It 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.
After 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.
Of 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 guard towers were facing in, not out.
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.
Although the camp was ringed by picturesque mountains, it was no vacation paradise.
Barbed 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.
The 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.
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.
The Visitor Experience
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.
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.