Manzanar National Historic Site

December 7th, 1941 is a day that lives in American infamy.

On that fateful Sunday morning, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing America into “the Big One,” World War II. More than 2,000 men and women would lose their lives in Hawaii that day, including a hundred who went down with the USS California, one of five battleships sunk to the sea floor.

February 19, 1942 is another day that lives in far-less-famous American infamy. On that fateful day, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This instructed the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to take whatever “reasonable action the Secretary deemed necessary” concerning the evacuation of Japanese Americans and to set up “Military Areas,” now known as “War Relocation Centers” (WRC)—but perhaps best described as “Concentration Camps”—throughout the West.

Manzanar, a patch of the Owens Valley just north of the Alabama Hills, nestled in the evening shadows of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, was one of these camps.

THE DEBATE

There were 10 major camps in all, two in Arkansas, with the rest scattered throughout the country’s most remote desert plains like the Owens Valley or Idaho’s Snake River Plain. The vast majority of Japanese Americans at that time lived on the West Coast, so Manzanar was the standard sized WRC. At its peak, there were 10,046 people imprisoned just south of Independence.

There was also a standard look to the camps, for all internees had the feared “slanted eyes,” as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote in her fascinating, first-person account of life as an internee entitled “Farwell to Manzanar.”

Of the nearly 125,000 men, women and children of foreign ancestry living in America that were arrested following Pearl Harbor, almost all were of Japanese decent. In comparison, only a mere 3,000 Germans and 1,500 Italians who were considered “high risk” were arrested and put in separate Department of Justice camps.

The real debate about the camps, however, involved the fact that two-thirds of these Japanese Americans internees were actually born in this country, but were not official citizens (a right that wasn’t granted for Japanese Americans until 1952). So regardless of whether a person was an Issei (someone born in Japan and living in the U.S.) or a Nisei (the next generation of the Issei, who were born here), they were corralled up like cattle and shipped off to places like Minidoka, Idaho, Poston, Arizona, and Manzanar, California. Where they were then penned up behind one-square-mile of barbed-wire fencing and watched by men brandishing rifles atop guard towers.

The act of incarcerating thousands upon thousands of people who were never tried or found guilty of any acts of disloyalty to the country did not sit well with many Americans, including the man in charge of carrying out the order.

As Secretary Stimson wrote in his diary at the time, “this was contrary to law; that while we have a perfect right to move them away from defenses … that does not carry with it the right to imprison them without convincing evidence.”

Even the infamously over-zealous FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, disagreed with the camps.

“Hoover said he’d already gotten all the potential troublemakers and eventually said he was washing his hands of the whole matter,” explained Ben Hayes, a National Park Service Guide at Manzanar.

THE CAMP

Most of the internees at Manzanar were bused in from their homes in Southern California. They were allowed to bring little more than they could carry. Meaning they had to leave behind homes and cars, family heirlooms and favorite toys. Items most of them would never see again.

The first internees set foot in Manzanar on March 25, 1942, the same day the USS California was raised from the Pacific floor, with the last internee leaving on November 21, 1945. What is perhaps most amazing about Manzanar is how quickly and efficiently the internees began to portray the type of behavior Americans pride themselves on: instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves, most of the internees dusted themselves off, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

In no time flat, Manzanar had the most modern hospital in the Owens Valley, a fully functional high school, a camouflage net factory to help the war effort, a cattle ranch and a hog farm. They supplied most of their own food by converting the 6,000 acres of high desert surrounding the camp into farmland, and the entire camp was blooming full of Japanese gardens.

The internees even started their own fruit tree orchard. Fitting, since Manzanar means “Apple Orchard” in Spanish and was once home to a failed utopian farming community, which apparently found the true path to utopia was to sell out to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Almost miraculously, a small grove of pear trees has somehow managed to survive and is one of the only remaining witnesses to Manzanar’s days as a concentration camp.

“They still produce delicious pears, and when they’re in season we like to keep a box in the break room,” Hayes said.

THE COMEBACK

For decades after its closure, “Manzanar” became like a curse word in church—a term few would utter or even dare think about.

“No one was ever comfortable talking about Manzanar, particularly the Issei, whose lives were pretty much ruined by it. It was a tragedy that they were ever even interned,” said Ron Larson, who co-edited the oral history-based book, “Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley.”

Larson explained that it was the Nisei who finally brought light to what had happened.

“When the Nisei were released from the camps they basically decided that they were going to prove that they were ‘110% Americans,’ and within a generation, they became some of the most successfully integrated people in the country,” Larson said.

In the late 1960s, some of the Nisei and their Japanese American offspring, the Sansei, began to raise their voices about the tragedy of the internment camps and became involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1972, Manzanar finally became a California Registered Historical Landmark.

It wasn’t until 1988, however, that President Ronald Reagan signed the US Civil Liberties Act, which officially apologized for the internment and gave each of the 82,000 surviving internees a restitution payment of $20,000 (although this payment wasn’t given to anyone actually born at the camps). Manzanar became an official National Historic Site in 1992, and the Interpretive Center finally opened to the public in 2004.

As for the USS California, whose sinking at Pearl Harbor helped ignite the fear against anyone with “slanted eyes,” she was rebuilt and within three years had returned to action in the South Pacific. Making the USS California a great symbol for America; a country that has always prided itself on being able to take a blow, to get knocked down, and then to be able to get back up and get back in the fight. A trait most of the Japanese Americans tragically interned during WWII obviously embraced.  

FOR MORE on Manzanar visit The Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretative Center. It’s located nine miles north of Lone Pine, five miles south of Independence on Highway 395 and is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm (5:30 in the summer), everyday except for Christmas.

The Interpretative Center offers 8,000 square feet of exhibits, a bookstore, and a theatre, which features the awarding-winning, 22-minute long documentary “Remembering Manzanar.” It’s easy to spend a couple hours perusing through the Interpretative Center’s collection old letters and photos, handmade furniture and re-created barracks. The exhibits include a large-scale model of Manzanar made by a former internee and a graphic that lists the name of the 10,000+ people who were interned.

Manzanar also offers a 3.2-mile auto loop around the former World War II Relocation Camp. For anyone who’s never been, or just hasn’t been in a while, Manzanar’s Interpretative Center is well worth the stop.

EXTRA SIDEBAR

READ: Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is a first-person account of life as a WWII Japanese American internee on “the back side of the Sierras.” It is a more hopeful, but none-the-less tragic, American version of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Jeanne was just seven-years-old and the youngest of a large family living in Long Beach on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. While the experience was clearly traumatic and difficult for Jeanne and her older brothers, sisters and mom, being interned in Manzanar was devastating to her father.

“Papa,” as she calls him, was an Issei who had come to the States as a young man. Here he fell in love, married and was in the midst of raising his family—teaching his oldest boys the ropes of his commercial fishing business—when life as he knew it was taken away forever.

Prevented by law from becoming an American citizen. He was suddenly a man with no rights who looked exactly like the enemy. About all he had left at this point was his tremendous dignity.” Unfortunately, Jeanne’s father turned to the alcohol to try to deal with his misery. But Jeanne and many other Manzanar internees didn’t look to the “sauce” for help; instead they did what so many of us on the Eastside do when times are tough, they turned towards the majestic Sierra Nevada for inspiration.

“If anything made that country habitable it was the mountains themselves… They were important for all of us…kind of spiritual sustenance…They also represented those forces in nature, those powerful and inevitable forces that cannot be resisted, reminding a man that sometimes he must simply endure that which cannot be changed.”

Originally published in1973, Farewell to Manzanar is available at the Manzanar National Historical Site Interpretative Center (along with dozens of other related books) and numerous shops all along Highway 395.

Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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