Sunday, August 22, 2010


IT IS AUGUST OF 2010.  In an effort to escape the hyperbole and extremism of the mid-term elections, I decided to check something off my "bucket list" with a quick trip to the east side of the Sierra Nevada and a visit to the War Relocation Center at Manzanar in the Owens Valley. My desire for this pilgrimage grows from the fact that I have made acquaintance of several individuals of Japanese descent who were interned here or at Tule Lake up north or Camp Poston in Arizona.

THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE has done an outstanding job in recreating life for Japanese American citizens during WWII. This is what 10,121 Americans saw as they were relocated to this desolate land east of the Sierra. Some felt it was their duty as a part of the war effort.

A RECONSTRUCTED BARRACKS, sheathed in tarpaper. Photographs from the era indicate the barracks were whitewashed. I toured in 100 degree heat and can easily imagine the conditions. I chose to leave after three hours. The internees stayed for more than three years.

Hundreds of these tarpaper barracks lined a grid of over 14 miles of streets inside this 5415 acre property. Recall that a square mile has 640 acres.

THE MESS HALL where thousands ate three meals daily.

 This room teamed with folks from before dawn until after dark. “Hurry up and eat your hot white rice topped with cold Jello.”

MANZANAR is a derivative of the Spanish word for apple. Some 65 years after having been planted, this orchard remains a testament to the hard work of those who farmed this "Land of Little Rain." Apologies to Mary Austin.

THE INTERNEES BUILT GARDENS and fountains utilizing waters that flowed from the east face of the Sierra. Now dry, it doesn't take much to imagine how folks attempted to make something beautiful where something beautiful hadn't existed before.

Pool in Merritt Park, Manzanar War Relocation Center; Ansel Adams Photograph © 1943

In the movie "The Great Escape," Captain Hilts (the Cooler King), Steve McQueen's character, having been returned to confinement, immediately begins bouncing a baseball for a game of solitary catch. The German guard hesitates for only a moment, but conveys that, "We may win the battle, but we will not defeat you." These gardens and parks convey the same message. Only this time, it is the American guard who must realize the message.

MT WILLIAMSON towers 14,389 feet in the background. One can only surmise what these folks must have dreamed about as they looked westward to the high Sierra.

150 CITIZENS DIED here over the course of the camp's existence. Some were initially buried here then removed and reburied by family in their home communities. Most, however, were cremated. One's ashes were scattered on the flanks of Mt. Williamson to the rear of the photo. Fifteen graves remain.

Baby Jerry Ogata.

 SURROUNDED BY BARBED WIRE and guarded from on high, our fellow Americans stayed put. Their only “crime?” Being or being related to immigrants from Japan.

One woman, whose son was released because he promised to enlist, received his Congressional Medal of Honor here, behind the fence. Her son sacrificed his life by falling on a grenade in the European Theater.

All told, about 120,000 Americans were “detained” during the war years from 1943 through 1946. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed a reconciliation act offering compensation to 60,000 surviving internees. He stated there would be no good to come from blame, but, “it was a mistake. One we should not repeat.”

 A REMNANT from how many decades back, now choked in sage and creosote. An artifact easy to overlook. Likewise, the Manzanar Encampment as one zooms past on US 395.

 THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is only as strong as the first element we choose to compromise in favor of political expediency. 


The Essential Mary Austin, (2006), Heyday Books. Includes, in its entirety, Mrs. Austin’s Land of Little Rain (1903) wherein she offers vivid descriptions of life and death in the natural community that would become the Owens Valley.

Farewell to Manzanar, (1973, 2006), Laurel Leaf. Jeanne Wakasuki Houston recounts life in camp in this young-adult level memoir co-written with husband James. The National Park Service provides an archive of photographs and print media accessible on line. Original documents may be found at the Manzanar Interpretive Center on site five miles south of Independence, CA on US 395.


  1. Mr. B,
    Thanks for sharing the trip and also for the reminder of a shameful part of history in this country we love. Well written and well photographed. Good work!

  2. LL: This is a beautiful piece and it appears that you captured the essence of Manzanar.Your pictorial brought tears to my eyes for many reasons.

  3. PA: I never thought I would belong to another church, but am to proud to say i have joined the Church of the Open Road. I want to 'share' you with everyone :-)

  4. TW: What a tragic time of our history as a nation and what a proud, strong people to be subjected to this treatment as US citizens.

  5. DH: Very eloquent. Both visually and in words.

  6. BS: The photos and tales are chilling, even in the heat, and heart-wrenching but at the same time, they are a story of the survival of the human spirit.

    I've been impressed with presentations by people like Susan G, who was in one of the camps as a teenager when her family tried their best to make her life as normal as it could be. Sure there were armed guards on the walls as you went to the sock hop, but after a while you didn't notice them. She came out of it with amazingly few hard feelings, but with a clear awareness that we can't let it happen again.

  7. LB: Wonderful essay! I'm going to forward to my friends who teach about Angel Island in 8th history. Like making that connection of "not really a one-time thing". Where exactly is Manzanar? I've been from Mono Lake to Mammoth. Where is it in relation?

  8. I think that "Return to Manzanar" is on the supplemental reading list at 7th grade. Or should be. It isn't a dramatic book, but it sure says a lot about the character of those dealing with harsh physical, cultural and political circumstances. Kids should be reading about this, I believe. Kinda like Anna Frank in our own back yard.

    Manzanar is located five miles south of Independence; 40 miles south of Bishop; and about 68 miles south of Mammoth. Easy to miss at it looks like a gymnasium oddly placed in the middle of the high desert. The gym was built by internees and is the largest artifact remaining on site that is original. It has been refurbished and is used as the interpretive center.

    Most people do not know we "detained" our own citizenry during WWII. The movement was promulgated by false newspaper reports of a Zero attacking the west coast. Almost immediately papers were calling for the "Japs to go!!!"

    The point? 1) Fox News is nothing new. 2) If we forget history, we are bound to repeat it.

  9. SD: Thanks for taking me somewhere I
    haven't been. You should visit Tulelake. It too, is very informative.

  10. DH: Manzanar is definitely a sobering sight. Amazing what fear can do to otherwise humane and reasonable people. Putting thousands of US citizens behind barbed wire in a spot like that..., well, I just can't put it into words. One reason I adamantly refuse to listen to fear mongering and racially prejudiced drivel of all sorts. Very dramatic country around there, and starkly beautiful. But I wouldn't want to winter over in a place like that with nothing but a tar-paper shack between myself and the elements!