MANZANAR— Lest We Forget… The Highway 395 Series

Several guard towers like this surrounded the Japanese American relocation camp at Manzanar during World War II. Had I been an American citizen of Japanese descent instead of British descent, it’s likely that I would have been born in one of the West Coast relocation centers surrounded by barbed wire.

The World War II Japanese ‘relocation center’ of Manzanar is located a short ten miles north of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills just off of Highway 395. I went there directly from the Lone Pine Museum of Film History. It would be hard to find two more different reminders of our past. As far as I can remember, I didn’t know about the site until I was in college. It wasn’t something that was discussed at my home. Had I been an American citizen with Japanese ancestry as opposed to British ancestry, it’s likely that I would have been born at one of the West Coast “relocation centers,” i.e. concentration camps, behind barbed wire fences overlooked by guard towers bristling with guns.

I may have learned about the camps in high school during American History but it was made real for me at the community college I attended just east of Sacramento in 1961-63.  I was student body president in 1962 and a member of my council was a young Japanese American woman who had experienced the relocation effort directly. Her family, along with several other Japanese American farmers in the Loomis/Lincoln area, were rounded up, forced to abandon their farms, and shipped out to Tule Lake where the relocation center for most of Northern California was located.

Ten years later in the early 70s, I would come to know another Japanese American who had been shipped along with his family to Tule Lake as a six-month old child, Bob Matsui. In 1971, working together with other environmentalists, I had created a political organization in Sacramento to elect environmentally concerned candidates to the Sacramento City Council and Board of Supervisors. Bob, who was making his first run for city council, had scored high on a questionnaire that we had put together. I had enthusiastically supported him in his run for election and he had won. Not only did he support environmental issues on the City Council for seven years, he continued to in 1978 when he became the fifth Japanese American to be elected to Congress. He would serve with distinction for a quarter of a century and be known for his bipartisan approach in creating substantive legislation.

More to the point of this post, Bob also became a strong advocate for recognizing the wrongs that had been done to Japanese Americans during World War II. For one, he was instrumental in having Manzanar set aside as a National Historic Landmark. In 1980 he joined Senator Daniel Inouye, and Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and Noman Mineta, in an effort to establish a committee to study the effects of the incarceration and the potential for redress.The end result of this effort was the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. After an extensive set of hearings throughout the West, the bipartisan Commission concluded that the decision to incarcerate the Japanese Americans was not based on military necessity and instead was based upon “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Not one Japanese American was found guilty of aiding Japan during World War II. 

The findings of the Commission led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which granted wartime survivors an apology and individual reparations of $20,000. While President Reagan initially opposed the implementation legislation, H.R. 422, because of cost, he readily signed the bill when it reached his desk. I found his comments at the signing ceremony to be quite relevant, not only to the legislation, but for today. 

He had started the ceremony by noting “… we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.”

Reagan went on to describe H.R. 442: “The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

The President concluded his statements by reading a newspaper article from 1945 that had been included in the Pacific Citizen:

“Arriving by plane from Washington, General Joseph W. Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Mary Masuda in a simple ceremony on the porch of her small frame shack near Talbert, Orange County. She was one of the first Americans of Japanese ancestry to return from relocation centers to California’s farmlands. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was there that day to honor Kazuo Masuda, Mary’s brother. You see, while Mary and her parents were in an internment camp, Kazuo served as staff sergeant to the 442d Regimental Combat Team (an all Japanese-American regiment). In one action, Kazuo ordered his men back and advanced through heavy fire, hauling a mortar. For 12 hours, he engaged in a singlehanded barrage of Nazi positions. Several weeks later at Cassino, Kazuo staged another lone advance. This time it cost him his life.”

The newspaper clipping noted that her two surviving brothers were with Mary and her parents on the little porch that morning. These two brothers, like the heroic Kazuo, had served in the United States Army. 

After General Stilwell made the award, the motion picture actress Louise Allbritton, a Texas girl, told how a Texas battalion had been saved by the 442d. Other show business personalities paid tribute — Robert Young, Will Rogers, Jr. And one young actor said: “Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.” (Italics mine)

Reagan then went on to note with his usual sense of humor: “The name of that young actor — I hope I pronounce this right — was Ronald Reagan. And, yes, the ideal of liberty and justice for all — that is still the American way.” 

Now that’s what being Presidential, the President of all Americans, is about. Following are several photos I took at Manzanar.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor naturally led to a fear of Japan, particularly on the West Coast. But it also released a deep prejudice against Japanese Americans that already existed. This large photo greets visitors to Manzanar.
On May 5th, based on information provided by the Census Bureau, this sign went up wherever Japanese Americans were living on the West Coast. They were given two days to gather a few belongings and make whatever arrangements they could for their homes, businesses, etc. Note, the Census Bureau denied that it had provided the information up to 2007.
This part of the poster informed Japanese-Americans what they could carry with them and when they were to report. They were more or less limited to what they could carry.
A child sitting among some of the personal luggage.
Each person was assigned a number. I couldn’t help but think of the numbers that were tattooed on Jews when they entered German concentration camps. One good point was that families weren’t separated. Children were allowed to remain with their parents.
Upon arrival, prisoners were required to fill their own straw mattresses.
This model provides a perspective on what the camp looked like. Over 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks which were divided into blocks with 14 barracks to a block. Barracks were divided into four rooms with each room holding eight people. Each block provided shared bathrooms, showers, a laundry, and a mess hall.
Privacy was extremely limited. Both inside and out.
Home sweet home.
Several barracks have been recreated to provide a sense of what life would have been like. This was the women’s bathroom. You can imagine how hard it would have to get used to, especially if you were a private person. And think of yourself having a bad case of diarrhea.
Children on tricycles make their way down a road.
In spite of the hardships, and the fact that your were locked up behind barbed wire fences guarded by soldiers with weapons, the Japanese Americans did what they could to make their life tolerable. This family was large enough to have its own section of a barrack and had done what they could to turn it into home.
A toy loan center was created so all children would have toys to play with.
The barren landscape was turned into farms and parks. These gardeners had a nursery that they had turned over to the Veterans’ Administration when they were incarcerated. (How un-American is that?) In Manzanar, they built park-like gardens.
Block residents line up for a meal at the mess hall. I was impressed with how they were dressed. Note the Sierras looming in the background.
But can you trust a skinny cook?
Tuesday nights were humorously named slop-suey night. I read in one place where residents sought out mess halls with the best cooks. This photo on cloth was in the recreated mess hall barracks. You could see the lights behind it. I thought it created an almost ghostly sense of the past at Manzanar.
The mess halls also served as block meeting rooms and social centers. I was amused to learn that one of the most popular songs at the dances was “Don’t Fence Me In” by the Andrew Sisters. The words are below. Another observation here: Nothing stops young love. One of the most popular wedding gifts was nails and boards so young couple could create privacy for themselves.

“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies aboveDon’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I loveDon’t fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze, And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees. Send me off forever but I ask you please, don’t fence me in”

Education was extremely important to the Japanese Americans and they did everything they could to assure that their children went to school. Eventually, they would have regular classrooms.
The Japanese Americans built this large hall for community wide meetings and events, such as graduation from high school. Today, it serves as the Visitors’ Center.
I offer this last photo of Manzanar in the 40s. How much more American can you get?
Today, Manzanar looks much like it did before the relocation center was built. The constant winds still blow and temperatures still climb to above 100 degrees F during the summer and below zero in the winter.
This iconic monument to ‘console the souls of the dead’ with its dramatic Sierra Nevada backdrop is located in a small graveyard at the back of Manzanar. But, for me, it also serves as a memorial to the people who were rounded up and corralled here, to their heroic efforts to creat a bit of America in what was basically a concentration camp, and to the dark days in American history their confinement represents. Lest we forget.

NEXT POST: The number one reason for driving down Highway 395: Its dramatic mountain scenery.

55 thoughts on “MANZANAR— Lest We Forget… The Highway 395 Series

  1. Curt, your story is strong and emotional. I didn’t know these facts about people already living in the conuntry. It is so sad to hear the prejudices and yet you lift
    our hearts with the tales of how with positively many of the imprisoned made their lives happier. Creativity in so many areas flourished.

    Yes, the area is beautiful and I so understand why you love it.


    • Thanks, Miriam. I thought Manzanar is a great reminder of the tremendous damage caused by prejudice, and the damage it can do to all of us, but is also, as you mentioned, serves also as a reaffirmation of the human spirit. –Curt

  2. Thank you Curt for this post. Perhaps 75 years from now someone like you will post the story of the tragedy going on right now on our southern border.

  3. Another excellent post, Curt- this is history that shouldn’t be forgotten!
    Interesting timing- the kids and I just visited the memorial to the Japanese Americans relocated from Bainbridge Island, WA, and I was planning on posting on it in a couple of weeks- may I link to this article to send people over here, too, when I do?

  4. Another excellent post Curt. I did not know Bob Matsui had been interred.
    There was an interesting piece on CBS Sunday morning December a year ago about how former Senator Simpson of Wyoming visited a camp near Cody, Wyoming as a boy scout and formed a life-long friendship with Norm Minetta who was interred there. They both served in an era when Members of Congress recognized “people of good will can differ.”

    • Thanks Ray. And you are so right. Good politics, as I learned in my political science classes at Berkeley (Matsui graduated two years before I di with a degree in Poly-sci) is the art of compromise. The demise of bipartisanship in our legislative bodies is one of the greatest problems we face. –Curt

    • I think one of the reasons that the Japanese Americans were so good at making the best of their incarceration was the incredible talent they had among them. Such a loss to our country at that time. –Curt

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  6. The Executive Order by FDR was totally illegal and it is an embarrassing episode of history. But it is in hindsight that we condemn these actions the loudest. Italians and Germans were also put in camps. This war changed the world in so many ways and fear makes people act like they never would otherwise.

    • I think Roosevelt’s actions fit under the category of “failure of political leadership,” G. Thanks for your comments as always. Given your extensive knowledge of WWII you may have better figures than I do, but my research showed that 250 Italians were put in detention camps and some 11,000 germans, none of whom were American citizens. Approximately 80,000 of the 120,000 Japanese put into detention camps were American citizens. Of the 30,000 Japanese who weren’t citizens at the time, most of them weren’t because of the 1920 immigration laws that didn’t allow them to become naturalized American citizens, a problem that the Germans and Italians didn’t face. Having noted this, I am sure that both Germans and Italians were discriminate against in America during the war, but if I had my druthers, I would have preferred to be a German or and Italian than a Japanese. My “lest we forget” applies directly to your comment on hindsight. While my post reflected an historical incident, the value of history is it should help us to avoid similar mistakes in the present and in the future. As always, I appreciate your input. –Curt

      • Please don’t think I was down-playing what happened to the Japanese/Americans. That was an awful part of the war. There were far more Italians and Germans interned than your figures and many were citizens, but they were not classified as harmful to the country the way the Japanese were. Citizens of the US could relate to Europeans far better than the Orientals who had a completely different culture than they were used to. Much of that happened because of political pressure from high-standing Democrats in California who wanted the Japanese out so they could take over their lands. In my book, “failure of political leadership” is an understatement!

      • Thanks for pointing out the influence of economic interests in California (although I suspect that there were a few Republicans involved as well, G :)). Greed and prejudice often go hand in hand. –Curt

  7. I am not sure that we should be judgmental about such things. Should we retrospectively disapprove ? Personally, I don’t think so. These were desperate times. In the UK German citizens were rounded up and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Maybe there was an element of extreme paranoia but then again the world was at war. Should a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Cambridge University be removed because he lived over a hundred years ago by different values? The World now seems to have a compensation culture.

    • I suspect Andrew, that we have all done things in our past that we wished to heck we hadn’t. And I am a great advocate of move on. Certainly for myself, so why wouldn’t I be for others? What is more important is what we do today and tomorrow. What lessons have we learned? And I was impressed with Ronald Reagan’s reaction who in nobody’s definition was noted for ultra liberal or even moderately liberal stands. The reality of America, as Reagan put it, is we are a multi-ethnic nation, and that is an important part of who we are. The question from my perspective is how to take advantage of those various strengths to make America a better nation so everyone can benefit, not just a few. In the long run it will make for a much healthier nation. Thanks for your thoughts, as always. –Curt

      • In 2005 in an American TV series poll of viewers Ronald Reagan was voted the Greatest ever American, coming in ahead of Washington, JFK, both Roosevelts and even Abraham Lincoln. Would you agree?

      • Put me on the spot would you, Andrew. 🙂 No one beats Washington and Lincoln in terms of defining America. You would have a significant difference between thoughtful Republicans and Democrats regarding Reagan. Not so with Washington and Lincoln. –Curt

      • Sitting on the fence then Curt, watch out for the splinters!
        Winston Churchill was voted the greatest Briton which was entirely predictable but those who voted overlooked a lot of other suitable candidates. I myself would have gone for Thomas Cromwell but he didn’t even make the short list!

      • Laughing, Andrew. The truth is that Reagan and I were on the opposite side of the fence on most issues, starting way back in my days at Berkeley. My main concern was his stand on environmental issues. Even given all of that, he was not a bad governor or president. This, of course, is my perspective. I realize that others have a much different view. 🙂 In the long run, history is much better judge of greatness.

  8. Wow, Curt. I really want to see this. Like you, I didn’t learn about the Japanese Internment Camps until I was in college. It’s amazing how much nasty history gets covered up. I recently learned a little more about the German scourge in Cincinnati during the war. Many people living there tried to rid themselves of being identified as German in a very German town. But that’s nothing like what was happening on the West Coast. I have read a few memoirs about that time from Japanese survivors, but I’d like to learn so much more about what happened.

    • There was no lack of prejudice against Germans and Italians regardless of the fact that they were loyal Americans who believed in the nation and its democratic principles, Juliann. The Japanese just paid a greater price. Thanks. Curt

  9. A relevant post to what is going on in the world today. I was a refugee in Germany at the end of WW II and we were in the American zone. I was only 5 years old when we managed to emigrate to the USA, but my first several years were spent in a displaced persons camp supported by the USA. The situation was dire for all the displaced refugees in the aftermath of that war, but we were supplied with the basic necessities to survive thanks to the charity of the Allies, or in our experience it was the USA that saved me and my family. Some policies can certainly offset examples that you highlight in your post. I’m not sure how many folks are aware of the good that was done in the aftermath of that horrendous war. I, for one, am ever grateful for the good that was done to offset the not so good.

  10. You tell the human story most affectingly here, Curt, and your references to Ronald Reagan are very telling. ‘Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world … ‘ and, years later, ‘yes, the ideal of liberty and justice for all — that is still the American way.” As you say, Presidential …

  11. Curt this post is really well done. Thank you for the work you put into getting so much information in here. I truly knew nothing about Japanese Internment until I was an adult. It is a shame that kids aren’t educated about all of our history- especially the times when we made mistakes. Andrew’s point about not criticizing people’s behavior when they acted in different times made me think that everyone should at least be taught what happened. After my public education, I had been led to believe that the United States was a bastion of righteousness and filled with people who are innocent of heinous crimes committed elsewhere in the world. I think we should condemn those leaders of the past whose actions are shameful to us now, because it’s no secret when an influential person is promoting fear – eg POTUS – and people of their time certainly knew it was wrong. But even if we don’t do that, we need to teach children that the behavior was reprehensible, and we are in danger of repeating it. We are all susceptible to bad behavior/ statements/ decisions based in fear and not reality. There are so many shocking examples of crimes against humans of a different cultural group in this country – so many. But it’s not taught enough in schools! If we grow up understanding how easy it is to fail like that, maybe we would be better at stopping this kind of stuff in the moment.

    Living in Portland I finally got a more personal look at the story, and met a couple of U.S. veterans of Japanese descent from the Hood River, Oregon area who told me more. Often there was no one to look after the property when the family was sent to the camp. Their homes and businesses were occupied after they left. Over the years that they were gone, people came in and stole from them, or in some instances, took over their businesses and strangers began making money from their assets. In the cases I heard about, once they were allowed to return, no effort was made to restore the fruit orchards to the families so that they had a way of making a living when they got back to Hood River. They had to start all over.

    The men I talked with said that nearly all the eligible Japanese-American men in their camp joined the military and it was not simply because they were loyal to the US, but primarily out of severe boredom. These 20-something young men had no occupations and were not allowed to leave the camp. Joining the military was the only way to get out, and many gladly took that option.

    • Discrimination against Asians started with the Chinese and was passed on to the Japanese, Crystal. Immigration laws were passed in the 20s to block Japanese from coming to America. There was strong opposition to Japanese-American farmers at the time and up to World War II because the Japanese farmers were more successful because of different farming techniques. Many of these farmers pushed hard for the interment camps to eliminate competition and to open up more farming land for themselves. Prejudice and greed often go hand in hand, as the Cherokees learned. –Curt

  12. Curt,
    Great Story, but horrible times. It seems that history is repeating itself which saddens me. I passed the sight a few times not knowing what was until I looked it up. I told my husband that on the way back I wanted to visit the site. It’s hard to imagine it without buildings or fences, but the pictures helped to put in perspective the area of the massive incarceration of persons who were wronged.

    • Thanks. Horrible indeed. And the parallels with today are frightening, to say the least. The visitor center at Manzanar provides an excellent overview. Definitely worth a stop. I had passed it by many times as well. –Curt

  13. Curt after reading your article I am left with shivers from head to toe. The camps happened here in Canada as well but like you I knew very little about them in my school age years.I can barely stand to read the reports of your southern border. Let us all hope that history is not attempting to repeat itself.

  14. Fascinating, Curt – I’d love to visit. I read Farewell to Manzanar many years ago (twice actually), and it has always stuck with me. The parallels to today make me sick at heart.

  15. “prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. Sounds all too familiar. I wonder what future generations might think of today’s internment camps on the Mexican border.

  16. It’s easy to draw parallels between Manzanar and our southern border, but there are other, equally distressing currents running through our society today. In Marysville, Michigan, a candidate for city council has declared that the city should remain “as white as possible.” It was the third photo above that brought that article to mind, and collapsed the space between the 1940s and today.

    Some of the same problems were faced by the Vietnamese who came here to Texas in the 1970s. The “shrimper wars” were a real thing, and I work very near a harbor that was known as Little Hanoi. There weren’t any actual detention camps in that situation, but the isolation and persecution of the Vietnamese was real. If the interned Japanese and the Vietnamese refugees had anything to give thanks for, it might have been that social media didn’t exist in those days. I’m against censorship in any form — yes, even “hate” speech — but on the other hand, our modern technology is being used to do tremendous damage to individuals and groups, and it’s ever more difficult to figure out what to do about that.

    • It’s incredibly hard to get beyond perceived self-interest, Linda. Almost impossible. I am convinced that any hope for the future has to be tied to redefining self-interest. The world we live in today is radically different than the world we lived in 20 years ago which is nothing compared to the world of 200 years ago. And the rapid change seems to be accelerating. And much of how we deal with the change is with the same mind and tribal mentality that was working for us 2,000 or 20,000 years ago. I for one, like the concept of enlightened self-interest, where we look beyond the present into the future as an ongoing process. And it doesn’t even have to be very far. I think the new Statement on Purpose of a Corporation that was drafted by a number of America’s business leaders is an excellent example.

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. –Curt

      • Interesting that there’s a parallel to our southern border situation now in South America. With Ecuador’s new visa restrictions in place, Venezuelan refugees caught in Columbia are talking about crossing the Ecuadorian border between checkpoints in an attempt to get to Peru. And American media is focused on a football quarterback who’s retiring, or giving oxygen to people whose self-interest is anything but enlightened. Sigh.

  17. Pingback: Visiting the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial

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