One of the more interesting attractions on Highway 395 in California is Manzanar. This was the most famous relocation center among the 10 camps established during World War II to house Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens for the duration of hostilities. Manzanar is between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine. It’s not a place where anyone would chose to live.
I was asked by the people in charge to make a plea. In a normal year 115,000 travelers visit Manzanar despite its purposeful isolation. Ruth and I got very lucky. We were in the area on a Saturday and stopped to see if Manzanar was opened. It was to open within the hour. It could be seen but just for a few hours that particular day. It had been closed due to the pandemic for a long time, but the managers decided to open up for a few hours that weekend to test the feasibility of completely reopening. Staff had been lost and full reopening was still in doubt. I was asked to spread the word that Manzanar may or may not be opened when travelers in the area want to see it. Check before going for hours and availability of tours and such. They were hoping for a full reopening but could not guarantee that. We had access to all camp facilities, the museum, and all attractions like the watchtower and monument below that could be seen only via a driving tour of the grounds.
Ruth and I were able to see and appreciate the conditions under which American citizens and Japanese aliens were housed. We could see that total strangers lived under the same roof together without curtains and sometimes even without lights. There was no privacy. The Japanese living on Bainbridge Island across from downtown Seattle were the first Japanese Americans to be evacuated and sent to Manzanar. Doubly lucky, I was on Bainbridge Island one time and was able to interview a Japanese man and his mother. His dream was to open a memorial on the island to the people evacuated. His mother, a vigorous woman in her 90s, had been one of them. She agreed to answer my questions and I wrote “The Fate of Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans” as a result. This blog is still available in the archives.
In an era when many Americans are refusing to get COVID shots for various reasons, I learned that the Japanese of Manzanar had to submit to mandatory inoculations. I learned that 541 babies were born in Manzanar. Those forced to live here had no kitchens and no bathrooms. All meals were served in a large dining facility, and bathrooms served both males and females communally. A block manager distributed bulbs, toothpaste, and soap. Without much to do or look forward to, Manzanar inmates built furniture, ordered stuff from catalogs, and worked in fields. Much of the food served to the residents was grown on the property, which was anything but hospitable.
There were ten camps established. Those who created problems including disloyalty to the US Government were sent to California’s Tulelake Camp. 2,200 Japanese from Manzanar were transferred to Tulelake where they lived with 6,616 people already there and the 10,000 others who had been transferred from Relocation Centers established elsewhere. Some of them were as far away as Arkansas. There were more than 19,000 people living at Tulelake in a space for 15,000. I now aspire to visit the Tulelake Relocation Center in Northern California’s Siskiyou County 5 miles west of Tulelake, CA.