Friday, May 6, 2011

Have You Seen Manzanar?

Manzanar -- the word in Spanish means "apple orchard." It refers to the peach, pear and apple orchards that thrived around the town of Manzanar, before the Los Angeles Aqueduct took nearly all the water from this part of the valley. When the water dried up, so did the town, which was abandoned by 1930.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; instantly Japan -- and all Japanese, even Japanese American citizens born in this country -- became our enemy. In February of 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in the removal from the western states of anyone who "might threaten the war effort." Ten camps were quickly developed, and within no time at all, everyone in the western states with Japanese ancestry was forced to relocate to these camps. They had mere days to decide what to do with their belongings, their homes, farms, businesses. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry.

Over 11,000 Japanese Americans were processed through Manzanar, one of the ten camps.

Two sentry stations "protected" the internees, who were in effect prisoners surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire.

War Relocation Center? Prison, hot in summer, bitter cold in winter.

We had come to Manzanar once before, several years ago, before there was a visitor center, before a lot of digging and recovery and reconstruction, so it was good to come again. The visitor center is located in an auditorium building that had been built by the internees in 1944.

Once inside we saw this miniature of the camp: divided into 36 blocks, separated by fire breaks. Each block held 14 military-style barracks, a mess hall, laundry room, ironing room, and men's and women's latrines. Within each block lived about 300 people, side by side, crammed into the four apartments of each barracks building.

The mockup of the camp.

A reconstructed barracks building.
This reconstruction is much nicer than the original buildings, as the California construction code would not accept the real thing. These have smoke alarms, modern wiring and handicapped access ramps!  
Each 20X25 foot "apartment" held up to 8 cots, each cot had 2 thin blankets and a pillow. Each apartment had its own entry door.

One of the hardest things to endure for most internees was the communal latrines, with no partitions; and showers with no stalls. This poster was mounted in each of the modern restrooms in the visitor center.

The Japanese internees tried to make the best of a bad situation. They established churches, boys and girls clubs, developed sports programs, built gardens and ponds. A few of the old gardens and ponds have been uncovered (60 years of neglect and blowing sand have taken a toll), and more archaeological work is on-going.

One of the internees had smuggled in a camera lens, and was eventually allowed to become the camp photographer.

This was probably the most ornate of the garden ponds, although others were very beautiful as well.

This pond and waterway decorated the area by the camp hospital.
How was all of this possible? Nearly all of the internees worked in the compound, some in gardening, some in mess halls, some were doctors and nurses. There were even a large number of professional landscape designers!

To help the war effort, more than 500 young internees worked in these sheds weaving camouflage netting for the U.S. military. They were paid $16 a month!
According to a volunteer who spoke with us, early in on the 3+ years of the war with Japan and the displacement of our own citizens, the government realized that this whole thing was wrong. We should not be doing this to our own people. But at that stage, they couldn't undo it, so stringent rules were relaxed, concrete was made available, some internees were allowed to go out of the compound to gather rocks and other materials. Some young people were even allowed to leave the camp if they were accepted into a college or had a job offer --- somewhere away from the western states.
We could go on and on, but it's time to close with these few pictures.

Fifteen of the 150 people who died at the relocation center were buried in this cemetery. Most of the rest were cremated. Today only six burials remain, as relatives removed the other nine after the war.

The Japanese inscription on the obelisk reads "Soul Consoling Tower."
 Last weekend was the annual pilgrimage to Manzanar or former internees, descendents, friends and others, to honor those who lived here and died here, and in the other nine camps around the country. They come by the busload, and many leave coins or other artifacts. There were even a couple of bent nails, commemorating a specific past event.

This is one of two tiny origami cranes I found on the ground by the obelisk. Of course, I left it there.

These colorful garlands of origami cranes were left at the monument.

In the visitors center hangs this banner, inscribed with the names of all of the internees of Manzanar.
 That is just part of the story of a very sobering day in ... Our Life on Wheels.


  1. Thanks so much for the history lesson -- you told it well...another place I would like to visit!

  2. It's hard to even look at the photos. What a shameful episode in our history, along with the way we treated the original inhabitants of this continent.

  3. Not an especially proud time in our country's history. :(

  4. Your pictures sure brought this period to life. Great history lesson of a not so great time.

  5. Well, given the time and the lack of flowing information, I think we did the hardest thing we could to protect the greatest number of people we could. Hind sight is 20/20. It good to know that we rethought the situatation and made it better.

  6. Nice tour and a very strange part of our history. What were we thinking? We went from that state of mind to our current politically correct status, which will do even more harm as time goes by.

  7. What a moving experience to see something like that! We're definitely stopping at Lone Pine on our way South this year, especially after reading all your posts on the place.

  8. No, I haven't been to Manzanar, but I've read quite a bit about it. I would like to see it in person some day, just to pay my respects to the hard-working people who lived there. Thank you for the sobering tour of a not-so-fine period of our American history.

  9. Thanks for a great history lesson. My heart goes out to those families who needlessly lost loved ones.

  10. A very heart wrenching history lesson for us all...I had heard of the internment camps, but never seen one...To have it right before my eyes made it horribly real to me..But something we should all see..Thanks.

  11. who would have believed something like that... I knew about it but had forgotten. Sadly it was what they thought was right to protect our country. Great coverage and photos!
    Have fun & Travel safe

  12. We found Manzanar a very serene place nestled against the Sierra Nevada mountains. They did a fine job on the museum itself & I liked how they incorporated the sounds of many voices throughout. One can only imagine what that camp must have looked & felt like but it's obvious from touring around the grounds & the many acres of the camp that the folks made the best of what they had. They were a hard working creative people. Nice pics & dialogue of the Manzanar history. I accidentally posted my first comment before finishing it & just remembered that......

  13. Last year I had the privilege of attending the Lindsay, CA High School class of 1940 reunion as a guest. All of the men present had served our country in the war but the person I was most intrigued by was a beautiful lady who had spent the war years at Manzanar. It should never have happened. She told me her family did not like it but they understood the reality of the situation and carried no hard feelings against their country (the USA). After the war, her family made a great comeback and wound up as very successful farmers and landowners.


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