INDEPENDENCE — When the Manzanar internment camp was named a national historic site in 1992 and the National Park Service began making plans to develop facilities here, the agency knew it was taking over a place that stirs deep emotions.
During World War II, U.S. military authorities rounded up 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent, more than two-thirds of them American citizens, and shipped them to 10 internment camps in the Western states. About 10,000 came here, forced to leave behind homes, jobs and businesses to be confined behind barbed wire in wooden barracks at Manzanar, which borders U.S. 395 in the Owens Valley.
The injustice of the episode was cited by Congress when it named the former internment camp a historic site. But the Park Service's plans for the site have come under attack by some Owens Valley residents and others who dispute the accepted history of the camp.
Half a century after Manzanar closed, the story of the camp remains a divisive issue in the rural desert area. So many letters were written to the editor of the Inyo Register over the past few years debating the appropriateness of the historic site and the history of the internment camp that the newspaper recently announced it would no longer print letters about the subject.
"There is a cadre of individuals that term themselves a 'circle of patriots' that feel that we have some hidden agenda, which sort of baffles us," Manzanar superintendent Ross Hopkins said. "It's obvious that many of them feel that if we tell the story of Manzanar as it relates to the war relocation camp with negative connotations, that represents 'America-bashing.'
"We feel to the contrary, that if we tell the story factually and back it up with good research, then people can come to their own conclusions."
Japanese Americans interned during the war still describe their experiences in voices choked with emotion. Noel Kobayashi, who was interned as a child along with his family and who later settled in the Owens Valley, said: "It took away four years of my life. . . . When I look back at it, they were taking away the basic rights and freedoms of American citizens. That's what was wrong."
Critics of the Manzanar historic site rely in part on revisionist books written about the camp and Japanese American internment by Gardena author Lillian Baker. They insist that Japanese Americans stayed here of their own free will and that the National Park Service is distorting the truth.
"People in Manzanar were not confined, they were free to go any time they wanted," said Bishop resident W.W. Hastings, an outspoken opponent of the Park Service's efforts at the site. "Mr. Hopkins told me that he wanted to teach the Americans a lesson about Manzanar and how wrong we were in relocating Japanese Americans. Where does he come up with an attitude like that? He's a good smooth talker."
Hastings, who said he served in the Pacific during World War II, and other Manzanar opponents have charged that historic photographs of the camp have been doctored by the Park Service or others to try to present a false view of what occurred.
According to the revisionist account, rather than the eight guard towers fitted with searchlights and machine guns that Park Service historians say ringed the camp, there were only one or two structures used as fire watchtowers. They also insist that instead of five strands of barbed wire surrounding the camp to keep internees from escaping, there were only a few strands of mostly plain wire to keep cattle out.
National Park Service senior historian Gordon Chappell, who has been researching Manzanar as part of preparations for the historic site, said that those presenting an alternative history of the internment are aided by the fact that the federal government restricted information about the camps during the war.
"The War Relocation Authority made a strenuous effort to limit what could be photographed, because it wanted to present the camp experience as more benign than was in fact the case," he said. "It prohibited any photographs of the sentries or the sentry towers or the military guards.
"The idea that Japanese Americans were not confined behind barbed wire is nonsense."
The greatest controversy has centered on a California historical landmark plaque placed at the entrance to the site in 1973 that refers to Manzanar and the other internment camps as "concentration camps." While some Japanese Americans feel that the term is appropriate, opponents as well as some who favor the historic site say the term is misleading.
The plaque, which still greets visitors at the camp entrance, has been hacked and stained, and the first C of "concentration camp" has been ground off. Hopkins said that a man who described himself as a World War II veteran called him to say that he had driven 200 miles to urinate on the historical marker.
Hopkins said that the Park Service agrees that the term is a misnomer and that the agency will not use it in describing Manzanar.