Back in the early 1950s, when I was a high school student in Oregon, our American history teacher told us a sad story of how the civil rights we take for granted can disappear in time of war. Barely a decade earlier, just after Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans on the west coast—citizens and resident aliens wrongly suspected of being enemy agents, more than 110,000 in all—had been rounded up and incarcerated in remote internment centers. Some had worked nearby farms, she said, and their children had attended our school. Then, suddenly, they were gone. “They were,” she lamented, “my best students.”

The Manzanar War Relocation Center, now a National Park Service historic site located 200 miles north of Los Angeles, is the best-preserved place to see what happened in those dark days. Situated on 6,200 acres at the base of the towering Sierra Nevada in the high Owens Valley desert of eastern California, Manzanar was one of ten relocation centers in the west and south. At its peak population in late 1942, it was the dry, bleak, windy home of 10,046 Japanese Americans. Two-thirds were American citizens by birth; the rest were immigrants who’d lived in America for years, yet were prevented from applying for citizenship or owning property by long-standing anti-Japanese federal and state laws that had been legitimized by the Supreme Court. When they were moved with only a week’s notice, the internees lost their jobs and sold their homes, businesses, and personal property. Bringing only what they could carry, they were relocated: first to temporary centers such as fairgrounds and racetracks, where they lived in cattle and horse stalls, then to Manzanar.

The new arrivals found they’d be living in a 500-acre compound surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, eight guard towers manned by soldiers with machine guns and huge searchlights, and miles of arid desert. Internees were crowded into 504 hastily constructed tarpaper-covered wooden barracks identical to temporary structures that the army was building elsewhere for soldiers. Each family was jammed into a single 20 x 25 foot room furnished with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, eight cots, and a faucet outside for water. They were given bags stuffed with straw for mattresses. They ate in mess halls, and if they visited latrines at night, searchlight beams followed their path.

The forced relocation caused tension among the internees, both between generations and over their treatment, which led to isolated protests, strikes, and, in late 1942, a brief riot at Manzanar in which two young men were shot and killed by military police. Yet within a year of the camp opening, it was functioning as a largely self-governing city inside the barbed wire, with schools, churches, interscholastic sports (Manzanar was always the home team), beauty parlors, fire and police departments, social dances, a newspaper, a hospital, a general store, a factory that produced camouflage nets, experimental garden plots growing rubber plants for the military, and movie showings. “My father took me to all the war movies,” a reporter colleague who had spent his elementary school years in a camp once told me. “He cheered the heroic Americans,” and when the Japanese enemy appeared on screen, “he said, ‘Don’t worry, they’re all played by Filipinos.’”

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Manzanar is right on U.S. 395. The two original stone police guard houses and the replica guard tower looming beside the highway are impossible to miss. I started my visit by taking a well-marked, three-mile-long auto tour of the site for a quick orientation before parking at the Inter-pretive Center, originally built as the high school auditorium. Inside, you can see a 22-minute film featuring former internees who tell the stories of their incarceration. There’s a detailed 10 x 10 foot model of the camp that was constructed recently by those who had lived there, which provides an excellent perspective of the site. Panels along the walls explain why the internment happened, the fear and racism that drove the federal policy, and what life was like at the camp. Replicas of barracks interiors show their original state and demonstrate how residents transformed them into comfortable quarters by nailing soup can lids over knotholes in the floor to keep out the blowing sand and crafting furniture from scrap lumber. A huge panel lists the name of everyone who was confined at the camp. When I was finished, I drove the auto route again—this time more slowly, stopping frequently to get out and look, because now I knew from the extensive exhibits at the Center what I was seeing.

The wooden barracks are long gone, but it’s clear to a visitor where they had been. The National Park Service has marked the location of each block of barracks with signs, and there is fascinating physical evidence of what had been there. The internees tried their best to make their confinement as pleasant as possible, and the concrete pools they built in elaborate rock gardens are still in place. The camp cemetery, with its iconic obelisk constructed in 1943 with concrete purchased with a fifteen-cent-per-family donation, looks the same today as it did when Ansel Adams photographed it during the war with 14,403-foot Mount Williamson rising majestically behind it.

The Japanese internment was not the first forced relocation in the Owens Valley. The Paiute Indians settled there 1,500 years ago and developed a flourishing culture with crops irrigated by abundant local water supplies. When gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada, miners, farmers, and cattlemen moved in. The Paiutes were driven out by the U.S. Army in 1863. Farmers planted orchards in the area they called Manzanar—Spanish for “apple orchard.” In 1905 the city of Los Angeles, needing water to expand the growing metropolis, quietly began acquiring water rights in the Owens Valley and built an aqueduct to the city in 1913. By 1933, Los Angeles owned virtually all farm and ranch land in the valley, and the town of Manzanar was abandoned. When the United States decided to open an internment camp in the area, it had to lease the land from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Internees enjoyed fruit from the abandoned orchards located inside the camp. The trees are still there, and visitors can pick a small amount of fruit in season.

It didn’t take long after the camps opened for government officials to figure out that interning all those people was a costly idea. Internees also were anxious to prove their loyalty as citizens. Those who passed a “loyalty questionnaire” could take jobs further from the west coast or sign up for military duty. In 1943, camp volunteers organized into the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Combined with the 100th Infantry Battalion—mostly Japanese Americans from Hawaii—they became one of the most decorated units in the U. S. Army. Its members won 18,143 individual citations and suffered 9,486 casualties in an outfit with an authorized strength of 4,000.

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By 1944 the population of Manzanar had dwindled to six thousand, its residents gone to war or to work, and security was eased. Soldiers no longer manned the guard towers, though the searchlights were left on at night to assuage anti-Japanese locals. The last few hundred internees left in November 1945. During World War II, no Japanese American was ever accused of sabotage.

When You Go

Manzanar National Historic Site is located on U.S. 395. The 814-acre site is open to the public free of charge every day from dawn until dusk; no reservations are required. In the summer (April 1–October 31), the Interpretive Center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; winter hours (November 1–March 31) are from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Where to Stay
The nearest towns are Lone Pine (11 miles south) and Independence (six miles north). Lone Pine is a tourist stop with many motels. I found the Best Western Frontier Motel, 1008 South Main Street, to be an excellent choice (760-876-5571; bestwestern.com); doubles from $76. The Dow Villa Motel, 310 South Main Street, hosted movie stars like John Wayne and Gene Autry when they filmed Western movies nearby (800-824-9317; dowvillamotel.com); rooms $92 and up. Independence’s Winnedumah Hotel, 211 North Edwards Street, is a bed-and-breakfast built in the 1920s (760-878-2040; winnedumah.com); doubles from $75.

What Else to See
Lone Pine is the gateway to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Film buffs may want to travel to the nearby Alabama Hills, where 300 movies—mostly westerns—have been filmed.