Anyone who has ever
driven the 395 between Los Angeles and Mammoth Lakes, California has passed the Manzanar
War Relocation Camp. It is between the towns of Lone Pine
and Independence. From the road, all you can really see is
the old gym/community center and a couple of sentry posts.
More recently, one of the old guard towers was
reconstructed. We have passed it many times over the years
and I decided it was time to stop and take a look at part of
the history of this country, albeit a dark part of our
Manzanar Community Center and Gym. Today, it serves as the
interpretive center and museum.
The first thing you notice as you get
out of your vehicle in the parking lot is how desolate and
quiet it is here. It was August, and pretty warm here, with
very little shade. In the winter, it was probably miserable.
A little background to the history. The
Japanese Navy forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
A Japanese submarine shelled Santa Barbara, California and
then the "Battle of Los Angeles" all contributed to the
anti-Japanese sentiment in the US, especially in the western
This photo, taken in 1942, shows the hatred that was openly
Vandalism to a Japanese American family home.
On February 19, 1942, President
Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the US
Army to remove nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from
the homes and business on the west coast. Two thirds of the
people displaced from their communities were American
citizens. Manzanar was the first of 10 camps established to
house the Nisei.
One of many Japanese American businesses that were sold,
almost always at a big loss because of their internment.
Depending on where the lived, they were
put into camps established within communities and bussed to
Manzanar, or one of the other 9 camps. At it's height,
Manzanar held 11,070 Japanese Americans.
Model of Manzanar as it was in the early 1940s. The community
center, that still stands today is toward the front left, in
the clearing between rows.
The Japanese Americans went from homes
and businesses in local communities to crowded, hastily built
camps in places that were out of the way and desolate. The
buildings at Manzanar were constructed of wood and tar-paper.
While we were there, the buildings were hot and stuffy. In the
winter, they would be cold and drafty.
Buildings in Manzanar all were of the same basic construction
regardless of their function. This is a reconstructed building
used to house families.
This would be the living quarters for any combination of eight
people in 1942, a space of 20' x 25'. Each building housed
several families and the walls between sections were simple
plywood with walkways. There was little privacy and no
Later in the time of the camp, flooring and dry-wall were
added to the buildings. Little comfort to the spartan space
Privacy was pretty much non-existent.
Bathroom facilities were buildings of the same construction
with toilets and showers. The toilets did not have stalls, and
were in the wide open in rows. Community chow halls were also
in each block to feed the people.
One of the chow halls at Manzanar, each "block" had a chow
hall, mens and womens bathroom facility and laundry.
Signs denoting where some of the buildings were in the block
near the chow hall.
Guard tower in the corner of the property to remind you that
you were no longer free.
One of the morale boosters for those in
the camp were to create block gardens. With long lines for the
chow hall, people would find solace in the gardens and
fountains. Each block had it's own, and it was a source of
pride for the block.
San-shi-en garden was unearthed in 1999 by the National Park
Service archeologists in block 34. Water flows through three
levels, aligned North to South. The highest point symbolizes
the mountains which flows to the pond, representing the ocean.
Stones were brough in from the nearby Inyo mountains and trees
were planted as well to give a serene setting. Additional
gardens were being excavated while we were there.
The sentry post buildings and other
building were built by the interneesduring their internment.
Ryozo Kado was a stonemason and built the sentry guard houses
using stone from the nearby Inyo mountains. The gym/community
center and other places were built by the people interned
Military sentry post shacks built by Ryozo Kado.
Just to the left of the guard shacks as
you enter the camp is the traffic circle and foundation of the
administration buildings. The trafic circle has a single
entrance/exit. The internees were brough here by bus and had a
short walk to the administration buildings to be processed
into the camp.
The single road in and out of the traffic circle near the
The traffic circle near the administration area.
Foundations of the administration buildings.
Despite being interned, the Japanese
Americans made the bst of the situation. There was a school
for children, an orphanage, three Buddhist temples, baseball
leagues, gardens, orchards, kendo studios and even a
newspaper. There was also a factory for making camouflage
netting for the military.
Foundations from the camouflage netting factory.
The local newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press was located on
this spot. I found it ironic that the camp newspaper was the
Manzanar FREE Press.
Manzanar was well documented because of
Toyo Miyatake. He was a professional photographer before the
war. Against Army orders, he smuggled in camera equipment to
document the camp when he arrived with his wife and four
children in May of 1942. He would later receive permission to
take photographs in the camp. Because
of this, Manzanar was probably the most well documented of the
Toyo Miyatake set up a lab like this in
one in Block 20 of the camp.
During the time of Manzanar, 150
internees dies at the camp. Fifteen of them were buried near
the camp in the cemetary. Nice have since been removed and
interred elsewhere. Six of them remain in this place of
memorial. This part of the tour was the most moving and heavy
for me. A large memorial stone stands in the middle, built by
the internees. Many things are left here to memorialize the
dead and the history. One thing that struck me was the
Senbazuru that were left at the site. Senbazuru literally
means "1000 cranes". 1,000 cranes are folded in origami, and
strung together with string. They are used to symbolize luck,
peace and healing. The legend is that if you make a senbazuru
and make a wish, it will come true. As the paper cranes
deteriorate and return to the earth, they release the wish.
Senbazuru seen on a post at the entrance to the memorial
cemetary. The front translation is "memorial tower"
The back of the memorial stone. Translation: "Japanese at
Manzanar built this. August 1943."
Multiple offerings are made to the dead on the memorial stone.
A beautiful and colorful Senbazura left at the base of the
One of the head stones in the cemetary. Offerings of stones
and coins are left to memorialize the dead.
My final thoughts on Manzanar. It was a
moving and chilling experience to see. Driving past it for so
many years, you don't realize the history and significance of
the site. I won't pretend to understand what happened and why,
and perhaps I cannot truly know the reasoning behind the
sentiments of people that held such racist thoughts toward the
Japanese and openly displayed them. I don't try to judge
events of the past without having lived through them. But I
will say that what was done wasn't right in my mind. The fact
that 66% of the internees were American citizens is a
frightening and chillig thought for me as a veteran. I can
only hope that this kind of thing never happens again in
Manzanar guard tower, rebuilt a few years ago, and clearly
visible from the 395 now.
Manzanar landmark plaque. May we always remember this so that
it is never repeated.
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