clubs, temples, and a self organized government within the camp where internees elected block managers to help keep the peace and advise the military of the needs and plans of the Japanese Americans.
It truly was amazing. These people didn’t just sit around. They took their hobbies, talents, and social organizations and transplanted them into the camp.
The Auto Loop
Manzanar has a 3.2-mile auto loop around the camp.
Using a map from the center, there are stopping points with explanations of what had once been. There is not much left of the sites as the buildings were auctioned off when the camp closed. Reconstructed barracks and a guard tower are on the loop. The original Manzanar Relocation Center sign is also at the entrance.
The camp was divided into blocks made up of 14 barrack buildings with each barrack divided into four rooms. One room per family. Up to 400 people lived in each block where they had their own service buildings that served their block, consisting of shared men’s and women’s toilets and showers, a laundry room, and a dining hall.
A small grove of pear trees still survive to this day, serving as a living testament to when Manzanar turned from a wasteland into a temporary home. Some of the garden ruins can still be found as well in the loop.
The Monument and Cemetery
About 150 people passed away in the short time of the camp. The cemetery’s monument “The Soul Consoling Tower” is a permanent tribute to those who died. It’s also the destination of an annual pilgrimage held the last Saturday of April each year. Family members and those in the Manzanar committee come for a remembrance ceremony and to leave offerings of colorful cranes, incense, or small toys.
Strands of origami cranes are draped along the fencing surrounding the monument all year long, symbols of hope and healing.
The Interpretative Center, once the Manzanar High School auditorium, offers an amazing collection of exhibits and a theater. The theater plays on a loop the documentary: Remembering Manzanar. I press you to spend a couple hours reading everything you can in the Interpretative Center’s collection. The many items left behind offer the best insight to the feelings and experiences through letters, photos, handmade furniture, and everyday life items.
In the back of the room are large military ledgers that list every name of those interned in all the camps. I filtered through every manual to find the name of a grandmother who I was friends with in my hometown. She once told me of her experience. I found her name in the fifth ledger and just cried. Sat and looked around the museum, and it all floods in. My heart felt overwhelmed.
If you do not have a personal connection to anyone who experienced an internment camp, the museum offers you to look through the life of someone who was. Pick up a name tag that mimics the tags worn by internees when forced into the camps, and follow it throughout the museum to find out what happened.
Every display has a huge impact. Nothing was too small to emotionally slap you in the face.
The Loyalty Questionnaire
In the middle of the War, tensions intensified and the people in Manzanar were required to answer a “loyalty questionnaire.” One of the questions that caused a complete catch-22 was Question # 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States… and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”
Many internees felt this question was a trap.
An answer of “yes” would look as if they had once sworn allegiance to Japan. Almost everyone in the internment camps were American born or had lived in the US for more than 20 years. During that time while struggling for a place in American society, many tried to retain ties to Japan. They wanted to continue to foster ethnic traditions and teach their American-born children. The Japanese were denied American citizenship, so they tried to fight discriminatory legislation while teetering back and forth of which society they belonged too. Having lived in a society heavily racist, if they said “yes” to the questionnaire and forswore their homeland, then they would also be giving up their ancestry; an idea which was unthinkable, to live in a land that treated them like criminals and not allow them to be full citizens. They would be giving up their cultural attachments to Japan and forced to be less-than-American.
If they said “no”, they would be treated as unloyal to the United States and be further segregated from their families by being sent to another camp.Many were horrified at the prospect of the only thing they had left, their family, being broken up and taken away from them.
There were many debates and meetings. Some refused to answer, or answered no, as a matter of principle and defiance. Those that answered “no” were sent to a more remote camp. Some were even deported back to Japan, a land many had never stepped foot in.
No matter the answer, yes or no, they would be stateless.
Overall Feeling of the Camp:
It was unjust:
- Those that carried only one bag into the camp, left behind homes, cars, businesses, heirlooms, pets, and toys. Many of them sold or raided in their absence and never seen again.
- Those who were allowed to leave the camps for “resettlement” could not return to the West Coast where they had lived all their lives. They were forced to move to the eastern areas of the United States.
- One soldier, Sadao Munemori volunteered from the camp for military service, to prove his loyalty to the United States. During battle, he sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers and was post-humorously awarded the Metal Of Honor for distinguished acts of valor. All for a country that was still keeping his mother behind barbed wire.
Not Letting History Repeat Itself: In 1972, Manzanar became a California Registered Historical Landmark. The site serving to remind visitors of the horrors of racism and nationalism at the expense of others. The relocation and internment of Japanese Americans was the consequence of ignorance and war time hysteria. We must learn from the Japanese internment and always protect our constitutional rights and the rights of others. It is hard not to compare to the events of 2017 and those that speak against Muslims.
Pride: Many times I was brought to tears from the perseverance and understanding of the Japanese. The most profound message I found was tucked away in the Manzanar High School year book. It sent a message of encouragement to it’s students as well as into the future.
These were the strongest Americans.
They found hope in a poor situation and walked away saying that “Manzanar was an experience worth living.” When they left to start their lives over, and the war is over, “the graduates of Manzanar have a great contribution to make in determining the kind of world that is to come…”
Their experience helps create a better world for us all.
Hours: The Visitor Center has seasonal hours; check here.
Total Time Spent: 6 hours
- “Japanese Americans in the Columbia River Basin,” Vancouver, http://archive.vancouver.wsu.edu/crbeha/ja/ja.htm.
- “Japanese Americans at Manzanar,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/manz/learn/historyculture/japanese-americans-at-manzanar.htm.
- Learn more about Manzanar from the Smithsonian: Japanese Americans and the Constitution
- Talent and Hobby Photographs from the: Japanese American Archival Collection, Iwata (Jack Masaki) Collection, California State University, Sacramento. Library. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives , Calisphere, powered by the California Digital Library.