Remembering Manzanar Internment Camp, 70 Years Later

A hot windstorm brings dust from the surrounding desert at Manzanar internment camp, July 3, 1942.
Photo by Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority

With the end date of World War II fast approaching its 70th anniversary, there will be a swell of articles about what the United States did, what the Allies achieved, and what the largest and most calamitous conflict in world history tells us about human nature.

We will renew our knowledge on the surrender signing aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, and the consequences and reverberations of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only times that nuclear weapons have ever been used in warfare.

Japanese citizens wait in line for their assigned homes at an alien reception center in Manzanar, March 24, 1942.AP Photo

The rush of stories will rightly observe what America’s military did to liberate a suffering humanity. But we cannot learn from accolades. Our celebration of contribution to freedom and liberation is justly earned, richly deserved. It is owed to those millions of young volunteers and draftees, including Medal of Honor recipients like Sadao Munemori, who received it posthumously, and the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Along with their brothers in arms, they answered a call, fought, were wounded, or died in an utterly righteous cause to rid the world of history’s greatest evil, including, and unforgettably, the Nazi concentration camps.

The gates of some of those camps were thrown open by troops who were Nisei, Japanese-American soldiers like Munemori and Inouye, many of whom had kin of their own held behind barbed wire in remote locations of inner America.

While our legacy of liberating the anguished of the world ought to be remembered, celebrated, and honored, if we are serious about history, we need to reflect on our own contribution to humanity’s suffering.

Consider the legacy of California Historical Landmark #850, a bronze plaque mounted in quarried stone a couple of hundred miles north of Los Angeles. The marker plaque records:

In the early part of World War II, 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interned in relocation centers by Executive Order No. 9066 issued February 19, 1942.

Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers. It confined ten thousand persons, the majority of them American citizens.

May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again.

The California historical marker was put in place on April 14, 1973, by the state. Until recent years, the camp location itself had nearly returned to nature, but is now a significant national historic site.

In the months following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by Japan on our installations at Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted. Also, my grandmother, Hattie, became a wartime emergency coordinator in Los Angeles. It was feared that a Japanese attack on the West Coast might be imminent. It was in that urgency, accompanied by panic and prejudice, that the Japanese Americans were rounded up as potential “enemy aliens.” German Americans and Italian Americans with no more connection to the Axis than the Japanese Americans were left alone.

The 10,000 prisoners of Manzanar, along with another 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry sent to the nine other camps, were scooped up by the FBI and soldiers, and packed onto trains and buses that carried them hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from their confiscated homes.

These Japanese Americans were sent away from their West Coast homes without due process, given little time to pack, leaving practically everything they worked for and owned behind. Piling off the buses and trains, they were greeted by soldiers brandishing rifles with fixed bayonets. The internees were housed in tarpaper shack barracks, with holes in the roof that left people open to the 30-degree temperatures of winter, and the 100-degree mercury of summer, all the time the wind blowing dust into the hastily erected structures.

Far end of barrack row looking west to the desert beyond with the mountains in the background, July 2, 1942.Photo by Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority

There can be no doubt that the motives that fueled the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, most of whom were American citizens, were driven by racism. Signage displayed in the visitor center illustrates this: “Japs Keep Moving. This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.”

Of course, at the time, the vast majority of Americans --- shocked out of peacetime complacency by the attack on Pearl Harbor --- were terrified. Americans seethed at the brutality perpetrated Japan’s military, demonstrated in the Bataan Death March and atrocities defined by their savagery. But the people incarcerated in America were not Japanese. They were American citizens mostly, or had lived peacefully and productively in the United States for decades. They were terrified by the actions of their own country.

The Manzanar camp closed in November 1945. Internees were released with $25 and told they could go where they wanted. Some had nowhere to go, and most could not return to their homes. The Veterans of Foreign Wars hosted dances at the vacated camp’s high school gym until 1951. When the camp site was turned over to Inyo County, it became a yard for the road crews.

I have visited the Manzanar site twice as an adult --- both times, with my son, Garrett, a former combat infantryman who fought with the Marines in Fallujah in November 2004.

Together, we visited the site in 2000 when Garrett was 15 years old, returning from a camping trip near the town of Independence. We visited again in recent weeks on a camping trip to mark my son’s 30th birthday. I considered the date auspicious, reflecting that Garrett survived combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the 2000 visit, my son, with his 12-year-old sister, and I stopped briefly at the Manzanar cemetery. The cemetery is where it always was, located at the back of the camp’s square mile of ground with rows of wooden barracks that once had been ringed by barbed wire and eight guard towers with searchlights, and manned by military police armed with machine guns.

The cemetery monument built by people held at the camp is an obelisk shaped like the Washington Monument, with Kanji lettering that marked the windswept graveyard as the “soul consoling place.” One hundred, forty-six of those held at Manzanar died, including a 16-year-old and a 21-year-old shot and killed during what came to be called the Manzanar Riot. It was a dispute over the unfairness of camp conditions.

Cemetery shrine at Manzanar Japanese internment camp.Photo by Daniel Mayer

Together, my family saw the few remaining graves, and the monument erected by the Japanese Americans who once were held at the camp. The sadness that nearly overwhelmed us was thought of dying behind the barbed wire, amid the howling wind, the dust, the heat and cold, in a landscape that could only be seen as barren.

My son survived the furies of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah and now studies American history at Portland State University in Oregon. The combat infantry veteran considers our treatment of Japanese American people during World War II an affront to the Constitution, due process, and basic fairness.

It was President Ronald Reagan who signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, compensating the the Japanese-American citizenry for the wrongs done at Manzanar and its companion camps. And it was President George H.W. Bush who followed with a formal, written apology. Bush also signed legislation establishing Manzanar as a national historic site under the National Park Service in 1992. The gym where Japanese-American teenagers played basketball behind barbed wire is now the visitor center, and the center is staffed by rangers from the National Park Service who have encyclopedic knowledge of camp lore.

While we arrive at another of those significant anniversaries that marks much of the world’s deliverance from the evils of Nazism and the brutal and fascist militarism of Japan during World War II, we can reflect about wrongs that we visited upon our own citizens, or ignore that history at our peril.

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