Southern California January 29, 2017
The Deadly And Heartbreaking History Of This California Site Is Terrifying But True
Manazanar is the most famous and first Japanese internment camp in the US, and its history is a scar on our nation and state’s past. Between 1942 and 1945, 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in this spot, which is located in the Owens Valley about 230 miles north of Los Angeles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Only a few structures remain, but this land, now managed by the National Park Service as the Manzanar National Historic Site, stood witness to the injustices that were done here.
Since the last incarcerees left in 1945, former incarcerees and others have worked to protect Manzanar and to establish it as a National Historic Site to ensure that the history of the site, along with the stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated there, are remembered by current and future generations.
Even before the Japanese Internment Camp was built here, this area had a history of forced relocation. Manzanar was first inhabited by Native Americans nearly 10,000 years ago. Approximately 1,500 years ago, the area was settled by the Owens Valley Paiute.
As early as March 1905, the City of Los Angeles began secretly acquiring water rights in the Owens Valley. In 1913, it completed construction of its 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1920, they began to purchase more of the water rights on the Owens Valley floor. As the decade went on, the City of Los Angeles bought out one Owens Valley farmer after another, and extended its reach northward into Mono County, including Long Valley. By 1933, the City owned 85% of all town property and 95% of all ranch and farm land in the Owens Valley, including Manzanar.
After the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government began arresting and detaining Americans of Japanese descent. Two-thirds of these people were "nisei," people whose parents were born in Japan but they were born and educated here in the U.S. They were legal American citizens.
The harsh, hot summer at Manzanar and the freezing winters were hard on the incarcerated. Many of them were ill prepared for the elements and the structures did not do much to protect them from the weather.
Over 90 percent of the incarcerated people were from the Los Angeles area, with the rest coming from Stockton and Bainbridge Island, Washington. Many were farmers and fishermen.
After being uprooted from their homes and communities, the incarcerees found themselves having to endure primitive, sub-standard conditions, and lack of privacy. They had to wait in one line after another for meals, at latrines, and at the laundry room.
This image shows the layout of Manzanar. The National Park Service provides docent led tours of the area.
The 500-acre housing section was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers with searchlights, and patrolled by military police. Outside the fence, military police housing, a reservoir, a sewage treatment plant, and agricultural fields occupied the remaining 5,500 acres. By September 1942 more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks.
The Manzanar Internment Camp Guard Tower stands as a reminder of a past era.
Internees attempted to make the best of a bad situation. The WRA formed an advisory council of internee-elected block managers. Internees established churches, temples, and boys and girls clubs. They developed sports, music, dance, and other recreational programs; built gardens and ponds; and published a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press.
146 incarcerees died at Manzanar. Fifteen incarcerees were buried there, but only five graves remain, as most were later reburied elsewhere by their families. The most serious incident of rebellion in any internment camp happened here at Manzanar on December 5–6, 1942, and became known as the Manzanar Riot.
As uncomfortable and saddening as this place is, it's important to remember the history and the injustices faced by those who were interned there. The location became a National Historic Site on March 3, 1992. It now features an Interpretive Center housed in the historically restored Manzanar High School Auditorium, which has a permanent exhibit that tells the stories of the incarcerees at Manzanar, the Owens Valley Paiute, the ranchers, the town of Manzanar, and water in the Owens Valley.
The Manzanar cemetery site is marked by a monument that was built by incarceree stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. An inscription in Japanese on the front of the monument reads, 慰靈塔 , or Soul Consoling Tower. The inscription on the back reads "Erected by the Manzanar Japanese" on the left, and "August 1943" on the right. Today, the monument is often draped in strings of origami, and sometimes survivors and other visitors leave offerings of personal items as mementos. The National Park Service periodically collects and catalogs such items.
Have you visited Manzanar or other National Historic Sites like this in California?