Explore the grounds and new interpretive center at this World War II Japanese internment camp located northeast of Los Angeles.
By Teri Russman
As I drove past the sentry post into Manzanar National Historic Site, I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for the nearly 11,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were interned here after America’s entry into World War II.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, racial prejudice and hysteria intensified against Japanese Americans. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing confinement of all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.
They were given about one week to dispose of everything they owned, except what they could carry, and were required to report to government authorities; destination unknown. They were forced to sell houses, businesses, farms, and possessions at a substantial loss. About two-thirds of them were American by birth, and most of the remainder had lived in the United States for decades, but were denied citizenship by law.
Loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains, they were transported under military guard to 17 assembly centers, and then into 10 more permanent relocation camps. By November 1942, the evacuation of 120,000 people from their homes was complete.
Manzanar, the Spanish word for “apple orchard,” was once a productive agricultural community. After its water rights were sold to the growing city of Los Angeles, the town declined and was abandoned by 1930. It soon degenerated into a man-made desert and remained sparsely populated until the first internment camp opened there in March of 1942. On U.S. 395 in the Owens Valley of California lie the remains of this part of history.
The square-mile Manzanar camp was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers equipped with searchlights and machine guns. There were 36 blocks; each consisted of 14 barracks made of wood and tar paper. Each barrack was divided into four 20-foot-by-25-foot rooms. Eight individuals were assigned to a room, each one furnished with an oil heater, a single hanging light bulb, old iron army cots, scratchy army blankets, and straw mattresses without sheets. The 200 to 400 people living in each block shared toilets, showers, a laundry room, and a mess hall, with little or no privacy.
In spite of these conditions, the internees created a typical American community complete with churches, schools, clubs, sports teams, music groups, dances, and a hospital. They operated a cooperative bank and store. They managed a beauty parlor and barbershop. They sewed clothes and built furniture from scrap wood. More than one-third of the adults had previously been farmers, and they applied their skills to gardening and growing a variety of fruits and vegetables. They dug channels and irrigation ditches. The camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press, reported in October 1942: “Six months ago Manzanar was a barren, uninhabited desert. Today beautiful green lawns, picturesque gardens, and bridges over ponds attest to the Japanese people’s traditional love of nature.” They proved to be exceptionally resourceful and self-reliant under devastating circumstances.
One former resident commented, “The best part was the beauty of the mountains and the soaring red-tailed hawk that allowed us to dream of freedom.” The expansive view is spectacular; to the west tower the rugged Sierra Nevada, including Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States (14,496 feet), and to the east are the Inyo/White Mountain Ranges. The Owens Valley, at an elevation of 4,000 feet, is the deepest valley in the United States.
Manzanar National Historic Site, established in 1992, is the best-preserved relocation camp out of the 10 that were operational from 1942 to 1945. When the camp closed in 1945, most of the buildings were dismantled and sold as scrap lumber. What remains consists of the restored auditorium, an old barrack, foundations, concrete slabs, a cemetery, garden features, and a few fruit trees.
The restored auditorium houses the interpretive center, which opened in 2004. More than 8,000 square feet of exhibits preserve the many stories through historical photos, audio programs, a children’s exhibit, and a large-scale model of the camp. Every half hour a 22-minute film is shown, narrated by former interns. A shop features books, gifts, and clothing items.
Take the 3.2-mile self-guided auto tour (motorhomes also are okay) that leads past 27 numbered points of interest at the camp. You are welcome to stop occasionally and explore. Be sure to pick up a detailed map at the interpretive center. Additional restorations are ongoing. Park rangers offer guided talks and tours of the grounds, too.
The grounds are open every day during daylight hours, except Christmas, and the Interpretive Center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended summer hours. Admission to this site is free, and motorhome parking is available.
Other Points Of Interest
Manzanar is about halfway between Los Angeles (which is 225 miles south of there), and Reno, Nevada (which is 240 miles north) on U.S. 395, the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. The towns of Lone Pine, nine miles south of Manzanar, and Independence, six miles north, offer markets, convenience stores, and restaurants.
Several exhibits relating to Manzanar and Owens Valley history can be found in Independence at the Eastern California Museum. The museum is two blocks west of U.S. 395 at 155 N. Grant St., and is open daily except Tuesday, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. For more information, call (760) 878-0258 or visit www.countyofinyo.org/ecmuseum/.
Recreational opportunities in the area include hiking, trout fishing, golf, rock-hunting, bicycling, wildlife viewing, and star-gazing. Information about the scenic byway and other points of interest is available at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitors Center, on U.S. 395 one mile south of Lone Pine. It is open daily between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.; phone (760) 876-6222.
Don’t miss the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, just a few miles west of Lone Pine, a scenic area of unusual rock formations and a fantastic place to climb and hike. Because of its easy access to Los Angeles and its incredible landscape, the area has been the backdrop for hundreds of Westerns, starting with movies starring Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. It’s also been used in more recent films such as Star Trek V, Tremors, and Gladiator.
The film history of this area is celebrated at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Film History Museum. Opened in 2006, it features exhibits and displays, an 84-seat movie theater, and special events. The museum is located on U.S. 395 at the south end of Lone Pine and is open daily except Tuesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free. Visit http://www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org/ or call (760) 876-9909 for more information.
Manzanar National Historic Site
P.O. Box 426
Independence, CA 93526
(760) 878-2194, ext. 2710
This is not a complete list. For more listings, check your campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the June and January issues of FMC and online at fmca.com.
Boulder Creek RV Resort
2550 S. U.S. 395
Lone Pine, CA 93545
Diaz Lake Recreation Area Campground
Lone Pine, CA 93545