1942 - 1945
Highway 395, Inyo County – map
The United States operated ten concentration camps to hold Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Manzanar War Relocation Center, located in the Owens Valley about 220 miles north of Los Angeles, was not the biggest but it was the first, admitting the initial eighty-two of its more than 11,000 prisoners on March 21, 1942. Ninety-two percent of Manzanar detainees came from the county of Los Angeles; seventy-six percent from the city proper.
Above: the original military sentry post and internal police post, built by internee Ryozo Kado in 1942.
On February 19, 1942, just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, effectively setting up military camps and allowing for the forcible removal of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes. Truth is, the government had been preparing a tent city for potential prisoners at Manzanar, calling it Camp Owens, as early as June 1941, half a year prior to the Japanese attack. Also, a list of United States Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) was delivered to President Roosevelt, per his request, about a week before 12/7/1941. Clearly, the mass internment was not just a reaction to the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Above: the middle shot is the location of the camp's baseball fields, the lowest are ruins of the John Shepherd Ranch. Shephered had his orchards here from 1864 - 1905.
The man who oversaw the relocation was the Army’s West Coast Commander, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, a poster child for the abuse of civil liberties if there ever was one.
About two-thirds of all those eventually incarcerated at Manzanar were American citizens by birth. Many of them received as little as four days notice to get rid of what they owned and be prepared to be relocated either initially to temporary assembly centers, like the one at the Santa Anita racetrack, or, later, directly to Manzanar.
From top to bottom: the camp under construction, photo by Clem Albers, 4/2/42; some of the remaining fruit trees planted by the Owens Valley Improvement Company around 1910; Block 34's mess hall garden.
By the time the U.S. Army leased 6,000 acres for the relocation center, the agricultural town of Manzanar (Spanish for apple orchard) had been deserted for about seven years, since a few years before that, in 1929, the city of Los Angeles wrapped up acquiring the town’s land and water rights. (What L.A. did to the Owens Valley, of course, is almost as hilarious as the story of the war camp itself. And, unless I’m wrong, the city profited from the feds leasing the land during WWII, too. Right?)
From top to bottom: that's the camp's morgue over to the left; the site of the laundry room; and Children's Village. Sisters Mary Suzanne and Mary Bernadette ran Children’s Village, taking care of the center's fifty or so orphans. The two had previously run a Los Angeles orphanage for children of Japanese ancestry.
New camp residents were met with barbed wire fences and eight guard towers manned by military police with submachine guns and searchlights. Armor and Wright, in their book, Manzanar, describe the housing conditions:
“The main camp at Manzanar consisted of 560 acres, on which were constructed nine wards of four blocks each. Each block contained sixteen barracks, or one-story buildings, twenty by one hundred feet. Of the sixteen buildings, fourteen were residential, one of double size was the mess hall, and the last was a meeting/recreation hall.”While the spaces of twenty by twenty-five feet were designed for families of four, the average held eight people, sometimes reaching eleven.
The remaining 5,500 acres held military police housing, a reservoir, a sewage treatment plant, and agricultural fields.
From top to bottom: Block 23, Building 29; site of Block 3, home to 227 Japanese-Americans from Bainbridge Island, near Seattle; the Kendo Dojo.
The War Relocation Authority took over operation of Manzanar from the U.S. Army on June 1, 1942. Later that year, in December, military police shot to death two detainees and wounded ten others during a protest.
From top to bottom: the pet cemetery; the cemetery monument; remaining graves. About 150 Japanese-Americans died at Manzanar. Only fifteen were buried here; most of the others were cremated. Today, only half a dozen are still buried in the cemetery. Because individual gravestones were not affordable, the Manzanar Cemetery Monument was dedicated in August 1943. Its inscription reads, “Memorial to the Dead.”
The camp’s population began to decrease as prisoners received work passes and young men volunteered for service in the armed forces (go figure). Also, in December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled loyal citizens could not be detained in detention centers against their will. The Manzanar War Relocation Center finally closed on November 21, 1945. Freed prisoners were given train fare and $25. Following the war, nearly all of the camp’s 800 buildings were dismantled or relocated.
Top to bottom: warehouse area; Dorothea Lange photo, 6/9/42; the net factory, where internees made camouflage netting for the U.S. military.
Geographically, Manzanar is located in the Owens Valley between the Sierra Nevadas on the west and the Inyo Mountains on the east. The big mountain you see in these shots is not Mt Whitney. Whitney’s nearby, but this peak is Mt Williamson, just more than 100 feet shorter than Whitney.
Top to bottom: Mt Williamson; site of the Manzanar Free Press; the location of Manzanar High School; and Blocks 9 and 10. The Manzanar Free Press was launched on April 11, 1942, edited by Roy Takeno, and ran until New Year’s Day, 1944. Manzanar High opened in October 1942 and graduated classes the following three years. Some of the camp's first prisoners, from Terminal Island near San Pedro, were housed in Blocks 9 and 10.
In addition to its Los Angeles HCM status (one of only two outside the city), Manzanar today is recognized as a California Historical Landmark, a National Historic Landmark, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997, the National Park Service bought more than 814 acres of Manzanar land from Los Angeles.
Today, the Manzanar Interpretive Center (above) is in the camp’s old high school auditorium-gymnasium. Built by detainees in 1944, it later served as a V.F.W. social hall and then a garage and shop for the Inyo County Road Department. It opened as the current wonderful and moving museum in April 2004. The museum, the military police sentry post, the internal police post, and the cemetery memorial are the only remaining structures of the Manzanar camp. (An old mess hall was moved to the site in late 2002 and is not original to the camp.)
You owe it to yourself to explore the Park Service’s official Manzanar site. Or, better still, visit Manzanar in person. You might want to choose a better time of year than summer. I spent around three hours walking the site on that brutally hot Saturday back in June, and I’m still drinking fluids like hotcakes.
Houston, Jeanne Watkatsuki and James D. Houston Farewell to Manzanar Laurel-Leaf 1973 New York
Armor, John and Peter Wright Manzanar Times Books 1988 New York
Up next: Wolfer Printing Company