Ghosts of War: Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar War Relocation Center

Welcome to Manzanar
Entrance sign to the Manzanar War Relocation Center

After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1942, American politicians and military leaders were worried about the population of Japanese that lived on the West Coast of the United States. They were worried that they may provide assistance to the Imperial Japanese Navy to conduct further attacks on America. So on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing for the designation of military areas to exclude “any or all persons” from such areas. This was the government’s solution to the “Japanese Problem” on the West Coast. The result of this order was the forced relocation of over 120,000 Japanese Americans to 10 concentration camps located inland, keeping them away from the West Coast. Nearly two-thirds of those forced to relocate were native-born American citizens. One of these camps was the Manzanar War Relocation Center located in Owens Valley area of California on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Manzanar was a former farm town between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence.

Store sign
Sign on the front of a Japanese-owned store

While in high school I learned about this episode of American history when my class read the book “Farewell To Manzanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. A story of her family’s internment at the Manzanar concentration camp. Having been forced to relocate to the camp from their Terminal Island home, incarceration of the family ultimately drove them apart. Reading about the conditions her family had to live in and the indignities that they suffered left a lasting impression on me. When most people think of people being put in camps during World War II, they don’t think about Japanese Americans. It is a part of California history and WWII history that is not often talked about. It is even a part of San Francisco Bay Area history that is not really discussed. The site of the Tamforan mall in San Bruno, a race track at the time, was one of 17 “civilian assembly centers” where Japanese were internees before being sent to the permanent “relocation centers.” 180 barracks were converted from the horse stalls and more than 8,000 people were held there between April 28 to October 13, 1942. Today a plaque outside the mall commemorates this episode of the sites history. A part of our history that hopefully will never be repeated.

Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar guard building
Guard building at entrance of Manzanar War Relocation Center

Identified as the best-preserved camp site, Manzanar was designated a National Historic Site on March 3, 1992. During my second visit to Death Valley, I made a point of visiting Manzanar as a side trip. This way I could better understand that period in our history. A couple of years later I took May there on our first trip to Death Valley together. It was an experience that left an impression on her also since she knew little of that part of history. We both were particularly interested in the story of Toyo Miyatake who smuggled a camera lens into the camp and constructed a camera body from wood. The pictures he secretly took at the camp are among the relatively few that show the plight of the U.S. citizen inmates. He befriended Ansel Adams when he visited Manzanar to take pictures for the government.

The camp was hastily constructed with first internees actually helping to construct the buildings.  Laid out into 36 blocks of residential barracks, each block would contain a communal mess hall, laundry room, recreation hall, an ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank. Manzanar was set up to function like a normal town with a post office, cooperative store, camp newspaper, churches, along with other shops to help the internees live a normal life. School facilities were established and the high school auditorium was the site of community events. When the high school would play games against the local high schools, they would always be the home team since they could not leave the camp. Manzanar had most of the necessary amenities that one would expect to find in most American cities, including a cemetery. An additional 34 blocks were constructed for staff housing, camp administration offices, two warehouses, a garage, a camp hospital, and 24 firebreaks.

Manzanar layout
Manzanar layout

Life at Manzanar

Manzanar barrack
Manzanar barrack

Each barrack was20-foot (6.1 m) by 100-foot (30 m), with each family living in a single 20-foot (6.1 m) by 25-foot (7.6 m) “apartment” in the barracks. During the cold winters, the wind would blow through every crack of the poorly constructed barracks. Each apartment was separated by partitions with no ceilings. The lack of ceilings on the partitions eliminated any privacy they wished to have. These conditions created a lot of stress on the families forced to live there. It was the communal men’s and women’s latrines that provided the greatest amount of indignity as they had no partitions. Life was not easy at the camp, internees had to wait in one line after another for meals, at latrines, and at the laundry room. Through these hardships, the people at Manzanar developed a community, forming cooperatives that operated various services, such as the camp newspaper, beauty and barber shops, shoe repair, and more.

Manzanar barrack inside
Inside of a reconstructed Manzanar barrack

To make life seem as normal as possible, each block established a garden. This helped to bring beauty and hope to the desolate landscape while improving their quality of life. More than 100 gardens were constructed. Some just simple rock formations, others were more elaborate with ponds and waterfalls. The meals at Manzanar consisted of hot rice and vegetables. Since meat was scarce due to rationing, a chicken ranch and hog farm were started in 1944 to add meat supplements to internees diets. Existing fruit orchards were cultivated and they even made their own soy sauce and tofu. Life was made more livable through recreation. A nine-hole golf course was created and internees participated in many sports, including baseball, football, and martial arts.

Manzanar home plate
Home plate from the baseball field at Manzanar

Manzanar garden
Manzanar Gardens

As hard as they tried, it was not easy living behind barb wire. On Dec 5-6 1942 an event occurred known as the Manzanar Riot. Shortages of meat and sugar were rumored to be the result black marketing by camp administrators. Tensions built between supporters of the Japanese American Citizens League and a group of internees who were educated in Japan. When JACL leader Feed Tayama was beaten by six masked men, Henry Ueno who was the leader of Kitchen Workers Union was arrested and removed from Manzanar. This led to protests by 3,000 to 4,000 internees outside of the administration area. They were able to negotiate Ueno’s return to the Manzanar jail which caused several hundred to protest his return. In an attempt to disperse the crowd, military police threw tear gas. When a driverless truck was pushed towards the jail, the military police fired into the crowd, killing a 17-year–old boy instantly. A 21-year–old man who was shot in the abdomen died days later. Nine other prisoners were wounded, and a military police corporal was wounded by a ricocheting bullet.

Manzanar block 14 barrack
Manzanar block 14

Manzanar barrack 14 today
Manzanar block 14 today

Loyalty Questionnaire

Manzanar guard tower
Guard tower as you drive towards the entrance of Manzanar National Historic Site

When the internees first arrived at Manzanar, they asked why they had to live behind barb wire fences and guard towers. What they were told was that it was for their protection, but they soon realized it was to keep the from leaving. In 1943, the government sent out what would be known as the loyalty questionnaire. All adults were asked questions that were intended as a means of assessing the loyalty of the Japanese-Americans in the camps. Responses to the questionnaire were also meant to help the War Department in establishing an all-Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) combat unit. Two questions would cause the most problems, numbers 27-28. To help establish a combat unit, question 27 asked if Nisei men would be willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered. This caused young men to wonder if answering yes would be the same as volunteering. Everyone else was asked if they would be willing to serve in other ways, such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Question number 28 would cause the most trouble. The question asked individuals to swear loyalty to the United States and renounce any loyalty to the Emperor of Japan. This put Japanese immigrants in a difficult position, at that time they were barred from becoming U.S. citizens and renouncing their only citizenship would leave them stateless. Citizens were asked to renounce loyalty to an Emperor they had never been loyal to, causing resentment. At Manzanar, 50 percent answered no to question 28. Answering no resulted in many people being labeled disloyal to the United States and being sent to the Tule Lake camp which had become the “segregation camp.”

Those Nisei who chose to volunteer in the Army were assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, known as Unit 442. Fighting in the European theater beginning in 1944, the unit saw action in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts. The unit was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations,  (5 earned in one month). Twenty-one of its members were awarded Medals of Honor. Its motto was “Go for Broke”.

Closing Manzanar

camp flags
Flags of the different camps

Manzanar was closed on November 21, 1945. It was the sixth camp to close. Internees were given $25 ($329 today), one-way train or bus fare, and meals to those who had less than $600 ($7,887 today). Many had no place to go after losing everything when they were forced to leave their homes and move to the camps. Those that refused to leave were forcibly removed. 146 internees died at Manzanar. Fifteen internees were buried there, but only five graves remain, as most were later reburied elsewhere by their families. Soon after the closure, Manzanar returned to its original state. Buildings were removed and only a few structures remained from the camp. One of the remaining structures was the Soul Consoling Tower in the cemetery.

Touring Manzanar Historic Site

soul consoling tower Manzanar cemetery
A military aircraft flys through the valley behind the Soul Consoling Tower in the Manzanar cemetery

Manzanar is located off Highway 395 just North of Lone Pine. The best way to visit Manzanar National Historic Site is to stop at the museum in the former high school auditorium and then do the self-guided auto tour around the site. At the museum, you will learn about the history of Manzanar and what it was like to live there from the many displays, photos, and videos. To hear the personal stories of the internees was a moving experience. There are many displays on the daily life, and stories about some of the individuals who lived in the camp. On the auto tour, you will pass by a reconstructed residential block. Stopping here, you can tour a reconstructed residential unit and mess hall. From there the tour will pass many locations such as the baseball field and vacant residential blocks. You are able to stop and view some of the gardens that have been unearthed before stopping at the cemetery and viewing the Soul Consoling Tower. At this tower, many people have left tokens of forgiveness. Some of these are on display at the museum. Manzanar is well worth a stop if you are driving Highway 395 through the Owens Valley or as a side trip from Death Valley. It is an important reminder of the wrongs we have committed against some of the citizens of this country and that we should never repeat those mistakes.

tea kettle from Manzanar cemetery
Tea kettle and note left at the Manzanar cemetery

tea kettle note from Manzanar cemetery
Note left with tea kettle at the Manzanar cemetery

object Manzanar cemetery
Objects left at the Manzanar cemetery

Fire engine
Fire truck in front of the Manzanar museum