Probably the most iconic Japanese American internment camp in the United States, Manzanar, now part of the National Park Service, sits in the high central desert of California, sandwiched between the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the Inyo range to the east. The name “Manzanar” comes from Spanish meaning “apple orchard” from its history as a fruit producing area. All that changed when the city of Los Angeles bought all the land and water rights. Five years later, by 1934, the town was abandoned. And then, Pearl Harbor and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 changed the lives of over 120,000 Japanese Americans along the west coast. By September of that year, more than 10,000 mostly first generation Japanese Americans were crowded into this camp’s 504 barracks.
There is much to be read about the history of Manzanar and the other nine interment camps in the United States. This is not a history lesson nor is it about passing judgement. I had personal reasons for coming here: personal because of the many Japanese Americans I’ve met since starting this journey. While in Amherst Massachusetts last summer, the first stop of my national tour, I met an American woman of Japanese heritage: Naka Ishii, the daughter of an artist/animator whose personal experiences included time in an internment camp (Jerome Arkansas) and later, in the US Army, working for military intelligence as an artist who created leaflets dropped on Japanese troops. That introduction turned the mission from merely one of honoring those involved with helping the war effort to telling as many interesting stories about people from that time period.
Stepping out of my car at the visitors center today, my first reaction was the omnipresent wind, winds that were recorded by the internees as constantly carrying not only the heat of the 110 degree summers and the icy cold of the winters, but the sand particles that would find the smallest cracks in the wood and tarpaper barracks and cover everything.
The center has wonderful displays showing what led to the isolation the west coast Japanese Americans felt and life at Manzanar. Talking to an 85 year old Japanese American two weeks ago at the Palm Springs Air Museum, he told me that because he was a young boy then, it felt in many ways like camp. It was fun. But a quote from a young girl in the display expressed her fear of leaving camp at the end of the war. Facing white kids gave her butterflies. The end of the war brought new fears for most of those interred.
While I was walking through the 550 acre barrack area, now reduced to scrub trees, brush, random concrete slabs and signs indicating what once stood on these spots, a dust devil rose up in front of me, swirling across the road and dissolved into a soft burst of arid earth, feet from the cemetery entrance. Was that simply nature or were they voices and spirits from those who lived here sixty-nine years ago? One can’t know. I claim no special connection to another world. But with the whipping sand, it was hard not to think about the once bustling life here, replaced now by the whispers of the wind.