On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
Manzanar was a small, thriving town at the foot of the Sierras that failed after Los Angeles bought up water rights in the Owens Valley in the early 20th Century, built an aqueduct, and sent the water away from the farmers and ranchers in the valley to the rapidly expanding city. There were scandals involved and the story was part of the plot of the movie Chinatown.
By 1929 the town was abandoned. in 1942 the War Relocation Agency moved in. The first Japanese-Americans to arrive volunteered who helped build the camp which eventually held over 11,000 people, some of the 120,000 who were forcibly removed from their homes in one of the ugliest episodes in US history. Most lost their homes, cars, savings, businesses, and jobs. Manzanar wasn’t shut down until November 1945, three months after the war ended.
The internees made the best of the situation, tending orchards, planting farms and gardens, and eventually raising chickens and hogs to provide 80% of their own food. They created parks and rock gardens and ran their own fire service and newspaper.
Many of the internees volunteered for the Army and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American unit, which fought in Europe, primarily in Italy. The 442nd was the most decorated unit for its size in US miltary history, with 21 Medal of Honor awards. Their families stayed behind the barbed wire.
Sentry posts at the camp entrance, built by the internees. Inyo Mountains in the distance.
Reconstructed guard tower, this would have been one of eight.
Reconstructed fire department building.
One of two original fire engines. Both were used by local fire departments after the war, then donated to the Park Service, one in the 1990s, and this
Dodge Ford in 2017.
Reconstructed barrack buildings, with Sierras behind them.
Barracks interior. This is one “apartment” for a family. The walls didn’t reach the ceiling, so there was no privacy. Each block had one men’s and one women’s latrine, with no privacy between toilets or showers.
Mess Hall interior. There was one for each block of barracks, that could feed 300 people at a sitting.
Merritt Garden. One of several gardens and rock gardens built by the internees. This was restored by the descendants of the interned landscape architect who designed it. Restoration began by digging out all the sand that had covered it over the decades.
Always a timely reminder of the evil that lurks beneath the surface of world. When a dominant group feels threatened, one response is often to blame others and then overreact. We see it again and again. I wish our species would learn that it never goes as planned
Thanks for sharing your photos.
What a contrast between the open, generous landscape and the mean, pinched living conditions. Those almost-forgotten Japanese-Americans made gardens and built a life against all odds in the desert.
Is there any doubt that racism is Americans’ original sin when before, during and after WWII nice white Nazi sympathizers and American Bund trash remained free to sow the seeds of what we’re dealing with today.
Thank you for some beautiful, evocative photos.
A reminder that the prisoner can be better than the jailor. As a car guy, the fire truck is a Ford, 1.5 Ton. Probably a 1942.
@Rusty: Thanks for the clarification on the fire truck. As a car guy I should have gotten that right.
Reading a new novel by Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division, a mystery set in Chicago 1944, about the Japanese restettled there after Manzanar. Hirahara is also the co-author of Life After Manzanar.
Very timely reminder of our uneven history.
tokyocali (formerly tokyo expat)
Thank you for sharing the photos and history. It’s important that we never forget.
@Bex: Thanks for the book tip. I’m going to check that out.
Thank you, frosty.
Thank you Frosty. We were there in late May on a day similar to yours. The exhibits were fascinating and haunting.
Thanks, frosty. The pictures are moving and evocative, and it’s good (in a painful way) to be reminded of the history, both the vile side and inspiring side, of people responding to imprisonment by creating gardens and running art classes.
I went to Harper’s Ferry NHP once and fought back tears the whole time I was there. Manzanar looks like it would have a similar effect.
My beloved aunt Miyo and her family were sent from Sacramento to be interned at Tule Lake. :(
My classmates in American History class in a CA high school didn’t know of the internments until the annual in-class presentation by the high school driver’s ed instructor, a former internee.
@HarryBee: When you walk inside the indoor part of Manzanar’s exhibit one of the first things you see is a HUGE photograph of a house with a sign that says “Japs Keep Moving. This Is A WHITE Man’s Neighborhood!!” that I believe was from somewhere in Northern California. The museum does a really good job of dispelling any question that this whole thing was driven by racism and xenophobia. Which I appreciate since unfortunately a whole lot of the public has almost a Lost Cause, white-washed view of Manzanar where they think that the internment was somehow reasonable and justified. I’ve seen that bullshit in several E Sierra FB groups, from people who are probably Trump supporters. It’s a very common view among CA rednecks who live in that area.
Perhaps I’ll do a post since I have a bunch of pix from the inside of the exhibit, when we visited in 2017. Great pix Frosty!
@JanieM: The inside exhibit has all kinds of great pics that really highlight the positive: the incredible strength, beauty, ingenuity, family and even patriotism of the Japanese-Americans that were imprisoned. Very inspiring.
“.. the foot of the Sierras….” The name of the place where I live is “Sierra Nevada”. It means snowy range. Properly then Manzanar is at the foot of the Sierra. There is no legitimate plural version of the word either in Spanish or English, unless I suppose, if one were somehow talking about ALL the mountain ranges.
@UncleEbeneezer: I’d like to see those. The indoor exhibits were closed due to COVID when we were there. All the interior shots I took were taken from the latched doorways of the buildings.
My grandmother corresponded all during the war with a family she knew who were sent to Manzanar, and I have a photo of their son who enlisted, that his family sent her. It’s a studio portrait of him in his uniform. I tried to look for his children so I could send it to them, but no luck and now I’d probably be looking for his grandchildren.
I was just there last Friday — went to Bishop for a few days and all the national forests were (are) closed, so we decided to drive down to Manzanar. The whole thing — the replicated barracks (and the latrine! what a humiliation), the written material, the audio/video — was quite absorbing. And we got free pears! Which had just been picked by the rangers.
I have he privilege of being in a community with Mitsuye Yamada, a 98 year old survivor of the Idaho internment camp.
She has published thoughtful poetry about the experience in Camp Notes and Other Writings. Here’s one.
As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
the Seattle Times
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.
You can see it off to the side of the road as you drive on 395. Chilling.
Thank you. I want to know more of the history, especially because I now have a Japanese daughter-in-law, and a grandson who has dual citizenship until he is an adult.
This is the kind of thing that Republicans want to erase so they can brag about “American Exceptionalism.” Beautiful photos, frosty.
One thing that is really good is that the 5th Graders from Bishop Elementary School take a field trip to Manzanar every year to visit the site (50 miles South of Bishop on # 395). They are young kids and I know that it doesn’t really register with a lot of the kids but lots of them are horrified that something like the Relocation Camps could have happened here.
Another great field trip for the 4th grade students is they get to go to Bodie State Park every Spring at the end of the school year and see how those families lived in the mining town. I just remember the walls of most of the houses were just 1 X 6 boards with newspaper glued to the walls to keep the cold out! Temperatures in the 0 to 20° range every night in the Winter. The people who really struck it rich in Bodie were the guys who sold firewood!
I highly recommend a novel called When the Emperor Was Devine by Julie Otsuka. It’s about a fictional Japanese woman and her two children who are removed from their home in Berkeley and taken to a detention camp in Utah where they were kept for four years. The father may have been held elsewhere or perhaps even imprisoned..the story does not deal with him except in his absence. The spare, terse prose reflects the desert that exists both within them and around them, but the author by and large conveys \how the three family member experience and adjust to the horrendous dislocation.
Bill in Section 147
My spouse and I took the kids there about eight years ago. Her stepmom, and a high school friend of my mom, were both detained there. I remember when Farewell to Manzanar was broadcast . I was in highschool and my mom made sure the whole family watched. She knew the main motivation was racism and theft.
Since this is a photo post: I believe that if you go now they are selling (there only) a reprint of Ansel Adam’s Born Free and Equal, Photographs of the Loyal Japanese-Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center, Inyo County, California (NB, relocation center, not internment camp, much less what it really should be called, namely (in the original, Boer-war usage) a concentration camp).
The photos are also online at the Library of Congress.
The comments from the people who have visited the Manzanar Japanese/American internement camp site has prompted me to tell you our story as Australians who were taken to visit Manzanar by our US family. My Wife is a teacher lived in Japan for 6 years mainly on Japanese Alternative Communal gatherings in deserted village in the mountains led by the Japanese Bascho Poet Nanao Sakaki . The American Beat Poet Gary Snyder was a visitor to Nanao gatherings in Kyoto.
My Wife married a Japanese man who had failed in his studies to be a Zen Monk. This man’s family had thankfully moved outside of Hiroshima so survived the bomb blast. His Father had fought in Manchuria with the Japanese Army and so he & his family was subject to the Intergenerational effects of War. My Wife has over many years taught her Australian students how to fold Japanese Paper Cranes & has taken them in excursions to Hiroshima to place their 1,000 paper cranes on the memorial for the 11 year old Sudako Sasaki who when dying from Leukemia caused by the atomic radiation from the bob blast was told by a friend if she folded 1,000 paper cranes she would please the Gods and survive. Poor Sudako only folded 644 before she died.
I visited Hiroshima on the 6th of August on the 70th anniversary of the bomb being dropped. I met a 92 year old WW2 Japanese soldier/bomb survivor who was in Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945, He and his Daughter have been antiwar activists for many decades. As an Australian 19 year youth I was conscripted to fight in the War in Vietnam. 5 of my fellow conscripts have committed suicide as a result of their War service, one Autistic comrade who should never have been conscripted self immolated.> I have visited Vietnam 7 times since the War ended and visited the villages where Lt Cally’s men murdered 540 old men/women & children. American Quakers supported the surviving villagers and they built a memorial there.
I have also paid my respects at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington DC where I also visited the Japanese Memorial dedicated to the Patriotism of the Japanese/American soldiers who fought in the US Army 100th Battalion, 442 RCT Military Intelligence Service & other units. The memorial is located just down from the DC Union station. I was transfixed by the sculpture of two golden Japanese Cranes entangled in barbed wire.
My search for the truth behind the causes of War have taken me to visit the battlefields where my ancestors fought died and were wounded from the 1854 Crimean War. 1882 Egyptian War, Boer War, WW1 & WW2 & Vietnam. The healing effect of listening to & filming the War stories of the WW2 Japanese. WW2 German & North Vietnamese & Viet Cong Veterans have caused me to write and edit 2 History books on my unit’s involvement in the 2nd Indochinese War in South Vietnam.
Thanks for this. I graduated from high school in California in 1965 and our history classes never breathed a word about Manzanar or any of the camps, although there were plenty of Japanese-Americans in our school. Never learned about it till at least the mid-80’s.
I was hoping to include a pic, but my kid got a very shiny Junior Ranger badge from Manzanar.