Imagine having a week to dispose of just about everything you own—your home and furnishings, cars, business, personal belongings—anything you can’t carry. Then imagine your family being loaded into buses and trains under military guard, not knowing where you were going or for how long.
That’s exactly what more that 10,000 Japanese Americans were faced with in 1942 when Executive Order 9066 forced their internment at Manzanar War Relocation Center in California’s Owens Valley. In all, more than 110,000 men, women, and children were incarcerated during World World II at 10 remote war relocation centers in seven states. Today, not much remains of any of these hastily built military camps, but a first-rate interpretive center and a driving tour of the grounds and cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site provide a good glimpse of what daily life must have been like.
The reasons for relocating all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to Manzanar were distrust and fear. Racial prejudice intensified after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and those who might threaten the war effort—which was everyone of Japanese ancestry—was subject to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order. Somehow no one gave any thought to the fact that about two-thirds of the internees were American citizens by birth. And in the end, no Japanese Americans were ever charged with espionage.
Manzanar was typical of any of the military camps and was laid out in 36 blocks, each housing about 300 people. A single block included 14 barracks; each 20×100 foot barracks was divided into four rooms and up to eight people were assigned to each room. Also on the block was a mess hall, recreation hall, laundry room, and men’s and women’s latrines. None of the barracks were weatherized against 100-degree summer heat, year-round strong winds, or below freezing temperatures during the winter. There were no partitions in the communal latrines and the showers had no stalls, so there was no privacy either.
Amazingly, internees attempted to make the best of their bad situation. Most eventually improved their own barracks by making furniture and window coverings, adding partitions, and filling knotholes in the floors. Many spent over three years at Manzanar, and life went on—children went to school, babies were born, and 150 people died. The internees established churches, temples, and clubs for the kids. They built gardens and ponds, developed music, sports and other recreational programs. Most worked in the camp—tending the fruits and vegetables, raising farm animals, and serving as doctors, nurses, firefighters, and teachers. Wages were extremely low, though. At most, professionals earned only $19 per month! As the war turned in America’s favor, restrictions were lifted and a small percentage of Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the camps for better jobs and even to attend college.
World War II ended in 1945, and by November of that year, Manzanar War Relocation Center was closed. In 1988, the U.S. Civil Liberties Act granted $20,000 and an apology to 82,000 former internees. Although the barbed wire is gone now and only one of eight guard towers remains, spend some time viewing the exhibits and film inside the interpretive center, and you’ll get a good understanding of what life was like for more than 10,000 people forced to live at Manzanar.
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In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com