Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Manzanar Site Recalls World War II Internment

Looking at the vast, empty landscape of the Manzanar National Historic Site, it’s difficult to imagine that it was once the location of a veritable city containing more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans, who were forced to live there for three years.

The Manzanar Historic Site, located adjacent to U.S. 395, five miles south of Independence, California (about 4 hours south of Fallon), commemorates the war relocation center which was operated there from 1942 to 1945.

While little remains of the original buildings that were once spread across 6,000 acres in the shadows of the Sierra range, the site is considered to offer the best opportunities for interpretation of the WWII relocation program (there were nine similar camps in the U.S.).

The Manzanar camp was commissioned shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. In early 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast (most of whom were American citizens) to be placed in relocation camps.

More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, mostly Californians, were immediately moved to racetracks, fairgrounds and other makeshift detention centers in California before being transferred to the ten permanent detention centers (Manzanar was the first permanent camp).

Within months, the Manzanar camp had 10,000 residents who lived in rows of simple, wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences, secured by guard towers.

Additionally, the site included gardens, orchards, ponds, auditorium, cemetery, reservoir, airport, sewage treatment plant and hospital complex.

The camp operated until late 1945, then the war ended and the last resident was released. Shortly after, the trailer-like barracks were sold at auction and removed from the site.

Today, the best-preserved building is the auditorium, a large, square, green building that is used as an Inyo County maintenance shop (it’s surrounded by yellow public works trucks and other equipment).

You can also find the stonework shells of the small, pagoda-style police post and sentry house, near the site’s entrance, as well as portions of other buildings. Most impressive are the stone and concrete walls of two buildings found southwest of the sentry house.

Poking through the overgrown sagebrush and grass, you can also find concrete steps that once led up to the barracks, portions of the water and sewer systems and remnants of rock gardens.

Wandering the site, try to imagine this was a bustling community that once contained rows of trees teeming with apples and pears (most of the trees are gone) and gardens overflowing with produce.

While today, the existence of the detention camps might seem an overreaction, it is best to view the unfortunate episode in the context of wartime.

Prior to its use as an internment camp, Manzanar was an early Owens Valley agricultural settlement (1910 to 1935), which is when many of the remaining handful of trees were originally planted, and a prehistoric home for centuries to native Paiutes and Shoshone tribes.

The Manzanar Historic site was established in March, 1992. In recent years, the National Park Service has installed interpretive signs and reconstructed one of the guard towers (there were once eight towers). You can also find an excellent display of Manzanar photos, recollections, drawings, paintings and artifacts at the fine Eastern California Museum in nearby Independence.

For more information, call 760-878-2194 ext. 2710 or go to

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