May 13 – 24, 2021
With a long drive before us we hit the road not long after Little G went off to day care and made our way east to the foothills of the Sierras with the plan to take Highway 108 over Sonora Pass to Highway 395 and south to Lone Pine. It had been many years since we’d been on that side of the Sierra’s and as a bonus, we’d never driven over this particular pass.
It would turn out to be a spectacular but demanding drive as the road includes some steep and sections. The one over the 9,624-foot pass is extremely extreme (exceeding 8% for most of the traverse, and up to 26% grades in some locations), with tight curves that lead to precipitous thousand-foot drop offs.
We hit the 395 just north of Bridgeport, a town we last visited in 2001 when celebrating my 50th birthday and enjoyed a long weekend with Tom and Kathy backpacking into the Sierra’s out of Virginia Lakes using mules to pack our gear in and out. As with many small towns like it, not much had changed since our last visit and although tempted to stop to rekindle memories, we pushed on, pausing briefly at an overlook to take in a commanding view of Mono Lake and the valley below.
We continued south past Lee Vining (it is the juncture for Tioga Road into Yosemite Valley), Mammoth, Bishop and Big Pine, all towns we’ve spent some time in as trailheads for backpacking, until we reached the Best Western Plus Frontier in Lone Pine. We chose this spot as it is most proximate to Manzanar, which we would visit the next day. Lodging options in these small towns are limited and given our typical use of the Best Western chain, it turned out to be the best choice for us, although at $141 a night, not the cheapest.
It’s an old-school single-story park in front of your door kind of place, with rooms on the small side but a spacious bathroom, good enough for the one night we’d be staying. We unwound with a cold drink, and then made a beeline for the local market to pick up supplies for the next few days, followed up by dinner at one of the higher rated choices in town (many were closed that day, a Monday), The Grill.
An unpretentious place, we were the only customers when we arrived and so felt comfortable sitting indoors. I ordered an Alaskan Amber to go along with my Cobb Salad and Joanna went for a Turkey Pita and Iced Tea. Both items were generously sized and good enough that it wasn’t difficult to finish the salad, while Joanna opted to save half of her wrap to eat the next day. Small town supply dynamics generally mean higher prices and thus our $55 tab while on the steep side for the amount of food we ate, still fell in line with our expectations for costs in Lone Pine.
Our drive the next day wouldn’t be as long at just three hours giving us plenty of time for sightseeing along the way. Our first stop was one of our primary reasons for the trip, a visit to Manzanar, the infamous concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. It is the site of one of ten such American camps, where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II from March 1942 to November 1945. Manzanar means “apple orchard” in Spanish.
We began this journey earlier in the month when we ventured to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown Los Angeles to view its Common Ground Exhibition, which chronicles Japanese American history, beginning in the late 1800s with the early days of the Issei (first generation) pioneers and continuing through the World War II incarceration, post-war resettlement, and the redress movement. Among its many notable artifacts on display is a Heart Mountain barracks, an original structure saved and preserved from the concentration camp in Wyoming.
With the visitor center closed we figured this would be a short visit and we were pleasantly surprised by what was open. As we’ve found in the past the National Park Service does an amazing job of preserving and recreating history in a comprehensive yet digestible format and had done so here. We’d spend over two hours touring the site and could have done much more, the depth of the material is that great.
We won’t cover the injustice perpetrated on a group of people solely because of their race, something we as Americans seem to be good at, but instead will focus on the conditions at Manzanar and the hardships endured. The weather here caused suffering for the inmates, few of whom were accustomed to the extremes of the area’s climate, exacerbated by the temporary buildings being inadequate to shield people from the weather.
The Owens Valley lies at an elevation of about 4,000 feet and it is generally hot, with temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters bring occasional snowfall and daytime temperatures that hover around 40 °F and at night fall to 30 to 40 °F. The area’s mean annual precipitation is barely five inches and ever-present dust was a continual problem due to the frequent high winds; so much so that people usually woke up in the morning covered from head to toe with a fine layer of dust, and they constantly had to sweep dirt out of the barracks.
The camp site was situated on 6,200 acres with the developed portion covering approximately 540 acres. Eight guard towers equipped with machine guns were located at intervals around the perimeter fence, which was topped by barbed wire. The grid layout used in the camp was standard and a similar layout was used in all of the relocation centers.
The residential area was about one square mile, and consisted of 36 blocks of hastily constructed, 20-foot by 100-foot tarpaper barracks, with each family (up to eight people) living in a single 20-foot by 25-foot “apartment” in the barracks.
These consisted of partitions with no ceilings, eliminating any chance of privacy which was a major problem, especially since the camp had communal men’s and women’s latrines.
Each residential block also had a communal mess hall (large enough to serve 300 people at one time), a laundry room, a recreation hall, an ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank. In addition to the residential blocks, Manzanar had 34 additional blocks that had staff housing, camp administration offices, two warehouses, a garage, a camp hospital, and 24 firebreaks.
The barracks at Manzanar had no cooking areas, and all meals were served at the block mess halls. The lines there were long and stretched outside regardless of weather. The cafeteria-style eating was named by the 1980s Congressional Committee on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) as a cause of the deterioration of the family due to children wanting to eat with their friends instead of their families, and families not always being able to eat together.
The food varied in quality but was mostly substandard compared what the internees ate prior to incarceration; heavily starchy and low quality, including Vienna sausages, canned string beans, hot dogs, and apple sauce. Outside of the sausages and hot dogs, meat was rare, usually consisting of chicken or mutton that was heavily breaded and fried.
The War Relocation Authority (WRA) closed Manzanar when the final internee left at 11:00 a.m. on November 21, 1945. It was the sixth camp to be closed. Although the Japanese Americans had been brought to the Owens Valley by the United States Government, they had to leave the camp and travel to their next destinations on their own having been given $25 ($359 today) each for one-way train or bus fare.
While many left the camp voluntarily, a significant number refused to leave because they had no place to go after having lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted and removed from their homes. As such, they had to be forcibly removed once again, this time from Manzanar.
During the war, the WRA hired photographers Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange to document through pictures the Japanese Americans impacted by the forced relocation, including Manzanar. Togo Tanaka and Joe Masaoka were hired by anthropologist Robert Redfield as documentary historians for the camp on behalf of the WRA.
After the camp was closed, the site eventually returned to its original state. Within a couple of years, all the structures had been removed, with the exception of the two sentry posts at the entrance, the cemetery monument, and the former Manzanar High School auditorium. The site also retained numerous building foundations, portions of the water and sewer systems, the outline of the road grid, and some landscaping.
The site now features a visitor center with a gift shop, housed in the historically restored Manzanar High School Auditorium with a reconstructed stage proscenium. The auditorium and the two sentry posts at the entrance are the only original structures from the time the camp was operating during World War II. A mess hall, salvaged from a closing military facility, was added to the site in 2002 and the replica guard tower was built in 2005. The Manzanar cemetery, where some of the internees who died at the camp were buried, also contains the memorial obelisk, which was built by masons in the camp in August 1943. All of the remains have been removed to other locations.
Under most circumstances, the National Park Service (NPS) discourages the reconstruction of structures and artifacts that are no longer surviving but allows for exceptions when “there is no alternative that would accomplish the park’s interpretive mission, there is sufficient data to enable an accurate reconstruction,” and “the reconstruction occurs on the original location.” On the basis that these criteria were met, and after extensive discussion with the Japanese American community, the NPS decided to proceed with a reconstruction of some elements of the original site alongside preservation of those remnants that survive.
As with any visit of this nature (Dachau in Munich, torture museums in Salzburg and Rothenberg, etc.) where one is reminded of the cruelty and intolerance, humans can visit on those who don’t agree with us or wear a different skin color, we left sobered and reflective. With recent attacks on Asians on the rise due to the Covid crisis, we are reminded that not much has changed since the hysteria wrought by the war. One wonders if we, as beings, will ever change.