Manzanar War National Historical Center

Lone Pine, CA

Just a few miles north of Lone Pine is a significant historical site, Manzanar War Relocation Center.  While most important historical sites highlight events in American history that stir emotions of pride in us, this one is a stark reminder that there are many events in our past that bring out emotions of sadness and regret.  Manzanar is one of those places.

Racist behavior against Japanese immigrants and their descendants was very prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century.  This behavior reached hysterical levels when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in early December of 1941.  There was wide-spread fear, fanned by the press, that the Japanese-American community along the coast would be loyal to the Japanese government and help facilitate an attack on the U.S. mainland.   Responding to this pressure President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942.  This order authorized the military to prescribe military areas and to exclude “any or all persons” from such areas.  This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire West Coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona, except for those in government camps.

The order also authorized the construction of what would later be called “relocation centers” by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to house those who were to be excluded.   This order resulted in the forced relocation, without due process, of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born American citizens.  The rest had been prevented from becoming citizens by federal law.  Over 110,000 were incarcerated in the ten concentration camps located far inland and away from the coast.  Manzanar was one of those camps.

The gymnasium/auditorium has been restored and is now a visitor center

At the end of the war the internees were released and the camp fell into disrepair.  An act of Congress in 1992 designated the area as a National Historical Site and today it is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  One of the few remaining buildings from a camp occupied by 10,000 people is the gymnasium/auditorium, built in 1944 by internees.  Today the building has been restored and houses a visitor center with an extensive interpretive center operated by the National Park Service.

A detailed diorama of the camp is located in the visitor center

Manzanar was laid out in 36 blocks, each housing about 300 people.  A single block included 14 barracks, a mess hall, recreation hall, laundry room, ironing room, and men’s and women’s latrine.  Today building locations for block 14 are marked to illustrate the layout of a typical block.  A historic mess hall has been moved there and the National Park Service has plans to restore other buildings in the block.

Building markers in block 14

View of the camp in 1943

Two restored barracks

Internees personalized and beautified their barren surroundings by building elaborate gardens, which often included pools, waterfalls, and rock ornaments.  These gardens were built near the entrance to mess halls in an attempt to ease the drudgery of waiting in line for every meal.  One of the most extensive parks was Merritt Park, created by an internee who was a landscape designer.

Waiting in line for every meal

Merritt Park Gardens in 1944

Over the years Merritt Park disappeared under several feet of sand.  In 2008 the children and grandchildren of the park’s designer returned to the camp and assisted the National Park Service and volunteers in unearthing the park.

Merritt Park Gardens Today

On the western edge of the camp a white obelisk marks the location of the camp’s small cemetery.  The Japanese characters read “Soul Consoling Tower.”   A master stonemason interred in the camp designed the monument as a permanent tribute to Manzanar’s dead.  He built the obelisk with the assistance of Block 9 residents, funded by fifteen cent donations from each family in the camp.

Obelisk with Mt. Williamson towering in the background

One hundred and fifty men, women, and children died while interned in Manzanar.  Fifteen of the deceased, mostly infants and older men without families, were buried in the cemetery located just outside the barbed wire surrounding the camp.  While some deceased were sent to hometown cemeteries, most were cremated and their ashes held in camp until their families left Manzanar.  After the war families requested the removal of nine of the remains leaving only six  in the cemetery today.

The remaining graves of the Manzanar Cemetery

Since the end of World War II there has been debate over the terminology used to refer to Manzanar and the other camps in which Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents were incarcerated by the government during the war.  Manzanar has been referred to as a “War Relocation Center,” “relocation camp,” “relocation center,” “internment camp,” and “concentration camp,” and the controversy over which term is the most accurate and appropriate continues to the present day.

But to an American citizen forced to leave home and sent to a camp in the desert surrounded by barbed wire with guard towers manned by armed soldiers holding bayonet tipped rifles, the title of the camp probably held little importance at the time.

On December 21, 1969, about 150 people departed Los Angeles by car and bus, headed for Manzanar.  It was the “first” annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. The non-profit Manzanar Committee has sponsored the Pilgrimage since 1969. The event is held annually on the last Saturday of April with hundreds of visitors of all ages and backgrounds, including some former incarcerees, gathering at the Manzanar cemetery to remember the incarceration. The hope is that participants can learn about it and help ensure that what is generally accepted to be a tragic chapter in American History is neither forgotten nor repeated.

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17 Responses to Manzanar War National Historical Center

  1. Lenore says:

    So well said. I visited Manzanar and just couldn’t find the right words to describe my experience. And yet it’s so important to recognize our responses. It was a very moving experience. Thanks for honoring the place the way you did.

  2. John this is definitely right in your alley.
    When we visited there, I as an Asian can not imagine what the Japanese/American may have felt then and the horror they have experienced. It was a sobering visit.
    The site may be scenic but I doubt they even noticed the beauty surrounding them at that time.

  3. libertatemamo says:

    It’s such a deeply moving place. I still remember the first time we visited. I didn’t really know about this part of American history and I was just dumb-struck by the entire experience.


    • placestheygo says:

      This was an eye opening experience for all of us. We were all very impressed with the beautiful gardens that were created in several areas. So glad they have been unearthed. With all these people endured they still created beauty in their surroundings.

  4. Jodee Gravel says:

    You summarized that huge building and grounds into such a great post! Wonderful pics of the garden followed by how it looks today. I bet your history classes were so good! Sorry we didn’t go back to the obelisk and cemetery after the bus left 😦

  5. Laurel says:

    So thoughtfully written and photographed. This is a perfect example of how we can learn from history, and hopefully, make better decisions for our future actions as a nation. I’m struck by the resilience of spirit of the people who were interned in the camp, and how they did their best to create beauty and comfort, no matter what their situation.

  6. Janna says:

    Very well written John–I lived near the remains of one of these “camps”, “prisons” in Powell, WY. It’s a hard one for me to understand–how did we condone such treatment of people born in this country? The Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming has undergone some restoration in the last few years too.

  7. This is one of those incredibly low points in american history…thank you for this well written account of your visit. It sounds like a moving place for reflection. America should be a place of inclusion, not exclusion, and an example for other countries…this is a sobering reminder of our flawed history.

  8. Thanks for the very interesting and informative post. We were in that area during the government shutdown so Manzanar was closed. We were quite disappointed as we had been looking forward to visiting there.

  9. pmbweaver says:

    We saw a special on this place. We both wanted to visit but never got up that way. Tragic event just begins to describe it. You would think that we were and are above doing anything like that. Didn’t we learn anything from corralling the poor Indians and moving them like a herd of buffalo.

  10. Nancy says:

    This was such a moving post. A part of history that so many want to forget but we must not. We must learn from it.
    I can’t imagine the feelings that overwhelmed you when you were there visiting.
    Thank You for sharing this and also the well researched information that you did on this to go along with your own personal photos.

  11. Sherry says:

    This really was an outstanding post. I am very ashamed of my government’s actions in this regard but proud of them for finally stepping up to tell the truth and make it a national center. It is true that there was real serious fear of attack on this country during WWII and that people of both Japanese and German descent, citizens or not, were badly discriminated against. Fear makes us do terrible things. The story of the gardens and their restoration was particularly poignant. Your photos are perfect. Thank you so much for such a powerful post.

  12. LuAnn says:

    Our visit was a very sobering experience. I could feel a sense of sadness that still permeated the space as I walked the grounds, but underlying that was a feeling of hope and pride, as these resilient people created beauty in this start environment.

  13. pam says:

    The story of what we did to our fellow citizens always makes me tear up, just as I do when I am reminded what atrocities we visited upon the Native Americans. I learned of this tragedy many years ago when I read “Snow Falling on Cedars”, just a fantastic piece of fiction by the way.

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