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US 395, Part 4: Detour to Manzanar

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On US 395 north of Lone Pine, we come to the Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar is of such significance in our recent history in the United States that I've decided to allocate an entire Part to the national historic site all by itself. As it is a deeply emotional issue to people of Japanese-American descent, I have sought the opinions of several Japanese friends and acquaintances on this entry and have attempted to incorporate their thoughtful commentary as best as possible into my retelling of Manzanar's backstory. ありがとう ございました。

[Manzanar, 1942 (31K)] Manzanar, today the Manzanar National Historic Site and maintained by the National Park Service, occupies a sorrowful chapter in the Second World War as one of the camps established by the US Army Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA) and later the first centre operated by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). These camps, often termed as "America's concentration camps," were established specifically as holding pens for persons of particular descent or citizenship that came under suspicion during the throes of World War II, mostly Japanese. The Manzanar camp, the first of these "internment centres" and built in March 1942, was established on territory then owned by the city of Los Angeles for water rights (purchased 1920). Manzanar was originally a small farming community that lay between Lone Pine and Independence (to the north, in Part 5) during the dawn of the 20th century, named after a corruption of the Spanish word for apple ('manzana') referring to the local apple groves. As mentioned in Part 3, agriculture faded during Los Angeles' diversion of the water supply for points south and the site was largely uninhabited when the WCCA was searching for land; the WCCA found the site optimal for their purposes, especially because its isolation virtually guaranteed minimal escape risk, and leased Manzanar from the city of Los Angeles for around $75,000 over the three years it operated. The first 82 of an eventual 10,046 residents would be interned there the same month it was constructed; the overwhelming majority were from Los Angeles itself, with the remainder mostly from northern California. The famous archival picture at right, taken 3 June 1942 by photographer Dorothea Lange, probably best shows the bleak conditions faced by the interned as they entered the camp they would call home for a long, interminable period of limbo.

[Manzanar, 1943 (41K)] Manzanar became the first of ten such camps in the United States. To say they were controversial is a tremendous understatement, and many called them outright illegal; it should be pointed out that there were no proven instances of any person of Japanese descent then inhabiting the United States as a citizen or legal alien acting as an agent of Japan, and many in fact would later serve honourably in the war effort against the country of their ancestry. Nevertheless, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order #9066 (and subsequently #9122) on 19 February 1942 authorizing Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command to ultimately round up and transport 70,000 American citizens of Japanese descent and another 42,000 Japanese resident aliens living in designated zones of the Pacific coast states and Arizona into the war camps. Similar actions would be taken under the same order(s) against peoples of Italian and especially German descent -- about 11,000 were arrested and some 5,000 ultimately interned, of particular issue to me with my German heritage -- but the action against the Japanese was the largest and most far-ranging. As with the other nationalities targetted, they were ordered to forfeit their properties and homes, bringing only "that which can be carried by the individual or family group," and placed on trains for their final destinations. Ten camps total would be built: Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho, Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Granada (Amache) in Colorado and Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas. During its existence, Manzanar became the subject of a photoessay by Ansel Adams; these photographs, now the property of the Library of Congress, show a typical if propagandized view of the camp such as the 1943 photograph at left of internees at work in the fields with Mt. Williamson in the background. Reaching its peak population short months later, Manzanar would gradually dwindle to 5,300 by March of 1945 as security relaxed in the waning days of the war. With the surrender of Japan, the last of the interned would be released in November 1945 to return to their old communities, many to find that there was nothing for them to return to.

After the war, the lease with Los Angeles stipulated that the camp was to be returned to its former condition and most of the buildings were razed or auctioned off; what remained of the camp rotted in exile as a no-man's-land until it was identified by the National Park Service as the best preserved of the ten such encampments, becoming a national landmark in 1985, and accepted as a historic site in 1992 (now the property of the federal government as of 1997, no longer Los Angeles) on the 50th anniversary of original Executive Order #9066. Gradual restoration processes continue in the present day, facilitated by several citizen groups including the Manzanar Committee. It is accessible with free admission daily along US 395.

It is not my intention with this mini-exhibit to act purely as an agent of condemnation for the decisions and perspectives that led to the establishment of Manzanar, nor will I offer any apologies or rationalizations for those same motivations. On the other hand, no matter what the national security motivations may have been, the deprivation of property and particularly liberty without due process no matter what the reason (either genuine concern for security, or blatant racism, or any such) seems thoroughly at odds with constitutional law and an issue of blame that falls squarely on the now-buried torso of President Roosevelt.


Turnoff to Manzanar from US 395 NB.

The section of US 395 between Lone Pine and Independence is (finally) being upgraded to two lanes per direction as expressway instead of the current single lane per direction alignment. As of this writing, this upgrade is still in progress (fall 2009). I will replace this with updated photography when the upgrades are complete.

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The Manzanar sign, recently restored. There is also some reconstruction going on of the guard towers, which was not done when these photographs were taken (July 2005). This is part of the entrance to the 3.2 mile auto tour which goes to major areas of the camp, and I will follow the auto tour's order of presentation in general. However, I have on purpose not exhaustively photographed every portion of the camp; for this, I urge you to visit and pick up an interpretive centre pamphlet yourself for the drive (or you can see it online here).

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Blue Star Memorial Highway designation, indicating an honourary tribute to those in the United States armed forces who have bravely defended the country. The Federal Highway Administration discusses the history of the Blue Star Memorial Highways. This appears next to the original state landmark monument (No. 850) placed in 1972.

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Modern Federal lands boundary. The barbed wire gives one a sense of what it must have felt like. This is directly outside the Military Police Sentry Post, one of the few buildings to survive. This was the site of a riot on 6 December 1942 in which two internees were killed and nine injured by gunfire.

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Facing EB towards US 395 to show the Internal Police Sentry Post, the other of the two stone sentry points. Both were constructed in 1942 by interned stonemason Ryozo Kado.

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Administration. WRA staff housing, administrative offices and the project director's residence were here.

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Manzanar Free Press. This was the internal newspaper and was published by the internees. The National Park Service has reproduced several of the issues in online form.

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Parking lot and visitor's centre. The visitor's centre is built on the old gymnasium/auditorium complex.

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Portions of the old residences. Block 13 housed one of the Buddhist temples (besides one freestanding and the one in 13; the other was in Block 27). Most of these blocks were non-descript, but a few stand out, such as Block 2 "the Bachelor's Block" for the first set of 100 male Japanese-American volunteers (?) who were housed here duing the camp's construction, and Block 9, which housed an elabourate garden. Block 14 will be reconstructed with a replica barrack to show how the housing was laid out.

Most of the barracks did have electricity, at least. However, space was at a premium (a family of four typically had a 20'x25' living area), and there was no running water. Dust was a constant plague.

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The only water to be had, in fact, was here in the latrines. (I doubt this is the actual building; this seems to be one of the reconstructed blocks in progress.) Manzanar had a very advanced sewage and water treatment system, especially considering the era in which it was built, but this was destroyed when the camp was razed. Toilet and bathing facilities were all shared, in addition to a central mess hall.

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Into the backwoods of the camp.

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Hospital complex. The Manzanar hospital was actually a teaching institution; nurses whose training was interrupted by the forced evacuation could complete their clinical work at Manzanar and receive full certification for employment on the "outside" (whenever that day might come). Although staffed by dedicated doctors and nurses, it ran chronically short on supplies and equipment.

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Camp cemetery. Stonemason Ryozo Kado, the internee who constructed the stone sentry posts, built this stone obelisk in August 1943. It is Manzanar's most recognizable landmark, erected as a memorial to the 135 who died in the camp (although only 28 were buried here; the remainder were buried in hometown plots elsewhere). The front of the obelisk appears to read, "a monument to comfort the souls of the deceased" (my rough translation).

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On the rear, I translate the inscription as "erected by the Japanese people of Manzanar, August, 1943."

The monument is draped in origami chains. There are various graves nearby, but out of respect for those buried in the cemetery and their families, I will not reproduce those photographs here.

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Pet cemetery, just north of the main cemetery.

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Kendo dojo. There isn't much of the foundation, but one can make out the outlines of where it used to be.

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It struck me driving by how the red reflectors on the cordons look like Japanese flags, a little.

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Camouflage net factory. Many of the internees took part in the war effort against the country of their ancestry, and this was one example; this small assembly line generated nets and coverings for the armed forces between June and December 1942. It is one of the few sites that still has some of the structure remaining (in this case, the foundation). After this stop, the auto tour exits out through the main entryway.

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Back on US 395 NB, signed by this non-Caltrans-standard cutout, and a little more pensive and thoughtful about the events this place once housed.

Continue to Part 5

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