Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens (like my parents) and resident Japanese aliens (like my grandparents) were interned during World War 2. In 1942, more than 120,000 men, women, and children were ordered to leave their homes and businesses, and detained in remote, military style camps in tar paper barracks.
Manzanar is the closest relocation center to us, on the west side of U. S. Highway 395, almost equidistant from Reno (245 miles), and Los Angeles (226 miles). The nearest towns are Lone Pine (8 miles south), and Independence (6 miles north), both of which have food and lodging.
After Pearl Harbor, hysteria and panic ruled the country, and California in particular. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas, and to remove anyone from those areas that might threaten war. Can you imagine a sitting President doing that now to any ethnic group? Yes, it happened, and it is possible it could happen again.
Without due process, the government ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West coast, only days to decide what to do with homes, farms, and businesses. Most families sold their belongings for pennies on the dollar. Some were fortunate enough to find a friend or neighbor to take care of their land while they were interned. Some had to just abandon their property and belongings. My Mom’s family in Sanger found the Sorensen’s of packing house fame in Parlier. My Dad’s family found Pete Balderama, a neighbor who had an adjoining farm in Kingsburg.
Nobody knew how long they would be gone. They were assigned an identification number and ordered to various fairgrounds, which were used as a staging area. They would be loaded, under armed guard, into buses and trains, taking only what they could carry, to seventeen temporary assembly areas, located at racetracks and fairgrounds in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. My family was ordered to the Fresno fairgrounds, and ordered to Jerome, Arkansas, a swamp in eastern Arkansas. They were met there with mosquitoes and high humidity. Again, can you imagine doing this today to some unnamed ethnic group who are American citizens??
By November, 1942, almost a year after Pearl Harbor, the relocation was complete. The ten relocation centers were built in remote areas, deserts, swamps, and plains in seven states: Arkansas, California, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Manzanar, between the Sierra Nevada range on the west, and the Inyo Mountains on the east, was quite typical. Tule Lake, in the far northeast corner of California, was the largest, with 18,700 people.
Unbelievably, almost two thirds of those interned at Manzanar were U.S. citizens!! The first Japanese Americans arrived at Manzanar in March, 1942. They (both men and women) helped build the hastily planned camps. Then on June 1, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) took over operation of the camps from the U.S. Army.
The 500 acre Manzanar camp was enclosed in barbed wire, with eight guard towers, with searchlights, and patrolled by police. Outside the fence were military housing, a sewage plant, and farm land on 5,500 acres. By September, 1942, 10,000 internees were squeezed into 504 barracks, organized into 36 blocks. From 200 to 400 people lived in each block, consisting of 14 barracks, divided into four rooms. They had shared toilets, showers, laundry, and mess hall. Any combination of 8 people were allotted a space of 20 by 25 feet, though privacy did not exist! They also had a oil stove for heat, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw. This was about a step above prison!!!
Internees coming from areas like Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and the central coast were not accustomed to the harsh desert weather. Temperatures reached 100 degrees in the summer, and winters were frequently below freezing. The barracks had little or no insulation. Often, strong winds, dust and sand were pervasive, making any semblance of housekeeping a massive, and ongoing task.
Tension was high in these camps, as protests and disturbances occurred at several locations. During the December, 1942 Manzanar riot, two people were killed and ten were wounded by military police. Yet, people interned at these camps displayed outstanding resilience and creativity. And some conditions improved.
But my parents spoke of some good times in camp, things like dances, sports, music, and church. They often grew nice gardens, and built ponds. They even published a camp newspaper. But they also had to work to help pass the time. They dug canals and ditches by hand, and they grew acres of fresh fruit and vegetables. They even raised cattle, pigs, and chickens. They also served in the mess hall, and worked as physicians, nurses, teachers, police, and firemen. In essence, they formed their own survival society.
Some people got paid, as professionals received $19 a month, skilled workers $16, and unskilled, $12. They also established a general store, beauty parlor, barber shop, and a bank. When the U.S. war effort became increasingly successful, internees were allowed to leave camps early, for jobs in the Midwest and east related to the war effort.
Many of you know by now that my parents met in relocation camp in Poston, Arizona, and eloped to Phoenix on a weekend pass. My parents and their siblings left for Chicago, and found work there until the war ended and they could return to California. We returned to the family farm on Bethel Avenue in Kingsburg. We lived there, with my grandparents and two bachelor uncles until we got a house of our own.
Another 4,300 internees were released to go to college. And sadly, some 5,000 internees were drafted to fight in the very war that caused their imprisonment. The camps closed in November, 1945. They exited the camps with only a bus ticket and $25 from our government, less than a convicted felon would have when he left prison!
I can only imagine one of my grandparent’s friends getting a letter or telegram from the Army, telling them that their son had died in the war effort. It must have been a confusing and emotional period in their lives. The draftees became part of the famous 442nd Regiment Combat team. Together with the 100th infantry Battalion of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard, they fought in Italy, France, and even North Africa. They suffered 9,846 casualties, and became the most decorated Army unit for its size and length of service!
That house, originally in Sanger, the very house where my Mom was raised, was moved to our property in Kingsburg. It was my first and only home, until I went away to U.C. Berkeley in 1964 as a freshman. The farm and house are still there, owned by my Uncle (my Dad’s younger brother). The house is rented out to my cousin’s au pair and her family.
I never knew that young American-born children (over 100) were gathered from foster care and orphanages in Southern California. They ranged in age from newborns to teens, and were brought to Manzanar, to spend the war living behind barbed wire in a place called “Children’s Village.” Again, this was a “military necessity” for the security of our country!!!
I was born shortly after my parents returned to California. My October, 1946 birthday, coincides with many of my high school classmates. We are part of the baby boomers. But for most of them, their parents, either newly married, or recently discharged from the armed services, were returning to their hometown. Little did I realize how different that would be over the years. But that is a story for another time.
Fast forward to today. You will have to read one of my books to learn more about our relocation, return to California, and hopes for normalization of personal and business life.
In 1988, the Japanese received a formal apology from the U.S. government. The U.S. Civil Liberties Act awarded 82,000 internees the sum of $20,000, again pennies on the dollar for lost income and property. My Mom was alive to see this, but not my Dad, and certainly not any of my grandparents.
There is a Visitor Center at Manzanar with 8,000 square feet of exhibits, including a theater and bookstore. The theater shows the award winning 22 minute film, Remembering Manzanar every half hour. From the park website: “Extensive exhibits span a century of history, from 1885 to the present, with a focus on the World War II relocation and internment of Japanese Americans from the west coast. Exhibits include a large scale model of Manzanar War Relocation Center crafted by former internees, historic photographs and audiovisual programs, and artifacts. A large graphic includes the names of over 10,000 Japanese Americans who spent all or part of World War II at Manzanar.”
In April each year, the Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage takes place. “Just outside the Visitor Center, Block 14 features a restored World War II-era mess hall and two reconstructed barracks. The barracks exhibits offer an in-depth exploration of the challenges and changes people faced in their daily lives at Manzanar. The mess hall exhibits highlight the logistics and politics of food in Manzanar.” And some of Manzanar’s most impressive archeological features are Japanese rock gardens.
The restored Arai family fish pond in Block 33 greets visitors, with stories about the pond’s discovery and excavation. Recent archeological work, completed with the help of 40 volunteers, uncovered numerous features in the administration area where most camp staff lived and worked.
A lone sentry station remains, built by stonemason and internee Ryozo Kado in 1942. The gymnasium, constructed in 1944, now serves as the park visitor center. Inside, there is a complete list of internees. And a 3.2 mile self guided driving tour starts here, and passes by reconstructed barracks and the mess hall.
I am not sure how today’s modern history books treat this dark period in American history. But I know that the news media and television seem to think something like this might happen again soon, with the war on terror. Whether or not you are sympathetic to what happened, there is a lesson for today. Will history repeat itself, with perhaps a different ethnic group or religion?