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Stories in the Dust


MANZANAR, Calif. — Frank Hays, superintendent of Manzanar National Historic Site, walks carefully among sage and fallen leaves, near an area where Japanese American orphans were confined during World War II. He stops and reaches for something on the ground. "A marble," he says.

He hands it to Alisa Lynch, his colleague with the National Park Service, who holds it in her palm. It is dull and chipped, warm from the sun. She studies it briefly then returns it to the ground, where stories live, and covers it with sand.

The orphans, some as young as 6 months old, were among 11,000 people held at the Manzanar Relocation Center, located in the high desert 212 miles northeast of Los Angeles. In all, there were 10 such camps, confining about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.

Little remains of Manzanar. Like the concrete foundations, ceramic chips and rusted nails scattered throughout, the marble is a small part of a story that is not simply told.

"There's some controversy within the Japanese American community over what the camp really was all about," says Lynch, chief of interpretation at the site. "For some people, it was the most devastating experience of their lives. A hundred and forty-three people died here. In some camps, there were suicides. Then there were people who learned their professions here, who met their mates here. There were 541 babies born here."

Much of the controversy addresses terminology. Was Manzanar an "internment camp," "relocation center," "concentration camp?" Were those who were forced to live there "internees" or "prisoners"?

For a year and a half, the National Park Service has been gathering information, creating focus groups and conducting meetings around the state to determine how the story should be presented in exhibits at the camp's new interpretation center. (The center, along with administrative offices, will be housed in the old high school auditorium, which is being restored. The $5-million project is scheduled for completion next year.) On Saturday, Lynch will travel to Los Angeles to gather the opinions and impressions of the project from area Japanese Americans with ties to Manzanar.

Planners want to take into account the tremendous social, religious and political diversity among those interned. They were Buddhist, Catholic and Protestants; issei, nisei and sansei (first, second and third generations in America) of varying political beliefs and alliances.

They were as diverse as Manzanar itself. Located in the Owens Valley, the site is part of Inyo County, which includes most of Death Valley National Park as well as 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range. The seasonal range of temperatures can be more than 110 degrees.

In other ways, too, Manzanar is a place of contrast. National Park Service exhibits will describe how the area was inhabited by members of the Owens Valley Paiute dates back centuries. In the 1800s, ranches were homesteaded, and on July 11, 1863, about 1,000 Paiute were herded almost 200 miles to Sebastian Indian Reservation near Fort Tejon in response to confrontations with white settlers.

In the early 1900s, the area was subdivided and the town of Manzanar was founded. An orchard community developed until the city of Los Angeles bought the land for water rights. The federal government leased the property from the city during the war to build the camp.

In contrast to the government guns pointed at the Paiute, marching them away, the government guns of World War II were pointed at those of Japanese descent, forcing them to stay.

In a matter of months after the camps were mandated by executive order on Feb. 19, 1942, Manzanar became the most populated community between Los Angeles and Reno.

There were eight guard towers surrounding 36 residential blocks, each with 14 barracks as well as communal facilities. The camps were intended to be as self-sufficient as possible, so, in time, there were churches and schools, a 250-bed hospital, bank, catalog store and a newspaper known as the Manzanar Free Press. Internees built parks and gardens, an outdoor theater and recreational facilities including a nine-hole golf course. There were chicken and hog operations, a garment factory, and a food-processing unit that produced shoyu (soy sauce), bean sprouts and tofu.

In its first year of operation 700 tons of vegetables were harvested from the farming operation.

Manzanar evolved quickly during its three years. Wallboard and linoleum were installed in barracks. Security became less stringent. What remained constant was the fact that most of the internees were American-born citizens, and those who weren't were subject to laws prohibiting naturalization.

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