Manzanar is most widely known as the site of one of ten camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California’s Owens Valley between the towns of Lone Pine to the south and Independence to the north, it is approximately 230 miles (370 km) northeast of Los Angeles.
After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Government swiftly moved to begin solving the “Japanese Problem” on the West Coast of the United States. In the evening hours of that same day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested selected “enemy” aliens, including 2,192 who were of Japanese descent. The California government pressed for action by the national government, as many citizens were alarmed about potential activities by people of Japanese descent.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to designate military commanders to prescribe military areas and to exclude “any or all persons” from such areas. The order also authorized the construction of what would later be called “relocation centers” by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to house those who were to be excluded. This order resulted in the forced relocation of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born American citizens. The rest had been prevented from becoming citizens by federal law. Over 110,000 were incarcerated in the ten concentration camps located far inland and away from the coast.
Manzanar was the first of the ten concentration camps to be established. Initially, it was a temporary “reception center”, known as the Owens Valley Reception Center from March 21, 1942, to May 31, 1942. At that time, it was operated by the US Army’s Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA).
On November 21, 1945, the WRA closed Manzanar, the sixth camp to be closed. Although the incarcerees had been brought to the Owens Valley by the United States Government, they had to leave the camp and travel to their next destinations on their own. The WRA gave each person $25 ($329 today), one-way train or bus fare, and meals to those who had less than $600 ($7,887 today). While many left the camp voluntarily, a significant number refused to leave because they had no place to go after having lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes. As such, they had to be forcibly removed once again, this time from Manzanar. Indeed, those who refused to leave were generally removed from their barracks, sometimes by force, even if they had no place to go.
The Manzanar cemetery site is marked by a monument that was built by incarceree stonemason Ryozo Kado in 1943. An inscription in Japanese on the front of the monument reads, 慰靈塔 (Soul Consoling Tower). The inscription on the back reads “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese” on the left, and “August 1943” on the right. Today, the monument is often draped in strings of origami, and sometimes survivors and other visitors leave offerings of personal items as mementos. The National Park Service periodically collects and catalogues such items.
In our recent travels, we roamed around the grounds of the camp, feeling every bit of somber energy that permeated from that place. We paid our respects to those that were lost, and hope to return in the near future.