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A Darker Side of History

Visiting Manzanar National Historic Site


Lee Juillerat

To the Spanish, who were among the region's earliest settlers, Manzanar is the word for "apple orchard." To generations of another group of people with a shorter history, Manzanar is associated with World War II, when more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were held at Manzanar's hastily developed "relocation center" during the hysteria of anti-Japanese sentiment following the December 7, 1941, Japanese invasion of bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Visiting Manzanar National Historic Monument is taking a glimpse at an unfortunate chapter in American history. Located in Southern California's Owens Valley in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Range, Manzanar was one of 10 relocation camps established by the United States government Within months, and without due process, 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them American citizens by birth, had been sent to camps because of concerns that sympathetic Japanese might assist their homeland and, to a lesser degree, fears that angry Anglo-Americans might seek vengeance again "Japs."

Manzanar gained national attention from the book, "Farewell to Manzanar." It remains the only of the 10 with an active interpretive program that tells the story of life in an internment camp. Another camp, Minidoka in Idaho, is also under the wing of the National Park Service, but it is not yet developed. Just south of the Oregon-California border, Tule Lake, which became the most infamous because it became the largest and was designated a segregation center for "disloyal" internees in July 1943, hopes to develop a small interpretive area around one of its remaining buildings, a stockade called by Japanese Americans as a prison within a prison.

Manzanar and the other camps were created following Executive Order 9066 in February 1941. The order authorized the relocation and-or internment of anyone who might threaten the U.S. war effort. Centers were eventually located at Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho, Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas. The first Japanese Americans who arrived at Manzanar in March 1942 were volunteers who helped build the camp. By September, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were packed into 504 barracks within a 500-acre housing section, which was enclosed by barbed wire fences and eight guard towers. Insights to life at camp are told in "Farewell to Manzanar," a book by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston about her childhood years at the camp.

A sense of that life is created through a variety of carefully planed exhibits in Manzanar's former auditorium, which has been redeveloped into a National Park Service interpretive center. Originally built by internees in 1944, it housed a gymnasium and a stage used for plays, graduation ceremonies and other social functions. When Manzanar was opened April 24, 2004, the auditorium had been converted into a visitor center. Along with serving as a starting point for a self-guided auto tour of the old camp, it features a variety of exhibits intended to give visitors a sense of camp life.
ID Badge for our "Guests."

For those forced to live at Manzanar, it was often a difficult experience. On December 6, 1942, military police shot at Manzanar internees who were protesting the arrest of another internee. Eleven people were shot, and two died from injuries. One of Manzanar's most poignant reminders of the past is the center's cemetery. A monument was commissioned by internees to honor the 135 people who died at Manzanar. Stonemason Rozo Kado, who also designed and supervised the construction of the camp's sentry and police posts, supervised its construction. Each family donated 15 cents to buy cement. Three characters on the front side of the monument translate to "soul consoling tower" or, based on the translation, "monument to console the souls of the dead.

Manzanar's cemetery
Graves in the Sand
Flowers for the Dead

Of the original barracks, only one remains. Plans call for rehabilitating the barracks to better give visitors a sense of camp life. The camp had 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Between 20 and 400 people lived in each block, with 14 barracks, each divided into four rooms. Each block had shared men's and women's toilets and showers, laundry and mess hall. One outdoor faucet provided water for each barracks. Up to eight people lived in 20- by 25-foot rooms. Most of the Japanese Americans sent to Manzanar were from Los Angeles, 200 miles away, or communities in California and Washington. Most were unprepared, and unaccustomed, to the harsh summer heat and below freezing temperatures of winter. Because of its desert environment, the camp was frequent made miserable when strong winds carried dust and sand.

Last of hundreds of barracks
Banners of the 10 Camps
Interpretive Center

A 3.5 mile auto tour bisects the camp. While simple glimpses out a car window provide a sense of the camp, it's also worthwhile to around sections of the camp, especially through rock gardens created by internees to create a sense of atmosphere and beauty, and the cemetery. It's possible to ponder the past while walking through the grounds and seeing scattered remnants, including concrete pier blocks where barracks and other buildings once stood. Most of the driving routes stops show where various camp locations , including a high school, newspaper, baseball fields, Catholic church, children's village, Buddhist temple and other structures, were located. At most, all that remains are foundations or concrete slabs. Future plans include eventually reconstructing or restoring two barracks, a mess hall guard tower and the rock gardens.

As WWII turned in favor of U.S. troops, the number of internees gradually decreased. After hitting a peak population of 10,046 in September 1942, the camp's population shrunk to 6,000 in 1944. The last few hundred internees left in November1945, three month's after the war ended with Japan's surrender on August 14, 1945.

Over the past 30 years, annual Manzanar Pilgrimages have been held the last Saturday of April, with the cemetery serving as the prime gathering place. Featured activities include an interfaith memorial, guided tours, displays, presentations and music. For information, contact the Manzanar Committee, 1566 Curran Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026 or telephone (323) 662-5102. For information on Manzanar, visit the Web site at www.nps.gov/manz or write Manzanar National Historic Site, P.O. Box 426, Independence, CA 93526. Manzanar is about 200 miles from Los Angeles off Highway 395. The camp is nine miles north of Lone Pine and six miles south of Independence, where the Eastern California Museum exhibits include "The Story of Manzanar, the Japanese American World War II Internment Center.






























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