When the U.S. Rounded Up A Suspect Race

man1It lies in a wind-battered, parched landscape, just north of Lone Pine, California, surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery and endless sky. In winter, bitter cold, snowstorms and wind were its inhabitants’ constant companions. In summer, searing sun, heat, wind and dust storms prevailed.

sky2Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of 10 “internment camps” set up by the U.S. government to sequester and control Japanese Americans during World War II.

entranceAfter Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Americans began to fear and mistrust Japanese Americans, so 110,000 citizens and resident aliens from the west coast were forced from their homes and taken to these camps. From 1942-1945, the camps operated in remote, harsh landscapes.

beginning3fence3Of those rounded up for the camps, 10,000 found Manzanar their new home. They thought their stay would be short. They were told that they were “not prisoners,” and that they were being isolated for their own protection. But when the Japanese arrived at the camps, they noticed that the eight towerguard towers were facing in, not out.

Military Style

Located in Owens Valley, the 500-acre Manzanar camp was built in an area that had been a rich apple-growing area, thanks to irrigation. There had also been pear and peach orchards. By the 1930s though, most farmers had moved out of Manzanar, and the city of Los Angeles owned the land.

more-treesThe camp consisted of 504 barracks, organized in 36 “blocks.” Each block had 14 barracks whose population totaled 200-400 men, women and children.

Although the camp was ringed by picturesque mountains, it was no vacation paradise.

mtsback-mtsback-mts3Barbed wire fences surrounded the drafty wooden barracks that would become their homes. Wind and dust blew through cracks. “Any combination of eight individuals was allotted a 20-by-25-foot room. An oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw were the only furnishings provided,” explains the National Park Service, which manages the site. Privacy was nonexistent. Shared latrines had no walls, showers had no stalls.

roadThe Japanese Americans struggled to retain their dignity. Their entire lives had been turned upside down. They lost their businesses and homes. They could bring only a few personal possessions with them.

Indomitable Human Spirit

But as the months went by, the community evolved. After all, thousands of adults brought their professional skills with them. There were teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, writers, craftsmen. School classes were formed. There was art and music. There were dances. They started a camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. They operated a bank, beauty parlor and barbershop. They made clothes and furniture, and managed farm animals and food crops.
As you can imagine, with 10,000 residents, these services and activities were a necessity of survival, and internees were paid for their work. Some worked in the mess halls, while others served as police and firefighters. There was also a camp hospital, and a cemetery.

Site of a former "park."
Site of a former camp “park.”

Gardeners found outlets for their passion by carving places out of the desert where people could find solace in nature. The internees were allowed to build ponds and gardens, and camp administrators even obtained materials for the construction. Gardens reflected the Japanese aesthetic, complete with waterfalls, rocks and bridges. These were spaces of hope and resistance.

garden2No Japanese Americans were ever charged with espionage, and some of the internees even had sons serving in the war.

The Visitor Experience

empty-land2Today, there is not much left of the camp except the preserved landscape, still cordoned by barbed wire. The original entrance survives, and small signs mark the rows where barracks stood.

buildingsold-treesbricksroad2Remnants of orchards can still be seen, in addition to excavated garden areas.garden3raven

 

 

 

 

Two reconstructed barracks and a mess hall exhibit are part of a walking or driving tour you can do. A reconstructed guard tower, with its spotlight, overlooks the area.

At the end of the tour, you will find the cemetery. It’s the real thing, not a reconstruction, with real graves and origami garlands left by visitors.

cem3 cem2cem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visitor center has impressive exhibits of daily life of the internees, and a must-see award-winning short film that is so well done, it will bring tears to your eyes. And no doubt while you are there, you will experience a taste of the ever-present winds.

fence4cloud

Published by

Joan E. Miller

Born and raised on the east coast, I now live in the amazing Pacific Northwest. I'm a writer, photographer, lover of nature. I'm also a gardener, of food, flowers and shrubs.

5 thoughts on “When the U.S. Rounded Up A Suspect Race”

    1. Glad you liked it. Yes, it’s amazing how they survived. Several were painters and did just beautiful work of the camp and surrounding area. The visitor center has some examples. I’m sure there’s lots more on the web about the artists.

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  1. A timely, poignant article, Joan, with effectively haunting photographs. Are these photographs you took recently, when did you visit this area? Where in California is Lone Pine?

    I have always heard of the Japanese Americans living in San Francisco who were rounded up (and photographed so famously by Dorothea Lange), but I have not heard of this camp.

    Such a shameful period on the part of the American government, of course!…

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    1. Thank you for your kind comments! I visited Manzanar in January. It’s about an hour northwest of Death Valley. Lone Pine is near Mt. Whitney, if that helps. I didn’t get to see the mountain top, as it was under clouds. Thanks for mentioning Dorothea Lange, also. It reminds me that Ansel Adams had also photographed the camp. I think it was one of the larger ones, if not the largest. There were others in Idaho, Oregon, and I forget where else. It’s easily researched.

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