Walking In Their Footsteps At A Former Japanese Internment Camp : NPR

Good long read about one family’s visit to a former internment camp:

The military-style camps were intentionally located in remote areas. Manzanar is about four hours north of Los Angeles by car and 3,800 to 4,200 feet above sea level. It is on U.S. Route 395, east of the Sierra Nevada and west of Death Valley. The nearest populated area is a tiny village six miles north named Independence. Before the trip, I debated whether I should go. The drive from Northern California is long, and my car is old. But I decided that I wanted to see Manzanar with my own eyes, so that my understanding of history might feel deeper through the experience of place.

Two reconstructed buildings stand in the former Manzanar War Relocation Center. Once, 10,046 people were imprisoned here.

Melissa Hung for NPR

What we saw was a flat desert with vegetation scrappy and close to the ground, stubborn trees here and there, tumbleweed bounding across the landscape, propelled by the wind. In the distance, Mount Williamson, majestic and snow-covered, looked like a painting.

“I hadn’t pictured it this beautiful,” I said.

“I imagine it must have felt ironic for the people living here,” Erin replied.

Manzanar opened on March 21, 1942, so the weather would have been similar to what we were experiencing on this sunny April day. I was wearing a sweatshirt and a vest. But here spring gives way to summers of up to 110 degrees and winters below freezing. In all seasons, the wind covers surfaces with sand and dust. Like the force of history, it is a constant that cannot be ignored.

Our guide for the day was park ranger Mark Hachtmann. He dressed the way I imagined a park ranger would: a uniform of green pants, a matching green jacket with a U.S. National Park Service patch on the arm, and a brimmed hat. He led us through the few buildings in Block 14, which now serve as exhibits. After the war, most of the buildings at Manzanar were dismantled. After Manzanar became a historic site in 1992, buildings were recreated according to historical photographs. The two barracks in Block 14 were built in 2010.

From what had been rebuilt, we were to imagine the entirety of the camp. There were 36 blocks in all for Japanese Americans. Each block contained 20 buildings: 14 barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, a laundry facility, an ironing room, a women’s latrine, and a men’s latrine. Between 250 and 400 people lived in each block, the blocks separated by open areas to prevent fires from spreading, a real threat in this land of wind. The whole camp was just under one square mile.

The residents were resigned to being in the camp ¾ Shikata ga nai(nothing can be done) ¾ and tried to make life a little more normal and comfortable. They created sports teams, published a newspaper, and started a co-op store. I was impressed by their self-organizing and resilience, but also felt a lingering sadness, especially for the older adults who had built their businesses and professions in the face of discrimination, only to have almost everything taken away. Did they ever recover? As we walked from building to building, the boys picked up sticks and dug at the dirt. I wondered how much they understood and if they would remember any of this. They played, I imagined, as kids their ages had done when the camp was full of families.

While in use, the camp included a 250-bed hospital, a fire station, an orphanage for 101 children, and baseball fields. More than 10,000 people ¾ 6,000 adults and 4,000 children ¾ had lived here in a hastily built, temporary city of concrete blocks, wood, and tarpaper. The War Relocation Authority staff ¾ the camp director, police chief, fire chief, social workers, and others who were mostly white and often referred to as the “Caucasian staff” ¾ lived in other blocks with their families, in buildings with their own bathrooms, kitchens, and lawns.

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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