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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Manzanar National Historic Site

We took one day from our Death Valley visit to drive to nearby Lone Pine and the Manzanar National Historic Site just a short drive north of Lone Pine on US 395.

Here is a photo of the entrance:

Manzanar is most widely known as the site of one of ten camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California's Owens Valley between the towns of Lone Pine to the south and Independence to the north, it is approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Manzanar (which means "apple orchard" in Spanish) preserves and interprets the legacy of Japanese American incarceration in the United States.

After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Government swiftly moved to begin solving the "Japanese Problem" on the West Coast of the United States. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to designate military commanders to prescribe military areas and to exclude "any or all persons" from such areas. The order also authorized the construction of what would later be called "relocation centers" by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to house those who were to be excluded. This order resulted in the forced relocation of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born American citizens. The rest had been prevented from becoming citizens by federal law. Over 110,000 were incarcerated in the ten concentration camps located far inland and away from the coast.

Here is one of the guard towers used at Manzanar.  Many Japanese internees were convinced to come voluntarily to Manzanar on the argument that their lives were in danger in their communities, and the military would protect them.  The lie was given to this when the detainees discovered the military guns pointed inward at them rather than outward at some hostile non-Japanese Americans.

Manzanar was the first of the ten concentration camps to be established.  The camp site comprised about a square mile and consisted of 36 blocks of hastily constructed, 20x100 foot tarpaper barracks, with each incarceree family living in a single 20x25 foot "apartment" in the barracks.

These apartments consisted of partitions with no ceilings, eliminating any chance of privacy. Lack of privacy was a major problem for the incarcerees, especially since the camp had communal men's and women's latrines.

Most incarcerees were employed at Manzanar to keep the camp running.  The incarcerees made Manzanar more livable through recreation. They participated in sports, including baseball and football, and martial arts. They also personalized and beautified their barren surroundings by building elaborate gardens, which often included pools, waterfalls, and rock ornaments. There was even a nine-hole golf course. Remnants of some of the gardens, pools, and rock ornaments are still present at Manzanar.

On November 21, 1945, the WRA closed Manzanar. The incarcerees had to leave the camp and travel to their next destinations on their own. The WRA gave each person $25, one-way train or bus fare, and meals to those who had less than $600. While many left the camp voluntarily, a significant number refused to leave because they had no place to go after having lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes. As such, they had to be forcibly removed once again, this time from Manzanar.

The present site is ghostly in its appearance, with roads leading to no apparent destination.  The original destinations have been torn down, lost in the mists of time and memory:

The Manzanar cemetery site is marked by a monument that was built by incarceree stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. Today, the monument is often draped in strings of origami, and sometimes survivors and other visitors leave offerings of personal items as mementos.  An inscription in Japanese on the front of the monument, translated, reads, "Soul Consoling Tower."

The inscription on the back reads, translated, "Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943."

One hundred forty-six incarcerees died at Manzanar. Fifteen incarcerees were buried there, but only five graves remain, as most were later reburied elsewhere by their families.

Since the last incarcerees left in 1945, former incarcerees and others have worked to protect Manzanar and to establish it as a National Historic Site to ensure that the history of the site, along with the stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated there, are remembered by current and future generations.

Here is a video produced by PBS on Manzanar, titled, "Never Again."

While a driving tour is offered to visitors, a walking tour gives access to many more of the sites in the interior of the property and is a much more powerful experience.  The documentary film shown at the visitor center should not be missed.  It focuses on the human and individual experiences of the detainees in the camp.

The park has partnered with Densho: The Japanese-American Legacy Project which hosts video and audio oral histories and historic documents from Manzanar and other confinement sites. The park has also partnered with the California Audiovisual Preservation Project which hosts historic home movies and oral histories.  The park has also conducted over five hundred oral history interviews. Segments of a number of them can be found in Manzanar's Virtual Museum.

We left the site much more aware of how unfair the treatment of U.S. Japanese had been during World War II, no matter what the degree of justification.  We couldn't help but think of current parallels with U.S. Muslims who are treated with suspicion at best and hatred at worst today due to terror attacks on Western targets.  We realize that if the rights of one group can be denied out of fear, the rights of any group can be denied, and the foundations of our democracy threatened by our own actions. Never again!

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