At the foot of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains in California’s Owens Valley, lies the site called Manzanar.
Manzanar (Spanish for “apple orchard”) began as a farm in the late 1800’s. By 1910, it had grown into a small town, only to suffer a quick death when the water from the Owens River was diverted to Los Angeles, leaving the valley dry and barren by 1926.
In February 1942, two months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, empowering the Secretary of War to “relocate” nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes to the ten “War Relocation Centers” that had been established across the western states. Those “centers” were, in fact, concentration camps, intended to herd together all people of Japanese heritage, regardless of their citizenship. One of those camps was Manzanar.
Between 1942 and 1945, over 11,000 men, women, and children were forcibly removed to the “Manzanar War Relocation Center” with only the possessions that they could carry. Approximately two-thirds of these individuals were U.S. citizens! The 6,000 acres allocated to the Manzanar facility included the detention camp, adjacent agricultural use areas, hog farm, reservoir, cemetery, and sewage treatment plant. Approximately 550 acres of this barren landscape made up the designated living area, consisting of 36 blocks of wooden barracks for the incarcerees and various administrative facilities, encircled by barbed wire fences and security guard towers with searchlights, and patrolled by armed U.S. soldiers.
At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the desert temperatures were often unbearable, ranging from over 100ºF to below freezing. The barracks were not insulated, wrapped with only a layer of tarpaper. Though families were allowed to stay together, they were crowded with several other families into a single building, with thin walls separating them for privacy. For a culture that prides itself on dignity, honor, humility, and personal cleanliness, the incarcerees were forced to use latrines and showers with no partitions. They were forced to endure the ever-present dust storms, as well as wind-blown grit that rose up frequently from the dry lakebed of Owens Lake, breathing in the hazardous particles that coated their bodies, food and belongings.
It is so hard to believe that the United States of America, had rounded up thousands of its own citizens, taken them from their homes, businesses, schools and communities with little notice, and forced them into cramped and crude barbed wire fenced camps.
The government didn’t call it a concentration camp. It’s true that there were no gas chambers or ovens, like the Nazi death camps in Europe. The inmates were not victims of methodical, well-organized slaughter or left to slowly die from malnutrition and disease. Nevertheless, the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated there were held against their will, solely because of their race, and not for any crimes they had committed. They suffered many indignities, loss of income and property, subpar living conditions, and for the many U.S. citizens, betrayal of their Constitutional rights. Ironically, at the same time that their liberties were taken away in the name of national security here in the American homeland, many of their husbands, sons and brothers volunteered for service in the U.S. military. They fought and died for those very liberties with the U.S. troops in Europe.
The truth was that the Japanese were locked away primarily due to fear, hatred and intolerance. Well-respected newspapers, as well as politicians, military officials, and powerful businesspeople, openly publicized their own racist opinions. Under the guise of protecting its citizens, the government indiscriminately herded some of these very citizens into barricaded enclosures from which they were not permitted to leave. To me, this is the very definition of a concentration camp!
In the end, the United States and its allies won World War II. The Japanese-American internees were given $25.00 and a train or bus ticket back to where they had been forcibly removed from, many returning to nothing, having lost their homes and businesses and most importantly, their Constitutional freedoms as United States citizens.
Manzanar and the other nine camps were dismantled and bulldozed after the war and forgotten about for many years. Finally, on August 10, 1988, after years of pressure from Japanese-American civil liberties organizations, Congress signed legislation providing small restitution, along with an apology from President Reagan, to the 82,219 surviving Japanese-Americans who had lost absolutely everything they had worked for their whole lives. The victims of this travesty, the innocent people who were punished for the crime of having a Japanese name, had to rebuild their lives from scratch and had to live with the shame, guilt, fear, and prejudice that came with it. It wasn’t until March 3, 1992, fifty years after the passing of Executive Order 9066, that Congress recognized the significance of the site of the first Japanese-American concentration camp, and they established the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Today, over seventy years later, in the post 9/11 world that we live in, it’s more important than ever that we look back at places like Manzanar and learn from our history. We must educate ourselves and teach our children to look beyond their fear, to be compassionate and tolerant. And we need to fight for our rights and the rights of our fellow human beings. We can never forget, lest we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
If you ever get the opportunity to take the beautiful drive up Highway 395, slow down and stop at Manzanar. I promise it will be a moving and memorable experience; It has always been for me.
October 2, 2019