If you were to drive out of Las Vegas about 4 hours, through Death Valley National Park and over the Panamint Springs Mountains, then head up California Highway 395, you will find Manzanar War Relocation Center. You may even miss it if you aren’t really looking for it.
On this day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat) signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the incarceration of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — two-thirds of them United States citizens – Relocating them to one of ten “War Relocation Centers”. Manzanar was one of those centers. Today, it’s a National Historic Site.
When World War II began, the danger of a Japanese attack on the west coast led to growing pressure to move people of Japanese descent away from the coastal region. Fear of terrorism, espionage, and/or sabotage; as well as anti-Japanese competition and discrimination. They were forced to give up their properties and businesses, and transported to hastily built camps in interior, harsh locations.
Debbie and I visited the site last year and we walked away with a different look at America, our dividing politics as well as reminding us of the things that should be taught in schools but aren’t because they may offend someone. Sometimes you need to be offended to realize how petty your problems of today really are when compared to others who walked before us.
Manzanar was the first of the ten concentration camps to be established. It was in operation from March 21, 1942, to November 21, 1945. Few of the buildings remain. Some are rebuilt to look as they did when people lived in them, others are in a state of rehabilitation while a few others are beyond saving and left to rot in the hot desert sun. When you enter, you get a map of the streets and can walk or drive around the premises and see what remains of the camp and learn where some of the facilities were. You can find the markers showing where the store and the communal latrines and showers once stood.
As much as the government and the media tried to say otherwise, when you stand inside the fenced area, see the guard towers and look at the bleak surroundings and understand the rules they lived by, you can’t shake the feeling that this was nothing but a Prison Camp.
As you wander around, you get the sense of isolation and even desperation. After visiting the visitor center and see the displays, you get a feeling for the unity or maybe even group survival they had as they tried to make their living hell into a happy, hopefully temporary, home. The first prisoners or “detainees” were actually the builders. They were sent out here to construct the facility that would soon take them and their friends and family away from the only life they ever knew. And that is one of the most curious things about this all. They understood they were being singled out for something they did not do, but most accepted their fate, their loss and held out hope to one day be able to go back and resume their life again. To put this all behind them and move on.
Unfortunately for them, they only had a few days to try and sell off what they owned before being bussed out to the camps. Most had to just abandon their businesses and their homes so that others could loot and pillage what was left behind. When they were finally released, the detainees only had what they brought with them to the camps and literally had to start life over.
The displays show how some made their little quarters into a comfortable place. Even if it was just a dirty wool blanket that separated your sleeping area from another family’s living area. To them, it had to be home. Other displays talked about the work and the play that was essential in maintaining control as well as your sanity. They built gardens and places of worship. Making it have almost all the things they had back in their old neighborhoods, including baseball fields. One thing I noticed was how the children were the concern of everyone. The parents tried to do whatever they could to look happy so that the younger kids were not scared for life (if that were possible) by this time in the camps.
To see the names of all who had been placed here, I could get a feeling for the emotions you see when people visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It makes it all real. The camp held 10 to 11,000 people at any one time. Looking around, you wonder how that was possible. Then you see the scale model of the camp and knowing what we know now about Germany and their concentration camps during World War II, you get that feeling again of being in a prison.
To say it was a quiet drive home would not be an exaggeration. What can you say on that drive? To see a sad piece of American history and realize there is an entire generation protesting stupid shit because they are no longer taught American history. That if they were to spend just one day in a place like Manzanar, they would hopefully get a clue that their world is not falling apart because they can’t download the latest Beyoncé song or that some corrupt politician their teacher told them should be president, isn’t.
Yes, Manzanar National Historic Site represents a sad piece of modern American history. But thankfully it is being preserved for future generations to learn from it and understand how precious our freedoms really are.
This is not one of those historical sites you pass thru and say “cool, ok, whats next?” and leave. It will live with you forever in one way or another. Driving from Las Vegas, through the Panamint Mountains, you also get a different look at the wonders, the beauty and the diversity of Death valley you don’t normally get as a tourist from Las Vegas.
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