Manzanar National Historic Site, is an internment/concentration camp in California that imprisoned 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent, and immigrants, during World War II.  Today it is a historic museum and ghost town of sorts managed by the National Park Service. Manzanar was one of 10 such camps located mostly in the western United States.

I drove past it many times over the decades, first without noticing it, then wondering what it might be but not stopping. Manzanar  is located on the East side of the Sierra Nevadas between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence, on Highway 395.  Eventually it had some upgrades, including a tall guard tower right out by the road. That piqued my interest and on a day of travel when I had several hours of extra time before I could check in to my hotel I stopped by to take a serious look.

The entrance sign with its bizarre choice of font.

I was so puzzled by these sentry posts, trying to understand if it was propaganda or a saccharine attempt at comfort with fake tree stumps. It wasn’t until months later I found out these structures and many other stone features in the park were created by one of the interns, master stonemason Ryozo Kado.

The imposing guard tower. The camp had seven more.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the forced removal of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to “relocation centers” further inland. Just one month later, the first Japanese Americans arrived at Manzanar in March 1942, and began to build the camp their families would be staying in shortly. Manzanar was in operation as an internment camp from 1942 until 1945.

The main building of Manzanar is a well done museum with loads of information about the history, the politics, the role of the military and information about the residents and what their life was like during and after their internment. There are quotes by politicians at the time that are frighteningly similar to remarks made by politicians today in our current world.

Today the site looks barren and lonely but at the time this view would be nothing but closely packed buildings and people. At it’s peak Manzanar had a population of 10,000 people. 

Rebuilt buildings on the site match old photographs.

An interestingly crafted fence and basketball court.

A question I had, and probably most Americans today would have, is wondering how something like this could happen in our country. Some people might quibble at whether or not to call Manzanar and the other 9 locations “internment” camps or “concentration” camps. The two words are interchangeable and mean the same thing. To Americans the word internment sounds a little nicer. It might be better to distinguish between the words concentration camp and extermination camp. Concentration camps in their modern form were invented by the Spanish rounding up Cubans during the Ten Years’ War of 1868, which eventually led to the Spanish-American War. An Extermination camp such as Auschwitz (which I’ve also been to) is just one step farther down the road, an internment camp with genocide facilities on site. The museum tries, and succeeds to some extent, to show how a situation can evolve quickly such that even in a country like America, Nazi style death camps are not an impossibility

The showers/toilets and mess hall.

Even in late September it was hot enough that I could appreciate the shade at Pleasure Park. I wonder how big the trees were in the 1940’s.

The main museum also points out how important it is to have upstanding military leaders. Manzanar was a result of politics reacting to and feeding public fears. The Japanese army, under the command of a divine Emperor,  bombed Pearl Harbor and took over a couple of Alaskan Islands for several years. No other country has ever done that, so it was a normal reaction to fear that military force. But some politicians in power at the time used that fear for their own purposes.  The military, who were assigned the job of managing the camps, was not happy about what they were doing, clearly saw the danger of taking such actions against fellow Americans, and did take precautions to avoid problems as best they could.

Everything was built by the residents. The camp was supposed to be self sufficient. This dry pond with a bridge looks like it really must have been a nice place to relax.

The rest of the site really requires driving, it’s several square miles, and following the road will take you past many areas of the “town”, including orchards, parks, lakes, barracks and a graveyard. The buildings such as the barracks and food hall are reconstructions but they do look just like the photos showing the original structures. I would strongly recommend the museum building first, or you won’t have any context as to what any of this stuff really means or how it relates to anything else.

A memorial at the graveyard. I wanted to post this again, so I can point out that the top of the monolith lines up perfectly with the top of the mountain in the background.  Mt. Williamson is the second-highest peak in California and the 6th highest mountain in the lower 48 at 14,379 ft.

The Manzanar cemetery site is marked by a monument that was built by stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. An inscription in Japanese on the front (east side) of the monument reads 慰霊塔 (‘Soul Consoling Tower’: ireitō=Mandarin: wèi-líng-tǎ ‘consoling-soul monument’ ). The inscription on the back (west side) reads “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese” on the left-hand column, and “August 1943” on the right-hand column.

Offerings people have left at the monument.

There are still fruit bearing trees in the orchard. 

You may have been asking all this time, what is up with the exotic name “Manzanar”. It simply means “apple orchard” in Spanish, and was the name of the town that existed at this location prior to the concentration camp. The town was founded in 1910 as a collection of agricultural ranches. But after the city of Los Angeles stole all the water in Owens Valley, the town was abandoned by the mid 1930s.

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