Fueled by anti-Asian sentiment which began long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1942 the U.S. War Department established 10 “Relocation Centers” to isolate Japanese and Japanese-American citizens from the U.S. west coast. This horrific forced relocation began in February-March of 1942, and continued until the end of 1945. Manzanar, located 230 miles east of Los Angeles (and not far from Death Valley), is one of the 10 internment camps, where 120,000 innocent men, women and children of Japanese descent were deprived of their freedom. 10,000 people were held at Manzanar.

With only days or at most weeks to prepare, people from the Los Angeles area as well as Bainbridge Island, WA were transported to the hastily constructed camp at Manzanar, forced to live in tarpaper buildings with little or no privacy from other families, use shared latrines with no partitions, and eat in large mess halls.

Typical bunk house shared by multiple families

At 4000′ elevation, this desert camp endured temperatures from 100+ degrees during the day in the summer to 40 degrees at night in the winter, with a typical day-night temperature differential of 30-40 degrees. The indignities were countless for these people, 2/3 of whom were native born American citizens.

Mess hall for 300 people

Manzanar is now a National Historical Site, run by the National Park Service. It is a sobering, eye-opening place to experience – to see some of the facilities, as well as the museum which told some of the heartbreaking stories, and made us feel the shame of what our country did to these people. Only a few buildings remain today, but the foundations and footprints give just a hint of the extent of these spartan quarters.

Racism and discrimination have no place in our world. We are all part of One Human Family. Equal – each and every one of us. This photo (below) makes me sick, but we have to face the reality of hatred and misunderstanding if we want to counteract it. We can’t pretend it wasn’t happening then, as it is now. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Period.

The thing that struck us most about Manzanar was the indomitable spirit of the prisoners, building furniture for themselves, creating a “lending library” for toys, establishing schools, a hospital, an orphange, an orchard, and a farm – to improve their quality of life as well as the variety of food served in the camp. We were so impressed at the industriousness of the prisoners to make their situation as good as it could possibly be, and to re-create many things that were important in their culture.

Remains of a beautiful garden and pond in the desert

Historical photos of the lovely gardens helped us imagine what the barren remains of the Pleasure Park looked like, tended with loving care as a respite from the unthinkable treatment of their captivity.

Loyalty questionnaires caused confusion and division in the camp, asking if the younger men would agree to serve in the U.S. military, as well as other difficult questions. I suggest that you read the book “No-No Boy” by John Okada for more insight into the complexities and conflicting emotions of the loyalty questions.

Grave marker
“Soul Consoling Tower”

The “Soul Consoling Tower” was constructed in 1943 as a place to attend religious services during the war, and is now the focal point of an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar.

A recent Washington Post article illustrated the unusual relationships between the prisoners in the camps, their guards, and the people in the surrounding areas. This particular article was about former Congressman and Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta and former Senator Alan Simpson, and the life-long friendship that began when 11-year old Alan Simpson’s Boy Scout troop generously held their Jamboree with the internee’s Boy Scout troop in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Forced Relocation camp, which included the young Norman Mineta.

National Parks can inspire and inform, whether they’re wild places or historical areas. Never stop learning – go experience your parks!