US & World

Walking in their footsteps at a former Japanese internment camp

Two reconstructed buildings stand in the former Manzanar War Relocation Center. Once, 10,046 people were imprisoned here.
Two reconstructed buildings stand in the former Manzanar War Relocation Center. Once, 10,046 people were imprisoned here.
/Melissa Hung for NPR

From the car seat, the toddler, almost three years old, asked his parents what we were doing. "We're here to learn our history, your family's history," his father said from the driver's seat.

We were in the parking lot at Manzanar National Historic Site. An American flag fluttered vigorously in front of the pale green visitor center. Beyond it, a few buildings, long and low, dotted the landscape. Once, 10,046 people had been imprisoned here. Known as the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II, it was one of 10 sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated for nearly four years.

I sat next to the toddler in the back of the car. His grandparents and great-grandparents on his father's side had been sent to other concentration camps: Poston in Arizona and Tule Lake in California, close to the Oregon border. I am a good friend of the boy's mother, erin Khuê Ninh, a professor of Asian American literature. We met when we both worked at Hyphen, a magazine for and about Asian Americans that I helped start. The fledging magazine was an unpaid labor of love, and the devotion of its volunteers ¾ intent that a national magazine for our community should exist ¾ made many of us into friends.

Fifteen years have passed since the magazine's founding. Many of us were now married and parents of young children. One of us, Christopher Fan, also an Asian American literature professor, emailed a few weeks after the presidential election to say that he had been thinking of making an annual, multi-family, social justice-themed trip. The results of the election only intensified this thought.

So in early April, 75 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, clearing the way for the creation of the camps, we converged in Manzanar. Our group was made up of Americans of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean descent. All together, we were eight adults and six children, all boys. The oldest boy is in kindergarten. The youngest is just 7 months old.

The military-style camps were intentionally located in remote areas. Manzanar is about four hours north of Los Angeles by car and 3,800 to 4,200 feet above sea level. It is on U.S. Route 395, east of the Sierra Nevada and west of Death Valley. The nearest populated area is a tiny village six miles north named Independence. Before the trip, I debated whether I should go. The drive from Northern California is long, and my car is old. But I decided that I wanted to see Manzanar with my own eyes, so that my understanding of history might feel deeper through the experience of place.

What we saw was a flat desert with vegetation scrappy and close to the ground, stubborn trees here and there, tumbleweed bounding across the landscape, propelled by the wind. In the distance, Mount Williamson, majestic and snow-covered, looked like a painting.

"I hadn't pictured it this beautiful," I said.

"I imagine it must have felt ironic for the people living here," erin replied.

Manzanar opened on March 21, 1942, so the weather would have been similar to what we were experiencing on this sunny April day. I was wearing a sweatshirt and a vest. But here spring gives way to summers of up to 110 degrees and winters below freezing. In all seasons, the wind covers surfaces with sand and dust. Like the force of history, it is a constant that cannot be ignored.

Our guide for the day was park ranger Mark Hachtmann. He dressed the way I imagined a park ranger would: a uniform of green pants, a matching green jacket with a U.S. National Park Service patch on the arm, and a brimmed hat. He led us through the few buildings in Block 14, which now serve as exhibits. After the war, most of the buildings at Manzanar were dismantled. After Manzanar became a historic site in 1992, buildings were recreated according to historical photographs. The two barracks in Block 14 were built in 2010.

From what had been rebuilt, we were to imagine the entirety of the camp. There were 36 blocks in all for Japanese Americans. Each block contained 20 buildings: 14 barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, a laundry facility, an ironing room, a women's latrine, and a men's latrine. Between 250 and 400 people lived in each block, the blocks separated by open areas to prevent fires from spreading, a real threat in this land of wind. The whole camp was just under one square mile.

The residents were resigned to being in the camp ¾ Shikata ga nai (nothing can be done) ¾ and tried to make life a little more normal and comfortable. They created sports teams, published a newspaper, and started a co-op store. I was impressed by their self-organizing and resilience, but also felt a lingering sadness, especially for the older adults who had built their businesses and professions in the face of discrimination, only to have almost everything taken away. Did they ever recover? As we walked from building to building, the boys picked up sticks and dug at the dirt. I wondered how much they understood and if they would remember any of this. They played, I imagined, as kids their ages had done when the camp was full of families.

While in use, the camp included a 250-bed hospital, a fire station, an orphanage for 101 children, and baseball fields. More than 10,000 people ¾ 6,000 adults and 4,000 children ¾ had lived here in a hastily built, temporary city of concrete blocks, wood, and tarpaper. The War Relocation Authority staff ¾ the camp director, police chief, fire chief, social workers, and others who were mostly white and often referred to as the "Caucasian staff" ¾ lived in other blocks with their families, in buildings with their own bathrooms, kitchens, and lawns.

The most striking building when we visited was the women's latrine, rebuilt this year on the original concrete floor. A row of five toilets was installed back to back with another row of five toilets. While there was a wall between the backs of the toilets, there were no partitions between each toilet. In a room next to the toilets, shower heads jutted from the walls, also without any partitions. Hachtmann told us that former camp residents felt it was important to rebuild the latrine and a guard tower (there had been eight in all). It was what they remembered most: the humiliation and the lack of privacy.

"It's indicative of how they lived the rest of their lives in public," erin said later. "They had to share sleeping areas and dressing areas. Everything was like being in a public restroom all the time." As an introvert who values my alone time, to be so exposed all the time sounded terrible. You couldn't have an argument with your spouse without being overheard. You couldn't take care of basic bodily functions alone. In the hotel room that night, I took special notice of the bathroom I shared only with my partner, and of its door.

After touring Block 14, we piled into our cars to see other parts of the camp. We headed to what was once a garden. As many as 100 gardens had been built by residents. We had planned to eat our lunch there, but the wind was too strong. The boys scampered on large slabs of stone and pathways, and on a wooden bridge. From what was left behind, you could see it had been beautiful once.

Christopher shared a batch of Spam musubi he had made, a fitting Japanese American snack. We ate, sitting on a low wooden fence. "I never realized what a civil rights service the National Parks provided," said Amy Chen, Christopher's wife and an attorney at a health nonprofit. A record 105,000 people visited Manzanar last year.

After lunch, we had one more stop: the Manzanar cemetery where a white obelisk monument points up towards the sky. It sits in the midst of a wide clearing, making it feel lonely. Most people who died in camp were cremated, but behind the monument, six bodies remained buried: three older men and three babies. Rings of rocks marked their graves. Families in the camp contributed money to purchase the concrete used to build the monument. Most people worked in camp, receiving low wages from the government. Farmers were paid $12 a month. Teachers: $16 a month. Doctors and engineers got $19 a month. A private in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese American infantry regiment, earned $21 a month while his family was behind barbed wire.

On April 29th, an annual pilgrimage will take place to the monument. Organized by the Manzanar Committee, a volunteer group, the pilgrimage has taken place every year since 1969. About 2,000 people are expected to attend this year to mark the 25th anniversary of Manzanar's dedication as a National Historic Site. But for a moment in early April, our group was the only one at the monument. Here the wind was fiercest, pushing against us, making it difficult to walk in a straight line.

Offerings had been left on the monument by visitors before us, neatly lined up one after another: a seashell, a Powerpuff Girl toy, a beaded bracelet, a Ganesh figurine, a rock, a rubber ball, an enameled pin, sticks of incense bound together.

Strands of origami cranes were draped along the fencing surrounding the monument, symbols of hope and healing. The boys brought a few cranes they had folded and added them to the collection. We turned back towards our cars. Every so often, the wind loosened a crane. It flew across the desert landscape, a tiny dot of color carried away like a seed.

Melissa Hung is journalist covering arts and culture, communities of color, immigration, and criminal justice. Follow her @fluffysharp.

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