MANZANAR, Calif. — A piece of Manzanar came home this week, trucked down U.S. 395 past the snowy teeth of the Eastern Sierra to the empty flats on which it once stood.
The return of the weathered mess hall building is a small milestone in a painstaking effort to tell an inglorious American war story: the 1942 roundup of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent and their internment in government camps.
Ten thousand of them were sent here to a plain of stunning scenery, biting winter wind and searing summer sun, where they managed to fashion a community out of a charmless, instant town of tar-papered barracks ringed by barbed wire.
The Manzanar War Relocation Center, as it was called, was dismantled after World War II, its 800 wooden buildings between Independence and Lone Pine taken apart or carted away for use by churches and local towns. Aside from a large auditorium later used by county road crews, a couple of deteriorating stone guard gates and a cemetery, not much was left except memories, some of them good, some of them bad.
The National Park Service is slowly changing that, as it gathers the fading threads of the Manzanar story and endeavors to weave them into an enduring public display of America at its less than best.
For most of the millions who have driven 395 over the past decades, Manzanar has been a barely noticed blur through the windshield on the way to the ski slopes of Mammoth Mountain or the campgrounds of Yosemite National Park.
Even those who stopped and wandered past the camp's half-buried rock gardens or picked fruit from its old, wind-bent trees often had little sense of what happened here or what it meant.
"I had no idea we interned 120,000 people. My mom didn't know," said John Slaughter, who grew up outside Los Angeles and as a teenager hunted quail and picked pears at Manzanar on family trips to the Eastern Sierra. He even had a favorite lunch spot, a rock sculpture built by internees for one of their gardens. But he never thought much about why the small granite boulders had been stacked in the middle of nowhere or who had stacked them.
He became more curious while working as a civilian employee at the nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Now the facility manager for the Manzanar National Historic Site, it is Slaughter's job to make the camp's history known.
"The story really got to me," said Slaughter, 36, who lives in Ridgecrest. "I come from a very conservative family and was never told about that. Finding out our country was capable of doing that -- I was ashamed. And I'm ashamed a lot of people don't know and don't get it."
Chronicling Manzanar is no simple task. Many who lived here are dead, and the pool of aging internees shrinks every year. More critically, there is no single truth about Manzanar. There are many.
For many, internment was a dreadful, humiliating experience, a brutal reminder of America's racism and its historic demonization of Asian immigrants. Families whose members had served in the U.S. Army, become American citizens and barely knew a word of Japanese were uprooted from their homes and businesses in the months after Pearl Harbor and shipped to the Owens Valley, where the main product seemed to be dust.
They lived in military-style barracks, stood in chow lines to eat, showered and went to the bathroom in communal latrines bereft of even a shred of privacy.
But they also made a life here, sending off for mail-order furnishings to decorate their spartan quarters, pushing back the long wooden dining tables for Saturday night dances in the mess halls, planting their own victory gardens between barracks and even making illicit booze in secretly excavated cellars.
"I have never felt bitter against the government," said George Izumi of Los Angeles, who was sent with his family to Manzanar when he was 21 and remembers the experience as relatively benign. Had Japanese Americans been left on the coast, he said, they probably would have been attacked and harassed because they looked like the enemy. "If someone had been killed on the street, no one would have cared. It just would have been another dead 'Jap,' " he said matter-of-factly.
It is important, Izumi added, for the Park Service to memorialize not only the camp, but what internees accomplished here.
Many others describe Manzanar as a place of woe. In one of the booklets of camp recollections given to schoolchildren who visit the site, Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi paints a bleak picture.
"The train ride to Manzanar was like we were being transported like a criminal. The shades were drawn as we left the city.... After the train ride we were bused into Manzanar Camp behind barbed wires and sentry guards with machine guns. It was windy, dusty and miserable.