A New Desert Home
The first Japanese Americans to arrive at the Owens Valley Reception Center, later renamed the Manzanar War Relocation Center, were greeted with a dry, desert landscape bordered by the high Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyo mountains to the east. They immediately found that Manzanar’s wood and tarpaper barracks were no match for the valley’s wind, dirt, and extreme temperatures. After windy nights, they awoke to blankets covered in a layer of dust.
Confined at Manzanar
In addition to dealing with poor construction, crowded conditions, and a lack of privacy, people had to make do with the few belongings they were allowed to bring with them. By the end of the summer of 1942, the initial construction of the one-square-mile living area was complete. In September, Manzanar reached its peak population of just over 10,000 Japanese Americans. They would remain confined at Manzanar for up to three and a half years, despite the fact that two-thirds of them were American citizens.
To access the War Relocation Authority (WRA) Final Accountability Rosters (1944-1946), refer to the National Archives and Records Administration: http://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/links.html
Life Behind Barbed Wire
As thousands of people poured in from Los Angeles, Bainbridge Island, Florin and other places, the Army was busy encircling Manzanar with a 5-strand barbed wire fence and eight armed guard towers. Manzanar became the largest city between Los Angeles and Reno. Despite public misconceptions of a homogenous “enemy,” Japanese Americans of all ages from diverse backgrounds and experiences were confined together at Manzanar, leading to camp-wide bi-culturalism.
A Sense of Community
Many people found new ways to transform the landscape and establish a sense of community. They built Japanese-style ponds and gardens, maintained extensive agricultural fields and constructed furniture and tools from the limited materials available. By 1943, Manzanar had a general store, fish market, multiple library branches, and a community newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. Hundreds of sports teams competed regularly, and clubs and community events helped to pass the time for many while providing opportunities to meet new people and learn new skills.
Unrest at Manzanar
By the fall of 1942, tensions and tempers were high. Eight months of confinement with rumors of suspected FBI informers and dishonest administrators fueled anger and distrust. Various social and political divisions throughout the camp grew more apparent as individuals looked for change and for ways to take control of their circumstances. On December 5th, 1942, six masked men physically assaulted a leading member in the Japanese American Citizens League. In response to the beating, administrators accused and arrested a mess hall chef, who was popular with the community for speaking out against the administration.
Thousands gathered at the camp entrance to protest the chef’s arrest. Camp administrators called in the Military Police and 135 soldiers deployed in a line of skirmish, attempting unsuccessfully to disperse the crowd with tear gas. As the crowd scattered in chaos, someone pushed an unoccupied vehicle towards the soldiers. Two soldiers fired into the crowd, instantly killing James Ito. Jim Kanagawa, 21, died five days later. Ten others were wounded. The event, known as the “Manzanar Riot” would have repercussions far beyond Manzanar, both in distance and time.
In early 1945, the government announced that the camps would close by the end of the year. By the time World War II officially ended in September 1945, thousands of Japanese Americans had already left Manzanar, some as early as the fall of 1942, each given $25 and a one-way ticket. Some had no homes to which to return, and lived instead in hotels, churches, hostels, and trailer parks until they could find houses and jobs. The last Japanese Americans left Manzanar on November 21, 1945. By February 1947, Manzanar War Relocation Center was completely dismantled, leaving only a small collection of buildings for the Veterans housing Project, which lasted until 1951. Evidence of Manzanar’s buildings can be found throughout Eastern California where relocated barracks have been refurbished as homes, motels, meeting halls, and storage sheds, among other uses.
The Struggle Never to Forget
For decades the site of Manzanar War Relocation Center was abandoned. In 1969, a group of former internees and college students returned to Manzanar and hosted the first of what has become an annual Pilgrimage. They formed the Manzanar Committee which is still at work today to fight for civil liberties and make sure no one forgets the injustices experienced by Japanese Americans during World War II.
A National Historic Site
In 1988, those confined in the camps received an official apology by President Ronald Reagan, and the U.S. Civil Liberties Act granted 82,000 former internees reparations of $20,000 each. Finally, after 20 years of effort, in 1992 the Manzanar Committee and others successfully lobbied Congress to establish Manzanar National Historic Site.
A Site of Remembrance
Manzanar National Historic Site, preserved by the National Park Service in collaboration with local organizations, volunteers, and former internees, serves to preserve and share the site and its stories. These stories include those of the Owens Valley Paiute, who have lived in the area for centuries. In addition, in 1864, John Shepherd established a ranch, which, in 1905, George Chaffey began to convert into an orchard community that he named “Manzanar”--Spanish for “apple orchard.”