I’ll have to admit. I think I’ve been putting off writing about this. This place is very emotional to me and I wanted to do it justice.
So many feelings flooded over me when we drove past Manzanar for the first time last spring. I had heard that camps like these were organized during WWII but had never dug deeper to learn more. As I started researching, tears began to flood my face. How could this happen? And on American soil? So many injustices. Starting with the fact that I wasn’t even taught this in school as I am willing to bet many of you reading this were not. This happened. But to most Americans it’s not even a part of history. This is just salt in the wounds that many Japanese Americans have had to bear.
It all started when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Fueled by racism, a nasty rumor began to spread that Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West coast meant to sabotage the war effort. It was this rumor, that pressured President Roosevelt into signing Executive Order 9066, which would order all persons of Japanese descent to move from the West coast and to be dispersed to ten various internment camps across America. They were given mere days to sell property, get affairs in order, close businesses, pare down belongings and pack them all into one suitcase per family member.
Families were split apart. If you were of Japanese descent and owned a boat there was a good chance you would be arrested for suspicion of aiding the enemy. Entire family trees were changed forever as the patriarch’s life’s work was sold for pennies on the dollar. Even orphaned babies of Japanese decent were not safe from EO 9066. Orphanages were ordered to give up children “with one drop of Japanese blood” to the internment camps. What makes this all so very ironic is that two-thirds of the evacuees were American by birth and the other third born in Japan would have probably become American citizens if they had been allowed. In most states, the Japanese were denied the right to become citizens.
Ten “relocation” camps were organized across the United States with Manzanar being the first. There were over 110,000 people, many of them United States citizens, that were scattered across this land against their will. America-The land of the free.
When internees reached their destination, they were greeted with as inhospitable environment as could be conjured at Manzanar. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the Inyo mountain range to the east, temperature extremes could vary from 110 degrees Farenheit to below freezing. Each person was given a sack and a bail of hay so that they could stuff their own mattress. They would lay on these cots within a barrack that would hold at least 8 other families. These barracks were uninsulated and many had holes in the roof “so big you could see the stars at night”. These Japanese Americans would live, work and go to school here at Manzanar within the confines of barbed wire and eight watchtowers equipped with machine guns. On November 21, 1945 after two and a half years of incarceration all internees were given $25 and a bus ticket as Manzanar closed.
In 1988, after a decade long campaign by the Japanese community, President Reagan signed The Civil Liberties Act that would compensate each person incarcerated in internment camps $20,000.
Manzanar is an exercise in extremes. It is beautiful yet dead and desolate. There is a ruin where a Japanese garden once stood and flourished in all it’s unyeilding freedom to live, yet it existed behind barbed wire and armed men. It’s frightening! What have we learned? Did we learn after millions were enslaved against their will for the better part of two centuries? One would think. But then camps like Manzanar and Gila River and Heart Mountain, just to name a few have a different story to tell.