Manzanar site tells compelling story of internment

One of the stone sentry posts still standing at the Manzanar Historic Site in eastern California.

One of the stone sentry posts still standing at the Manzanar Historic Site in eastern California.

It’s hard to believe that more than 10,000 people once lived on the barren stretch of land that is now known as the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Located adjacent to U.S. 395, about five miles south of Independence, California (about 4 hours south of Fallon), the site commemorates the war relocation center or internment camp that operated there from 1942 to 1945.

While little remains of the original buildings that were once spread across 6,000 acres in the shadows of the Sierra Nevada range, the site offers one of the best opportunities for interpretation of the World War II relocation program (there were nine similar camps in the U.S.).

In recent years, the National Park Service has supervised excavations of the original Japanese gardens and other remains of the camp. Additionally, at the visitor center, you can watch a 22-minute film, Remembering Manzanar, and view exhibits in Block 14, which includes reconstructed barracks and a mess hall.

The Manzanar camp was commissioned shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. In early 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast (most of whom were American citizens) to be placed in relocation camps.

More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, mostly Californians, were immediately moved to racetracks, fairgrounds and other makeshift detention centers in California before being transferred to permanent detention centers (Manzanar was the first to open).

Within months, the Manzanar camp had some 10,000 residents who lived in rows of simple, wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences, secured by guard towers.

Additionally, the site included gardens, orchards, ponds, auditorium, cemetery, reservoir, airport, sewage treatment plant and hospital complex.

The camp operated until late 1945, then the war ended and the last resident was released. Shortly after, the original trailer-like barracks were sold at auction and removed from the site.

Today, the best-preserved buildings include the stone pagoda-like police post and sentry house, near the site’s entrance, as well as portions of other buildings. Most impressive are the stone and concrete walls of two buildings found southwest of the sentry house.

Poking through the overgrown sagebrush and grass, you can also find concrete steps that once led up to the barracks, portions of the water and sewer systems and remnants of rock gardens.

Wandering the site, try to imagine this was a bustling community that once contained rows of trees teeming with apples and pears (most of the trees are gone) and gardens overflowing with produce.

Prior to its use as an internment camp, Manzanar was an early Owens Valley agricultural settlement (1910 to 1935), which is when many of the remaining handful of trees were originally planted, and a prehistoric home for centuries to native Paiutes and Shoshone tribes.

The Manzanar Historic site was established in March 1992. In addition to what’s found on the site, you can also find an excellent display of Manzanar photos, recollections, drawings, paintings and artifacts at the fine Eastern California Museum in nearby Independence.

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Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada want to visit.


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