At the base of the Sierra Nevadas, an empty guard post stands along a lonely stretch of desert highway. It is one of the few remnants of the War Relocation Center at Manzanar, one of ten such camps that once detained Americans who were neither charged with nor convicted of a crime. In 1992, 50 years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the wartime decree that allowed the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, Congress designated Manzanar a national historic site.
An annual pilgrimage to Manzanar occurs
on the last Saturday of April each year.
By the spring of 1942, just months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Manzanar was a city of more than 10,000 people, most of whom were from Los Angeles County. Half of Manzanar's population were women and one-fourth were children. Infants and some elderly, barely able to walk, were also brought here. Though the government maintained that the Nisei (ethnic Japanese living in America) were brought here for their own protection, the inmates were painfully aware that the guns in the guard towers pointed inward, not outward. When the Nisei arrived, they found their new homes to be 576 tar paper barracks, divided into "apartments."
Families averaging eight people were assigned to a 20-foot by 25-foot or smaller room. The rooms were furnished with iron cots, three blankets per person, and bags they could fill with straw to sleep on. The barracks had so many cracks in the walls that the residents would wake up covered with a fine layer of dust. The 560-acre camp was divided into residential blocks, each with a communal kitchen and bathhouses. The residents stood in long lines in the hot, dry summers and the bitter cold winters, waiting to eat or to use the bathrooms.
Despite the harsh climate, lack of privacy, and the inescapable dust, the Nisei lived with as much dignity as possible, turning Manzanar into a very American community, complete with churches, schools, Boy Scout troops, baseball tournaments, community theater, and a newspaper.
In September of 1945, after more than three years at Manzanar, the prisoners were set free. Without ceremony or fanfare, each was given $25 and a bus ticket home. Visiting Manzanar now, it is hard to believe that it was once a busy community. Only three buildings remain: a sentry post, a guard post with a slightly pagodalike style, and a large wood-frame building that once served as the camp's auditorium and gymnasium. But by walking the dusty streets, visitors will discover traces of former rock gardens and the remains of buildings and utility systems. The Park Service has decided not to rebuild the camp, opting instead to leave Manzanar in its current state.
Like any American town, Manzanar published its own newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. The final editorial of the Free Press summed up the Nisei's hopes and fears as they prepared to leave Manzanar: "In just three months, Manzanar, one-time 'home' to more than 10,000 people, will be only a memory -- a memory of joy and heartache, happiness and fear, of love and hate....But now the time has come when we must find a place for ourselves in a normal community. Our children must know what life is beyond the barbed wire....But wherever we go, we must begin again with a renewed faith to build for ourselves and those of our heritage a place of security in this great nation so that our children will never be forced to experience the loss and hardships that we have known these last few years."
Manzanar National Historic Site Information
Address: Manzanar is located on
the west side of U.S. Highway 395, 9 miles north of Lone Pine, California and 6
miles south of Independence, CA. in Death Valley, CA
Hours of Operation: The site is open from dawn to dusk daily. Interpretive Center hours are:
- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Apr. 1 - Oct. 31
- 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 1 - Mar. 31
Learn more about these other national historic sites:
To learn more about national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:
- National Monuments: Learn more about America's national monuments.
- National Memorials: Discover national memorials in the U.S.
- National Historic Sites: Read about American national historic sites.
- California State Guide: Learn about Mobil Travel Guide-rated hotels and restaurants in California as well as other recreational activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based author who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.