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California: Manzanar (Japanese Internment Camp/ マンザナール)

Many of us are familiar with the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan on December 7th, 1941 through what we have been taught in history classes and even through Hollywood’s rendition of what occurred on that day. According to President Roosevelt’s speech it was , “ a date which will live in infamy ….”

But what occurred in the United States during 1942, in retaliation for the attack is something that is not often discussed. While the U.S. condemned the Nazi regime for operating concentration camps in Europe between 1933-1945, they too established what they called “Internment Camps” through Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942. The internment of Japanese Americans in the United States was the forced relocation and incarceration during World War II.

Of the 127,000 Japanese Americans living in the continental United States at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, 112,000 resided on the West Coast. Approximately 80,000 were Nisei (second generation, American-born Japanese with U.S. citizenship) and Sansei (third generation; the children of Nisei). The remainder were Issei (first generation, immigrants born in Japan who were ineligible for U.S. citizenship by U.S. law).

Under Executive Order 9066, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first of ten camps established where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.

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Manzanar, located on the west side of U.S. Highway 395, approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was home to the Paiute Indians prior to the arrival of the Japanese Americans in March of 1942. The town of Manzanar was established in 1910 by ranchers and miners who abandoned it by 1929 after Los Angeles purchased the water rights to virtually the entire area.

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The camp site stretched 6,200 acres with the developed portion covering approximately 540 acres. The residential area was only one square mile and consisted of 36 blocks of hastily constructed barracks measuring 20×100’. A single family, regardless of size resided in a 20×25’ partition within the barracks. These partitions had no ceilings eliminating any chance of privacy. Each residential block also had a communal mess hall, a laundry room, a recreation hall, an ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank. There were school facilities, chicken and hog farms, churches, a cemetery, a post office, a cooperative store, other shops and even a camp newspaper. Camp residents had to wait in one line after another for meals, at bathrooms and at the laundry room Thirty four additional blocks on the camp site were designated for staff housing, camp administration offices, warehouses, a garage, a camp hospital and 24 firebreaks. The camp perimeter enclosed by five-strand barbed wire, had eight watchtowers manned by armed Military Police. Sentry posts were positioned at the main entrance.

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An all American game of baseball at the camp

An all American game of baseball at the camp

Summers at Manzanar were generally hot, with temperatures exceeding 100 °F. The winters brought occasional snowfall and daytime temperatures often dropped into the 40 °F range. Due to frequent high winds, dust was ever-present. Those living in the barracks often awoke being covered from head to toe with a fine layer of dust. They had to constantly sweep dirt out of the barracks.

Monument at Manzanar Cemetary

Monument at Manzanar Cemetery

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On November 21, 1945, the WRA closed Manzanar, the sixth camp to be closed. Although the camp residents had been brought to Manzanar by the United States government, they had to leave the camp and travel to their next destination on their own. The WRA gave each person $25, one-way train or bus fare and provided meals to those who had less than $600. Although 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.

One hundred forty six Japanese Americans died at Manzanar. Fifteen of them were buried there but only five graves remain as most were later reburied elsewhere by their families.

It is important to note that as WWII progressed, many of the young Nisei volunteered or were drafted to serve in the United States military. Japanese Americans served in all the branches of the United States Armed Forces, including the United States Merchant Marines.

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The nation’s highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, was conferred upon only one Nisei during the war. Twenty-one members of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team received Distinguished Service Crosses during or immediately after their service. However, in the 1990s, after a study revealed that racial discrimination had caused these soldiers to be overlooked, their awards were upgraded to Medals of Honor. On October 5, 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war.

In 1980, under mounting pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League and various redress organizations, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into internment camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The Commission’s report, titled “Personal Justice Denied,” found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and concluding the incarceration had been the product of racism, recommended that the government pay reparations to the survivors. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each individual camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

In 1992, Manzanar became a National Historic Site. It is a painful reminder of the incarceration and violation of civil rights of Japanese Americans during World War ll. It also serves to educate and raise public awareness of the continuing struggle of all persons when their Constitutional rights are violated.

The Manzanar site is open from 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM (April 1 – October 31) and 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM (November 1- March 31). Admission to the site is free of charge.

Web page: http://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm

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