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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