Manzanar War Relocation Center

by Roger Alford

On February 19, 1942, a few weeks following Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. The purpose of the Order was to ensure the “successful prosecution of the war” which “requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabatoge.” Pursuant to that order, 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to 10 internment camps throughout the United States.
Over the weekend I had occasion to take my children to visit one of those camps, the Manzanar War Relocation Center. It is a desperately desolate and isolated place near the Sierra Nevadas, with only one large auditorium left of what was once a bustling internment camp housing over 10,000 Japanese Americans. A historical map gives you an idea of what it was like during the war.

The short film was superb and perfectly illustrates the attempted normalcy within the confines of a prison atmosphere. Three stories from the film poignantly illustrated this paradox:

  • First, the children who went to school at Manzanar wanted to pledge allegiance to the United States flag at the start of class each morning. But there was no flag, so the teacher had the children draw American flags and post it in the corner of the school room. Each morning they would pledge allegiance to the children’s drawings of the American flag.
  • Second, the Manzanar high school played local teams in high school football. Every game was a home game, for the “Manzanites” were not allowed to travel outside the camp.
  • Third, many Japanese Americans were committed to fighting for the United States in the Second World War. These volunteers established the 442nd Regimental Combat team, a Japanese American volunteer unit. One of those volunteers, Sadao Munemori, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for falling on a grenade and saving others in his regiment. His mother received the medal on his behalf from within the confines of the Manzanar internment camp.
If you are a professor or teacher you can contact the National Park Service (contact details here) for a teaching package that has wonderful information about the camp. It includes a reproduction of the camp newspaper, a timeline, historical material, and best of all, copies of 30 personal stories of individuals who were housed in the camp.

I forced myself to read all thirty stories. Here are two of my favorites. The first offers a glimpse of life in the camp.

Name: M. Nagano
Family Number: 1046
Address in Manzanar: 6-11-5

… The night of Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, the FBI took my father in custody as a “dangerous enemy alien” and he consequently lost his business. I was 16 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the FBI took my father away…. There were eventually reports in the daily newspapers that the government would remove us from the West Coast. My younger brother was 14 and would not believe that it could happen to us, because we were American citizens…. My father had begun building a new home for us in October 1941. We moved into the house in January 1942 and lived there only two months before we had to leave for Manzanar. My mother was so upset that we packed all of our personal things in boxes and left everything…. We went by train and bus to Manzanar on April 2, 1942…. I had envisioned Manzanar as a camp of little white cottages for each family, like the cottages at Sequoia National Park where we had stayed during vacations. I can still vividly recall my dismay as we pulled into Manzanar off the highway at dusk and saw rows of black, tar-papered barracks … our home for an indeterminate future. We were registered and then given canvas ticking bags…. We walked to our apartment which we were to share with another couple and their 2 year old son…. My younger brother and I spent our days walking around the perimeter of the camp, looking out at the highway and watching the cars go by and spending time with friends until school was finally established in October…. Our classrooms were in a whole block set aside for the school. We sat in the unheated rooms on the linoleum floor, with no furniture, no textbooks, or supplies at the beginning. I remember one day in particular when we were handed fliers with the Bill of Rights listed on Bill of Rights Day; it caused an angry exchange between the teacher and some of the students.

The second offers broader ruminations about the meaning of the Japanese internment camps for American democracy.

Name: S. Embrey
Family Number: 2614
Address in Manzanar: 20-3-1

… I think Manzanar should stand as a symbol of something that happened in America; had happened before and could happen again. It takes people who are aware of the past to make sure it doesn’t get repeated in the future. But also, it’s a strength of the American government and American democracy that we were given an apology and we were told that it was a mistake; that we were loyal citizens and law abiding parents and that it was not good for the government and American democracy to do this. We should all be vigilant. Liberty is something very precious we all need to work for and to strengthen. Telling the world that the government is willing to apologize, I think, indicates the strength of our democracy.

One Response

  1. Excellent post, Roger. Up here in Tacoma, we’ve got some memorials to the UPS students who were interred. Truly a sad moment in US history that needs remembering.

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