Manzanar: America's Concentration Camp

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After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government imprisoned more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in remote camps spread across the Western states, far from their homes, for more than three years. They were allowed to bring little with them. Shopkeepers had to shutter their businesses. Farmers either had to sell their land in great haste and at a great loss, or trust neighbors to work their land while they were gone; many returned to find their farms stolen. In the years since Japanese interment, it has been lamented by pundits and presidents as a "national mistake" (Gerald Ford), "unjust and motivated by racism" (a bipartisan congressional committee in 1980) and worthy of a formal apology from Bush I, who distributed reparations of more than $20,000 to each surviving detainee.

While many of the former prisoners live on, there is little left of the camps. One exception is Manzanar, in the arid Owens Valley 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where some 11,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned between 1942 and 1945. Efforts to protect it have resulted in it being declared a national historic site, and what remains there is maintained by the National Park Service. I'd heard about Manzanar for years but had never seen it; on a recent drive through remote parts of eastern California, I decided to stop and have a look for myself.

Pictured above: an historic vista of Manzanar during a dust storm, taken by legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. Dust was such a problem that prisoners often woke after a night's sleep covered head-to-toe in it; knotholes in the floors of their hastily-constructed pine barracks let in the dust, the cold, and all manner of rodents.

Manzanar today is mostly foundations, but just wandering among them, you get the sense of just how massive a place it was -- more than a mile square. These front steps once led into staff houses.
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This looks like it was a raised garden of some sort. There were gardens throughout Manzanar, many built by prisoners with expertise in such things and copious time on their hands.
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An old well:
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Manzanar was set up much like a prototypical American town, albeit one surrounded by barbed wire and gun-wielding soldiers -- it had a school, an auditorium, a Catholic church as well as a Buddhist temple, a newspaper, a baseball field, an orphanage, chicken and hog farms to supplement prisoners' diets with meat, and other amenities. Ansel Adams visited the camp, and took this wonderful photo of schoolgirls doing calisthenics:
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But life in the camp was far from normal. Taken from the homes they had known, prisoners lived in three dozen 20-by-100-foot tarpaper barracks, in tiny rooms separated by little more than curtains. Latrines were communal; there was no privacy. Depression and hopelessness quickly took hold amongst the prisoners.
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The barracks were torn down soon after the camp was ordered closed in 1945, but the parks service recently rebuilt one of them. It looks unfinished, but it's not -- that's how they were built.
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The mighty Sierras, as reflected in the barracks' windows.
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After her imprisonment there, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote:

You could face away from the barracks, look past a tiny rapids toward the darkening mountains, and for a while not be a prisoner at all. You could hang suspended in some odd, almost-lovely land you could not escape from yet almost didn't want to leave.

Despite the mountains, reminders of their prisoner-hood were everywhere. Eight watchtowers equipped with searchlights and machine guns surrounded the camp. There were incidents -- at other camps -- of prisoners making a run for it and being gunned down at the barbed wire fences. This watchtower was rebuilt in 2005:
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Though much of the camp has been reduced to its foundations, one remnant you still find everywhere, tangled in bushes and weeds, is barbed wire; as if there had been so much of it, taking it all away after the camp closed had been too overwhelming a task.
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There was no starker reminder of what the prisoners went through, however, than the cemetery at Manzanar.
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It is festooned with paper cranes, pennies, trinkets and notes from visitors. Some offerings, however, seemed less appropriate than others.
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The grave of baby Jerry Nogata. Visitors make a habit of leaving toys for baby Jerry.
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This stone is marked only in Japanese.
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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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September 28, 2009 - 3:00am
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