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Ruined Reminders of WWII Injustice

March 19, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

Stone guardhouses, cement foundations, a cemetery and a few fruit trees are the only remains of Manzanar, site of the first World War II Japanese American relocation camp, on a bleak edge of the Owens Valley at the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

The land originally was home to Paiute and Shoshone. Then came the Spanish. Manzanar got its name from a Spanish word meaning "apple orchard." From 1910 to 1932 a farming community there grew apples and peaches that were said to be among the sweetest in the state--before water rights were lost to Los Angeles and its aqueduct, and the orchards and hamlet were abandoned.

As a farming community, Manzanar was otherwise unremarkable, but it will always be remembered as a Japanese American relocation camp. About 10,000 Americans of Japanese heritage (most of whom were U.S. citizens) were uprooted from their homes and businesses and confined here from 1942 to 1945.

A recently designed 3.3-mile auto tour follows roads around the perimeter of the camp, part of which has been designated Manzanar National Historic Site. The tour is keyed to signs and a pamphlet that identify where the high school, camouflage netting factory, Buddhist temple, Catholic church and other structures stood.

You can drive on most of the site's dirt roads, but walking here seems more respectful.

After exploring the area, visitors can see why Manzanar has become synonymous with America's darker impulses, with the country's highly emotional state after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

After the bombing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which required all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast to be sent to relocation camps. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the executive order, saying that in time of war, military judgment (concern about spies) superseded civil rights.

During its three-plus years of operation, Manzanar spread out over 6,000 acres and included schools, housing, a sewage treatment plant, cultivated fields and an airport. A 550-acre core complex that included housing and administrative offices was ringed by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers posted in eight 50-foot towers; this center section was established in 1992 as a National Historic Site.

Historians and National Park Service experts believe Manzanar offers the best interpretive opportunity of the 10 relocation sites scattered around the West used to imprison about 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. Last month President Clinton asked Congress for $4.8 million to expand National Park Service interpretive efforts at the 35 wartime sites where people of Japanese descent were detained. The president's proposed budget asks Congress to pay for a visitor center at Manzanar.

To learn more about Manzanar, visit the nearby Eastern California Museum, which holds a significant collection of photographs and artifacts from the relocation camp years. The museum, at 155 N. Grant St. in Independence, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.

Directions to trail head: Manzanar National Historic Site is on the west side of U.S. 395, 12 miles north of Lone Pine and six miles south of Independence.

The hike: As you walk the dusty lanes, most of what you'll see--rock gardens, traces of an irrigation aqueduct, concrete foundations--offers only small clues to the community. Among Manzanar's most intriguing ruins are the twin sentry stations near the turnoff from U.S. 395. The stone creations are designed in a pagoda style. You'll spot the historic site's only building, Manzanar's auditorium, north of the entry.


Manzanar Trail

WHERE: Manzanar National Historic Site

DISTANCE: 0.5 to 2 miles

TERRAIN: Bleak high desert landscape at base of Eastern Sierra.


HIGHLIGHTS: Site of World War II Japanese American internment camp

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Manzanar National Historic Site, P.O. Box 93526; Independence, CA 93526; tel. (760) 878-2932. Eastern California Museum; tel. (760) 878-0364.

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