More than 10,000 U.S. citizens and residents. Three years and eight months. Five hundred square feet. Sixty-two hundred acres. Thirty degrees to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
These are some of the numbers that defined life for thousands of Japanese
Americans who were incarcerated during World War II in what was officially called Manzanar War Relocation Center. The word “relocation” is now considered a euphemism; “residents” of these internment camps had no choice about being there.
But most of them were there from March 1942 to November 1945. Manzanar became home for more than 10,000 Japanese Americans soon after Executive Order 9066 was signed 77 years ago this month by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The order, created just a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, designated military areas (mostly in the West) from which all people of Japanese descent were banned. Within a few weeks, 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds U.S. citizens — were forced to board trucks, trains and buses leaving California, Oregon and Washington. The caravans headed for 10 internment relocation camps scattered around the country.
Passengers were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Like all of the internment camps, Manzanar, located on Highway 395 between Lone Pine and Independence, was remotely situated and weather conditions were harsh.
I think about this as we walk the windswept acres of Manzanar National Historic Site (https://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm), where the magnificent Sierras stand as a backdrop. It clearly is a beautiful place, but this is now and that was then.
In the spring of 1942, Manzanar’s new residents unloaded their few belongings into drafty, quickly erected barracks that were less-than-effective in keeping out the cold, rain, wind and dust.
Manzanar’s one square mile was divided into 36 blocks, each consisting of 12 six-room barracks, a recreation hall, laundry, bathrooms and a mess hall. Within the barracks, 500 square feet were allotted for every eight people, and public latrines afforded little privacy. Winters could be bitterly cold, wet and muddy, and summers exhaustingly hot. The winds and the dust they carried could be incessant.
Barbed wire surrounded the camp and every resident was well aware of the six towers and the guards with machine guns that stood watch.
Also within the wire — a cemetery, because life and death continued despite incarceration. A white obelisk stands as a memorial to the 150 men, women and children once buried there, including Ruby Maruki Watanabe and her twins, Diane and Sachiko, who all died in birth Aug. 15, 1942.
Many of the cemetery’s remains were eventually moved; historians believe that a half-dozen bodies remain.
The intangible mass of 10,000 internees becomes more defined as we walk through the spacious, contemporary visitor center and where we get to know individuals through photos, paintings and artifacts. They tell of internees’ fears, anger, sadness and optimism. Through their recorded words, we learn about the homes, businesses, farms, friends and personal treasures they were forced to abandon.
We also get some sense of daily life in the camp by touring several of the barracks that have been rebuilt and furnished with period artifacts. Photos show adults and children attending church and school; playing sports; planting gardens; forming clubs and choral groups; learning to play instruments; writing poetry; and establishing a newspaper.
These Japanese Americans also tried to reconcile the hatred engendered by some of their former neighbors and why their government demanded they sign loyalty oaths. Penalty for not doing so meant being shipped to other internee camps.
Despite all this, young Japanese Americans joined the military, fought in the war, died and became heroes.
Related exhibit at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, through March 10:
“Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams & Wendy Mariyama:
Executive Order 9066.” Visit http://artcenter.org/museum> http://artcenter.org/museum. For more photos
and commentary, visit <http://www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash>
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.