On our last day in Lone Pine, a windstorm blew into the area. It began the previous night and by the next day had developed some pretty fierce gusts. And that is the day we chose to visit the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The site of the Manzanar National Historic Monument is in the Owens Valley surrounded by majestic mountains. Mountains that have stood as silent witnesses to more than one grave injustice.
About 1,500 years ago, Paiute Indians settled in the Owens Valley. In the early 1860s miners and ranchers who moved into the valley homesteaded Peiute lands and a few years later, almost 1,000 Paiute were forcibly relocated by the military.
Then in 1910, the town of Manzanar developed into an agricultural settlement. But the acquisition of water and land rights by Los Angeles, and the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 diverted water from the town and ultimately caused its downfall.
At the start of World War II, the U.S. established the Manzanar War Relocation Center for the internment of Japanese American citizens and U.S. residents of Japanese descent. This was one of ten camps where almost 120,000 people were interned. These actions were driven by fear of possible espionage in “military areas” on the Pacific Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and fueled by racism.
The families had less than a week to decide what to do with their homes, farms, businesses, other possessions and pets. Many sold property at a loss, or gave possessions away, others just walked away thinking they might return soon.
The relocation centers were hastily constructed. With below freezing temperatures in winter, temperatures in the 100s in summer, and strong winds throughout the year, the living conditions at Manzanar were quite harsh.
Groups of eight were assigned to 20-by-25 foot rooms with an oil stove, one hanging light bulb, cots, blankets and mattresses filled with straw.
Late in the first year of internment, some of the Japanese Americans made improvements to the buildings, including adding linoleum to the floors to prevent sand from being blown into their rooms by the strong winds.
All buildings were sold after the war except for an auditorium, also built by the internees, that was used as a gymnasium, and had a stage for plays and other functions. Today this building houses an excellent visitor center.
Nowadays, the land on which the 36 blocks of 14 barracks sat is mostly empty. The landscape is barren except for some fruit trees from one of the few homesteads that remained during the war, a few ruins, partially restored gardens, the interpretive center, a mock barrack and a cemetery.
After spending some time at the visitor center, we drove around the 3.2 mile self-guided driving tour. We had not realized that we would be walking around so much during the windstorm, but we were compelled to get out of the car to walk amongst the ruins and gardens and to try to connect with the history of the place.
It was hard to imagine that there were 200 to 400 people living on each block. And it seemed that we chose the right day to be here, as we experienced the high winds that the interned had to constantly endure.
But it is fitting that many of the remaining structures are from gardens built by the Japanese Americans. They built gardens, ponds and community parks to provide something pretty to view for those waiting outside mess halls and other areas.
These resilient people organized sports, music, dance and other events and published a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. Many worked at the camp doing manual labor, skilled and semi-skilled work and providing professional services. They got paid between $12 and $19 per month. There was even a factory at Manzanar where internees made camouflage netting and experimental rubber for the military.
Many of the gardens were buried in rubble when the buildings were removed, but several have been uncovered, including a recent discovery, the Arai fish pond. A fish pond with little channels and tunnels built to provide entertainment for the children.
Hector had jokingly asked the ranger if she got to work at nearby Yosemite on occasion to give her a happy respite from the bleak story told here. That is when she explained that she is descended from an internee and how much this historic site means to her and what a profound impact this episode had on her family.
She told us that the man who built the Arai fish pond was her great uncle.
We also found out that every year there is a pilgrimage to Manzanar on the last weekend of April and that for this year’s gathering there would be a rededication of the fish pond. For the occasion they planned to fill it with water again for the first time in many decades.
Her story was such an unexpected personal revelation and connection to this solemn place that we were moved to tears.
Our final visit was to the cemetery, where about six internees are still buried. The cemetery was very exposed, and many of the offerings people had left had been blown away and were in heaps in the vegetation around the area.
Most of the internees were American citizens, others were law abiding people who had lived in the United States for decades but had been denied citizenship. None had any cause to be singled out. The internment was an awful violation of their civil and human rights.
The Manzanar National Historic Site, like many other memorials of terrible injustices, is an important reminder that we must not allow fear and prejudice to erode our hard-fought civil liberties.