Manzanar and the nine other WRA Camps were called all manner of things. FDR first referred to them as “Concentration camps,” when his administration was considering the detainment of over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. As they rolled out the detainment, the administration shifted to the term “Relocation camps,” almost as though they were undertaking some benign, even helpful enterprise. Reinforcing this perspective, some called them “Evacuation camps” in a process of “Evacuation,” suggesting that the WRA Camps were even designed to protect these Japanese Americans from hostility and violence on the part of their fellow Americans. “Internment camps” became a phrase that stuck in official and unofficial parlance.
As you get close to Manzanar, the most notable landmark is the reconstructed guard tower. There were eight towers that surrounded the residential compound at Manzanar. They were manned 24 hours a day by armed guards. The towers included searchlights that scanned the camp in the hours of darkness. The purpose was clearly to maintain control of the people living inside the camp and to prevent escape. Manzanar was a prison camp that held Americans without due process, Americans who were neither charged with nor convicted of any crime.
“The sight of the barbed wire enclosure with armed soldiers standing guard as our bus turned slowly through the gate stunned us… Here was a camp of sheds enclosed with a high barbed wire fence, with guard towers and soldiers with machine guns.”
Estelle Ishigo, Manzanar, from “Infamy,” by Richard Reeves
“When I asked my mother, ‘Why are we here, why are we in this prison?’… She said simply, ‘It’s because we’re Japanese.’ ”
Unknown child in Manzanar, from NPS video, “Remembering Manzanar”
Manzanar was a prison camp. It was a city, the largest in the Owens Valley, and one with several amenities. There was healthcare, there were places of worship, there were schools, and there was plenty of food. There was generally freedom to move throughout the camp. But the people were held captive against their will. They lived in barracks, ate in mess halls, and went to the bathroom and showered in latrines with no partitions. There was no privacy in any of the buildings available to them. It was the intimacy of forced communal living.
In the days to come, you will see pictures and read commentary about the various aspects of life at Manzanar. The National Park Service has done a careful job of providing a historically based recreation of Manzanar. I will do my best to show it to you with my photos. In addition, the Densho Encyclopedia, the NPS, and other sources have recorded and archived a host of interviews with people who lived in the camps. In my coming posts, I will share quotes from some of those sources.
As I continue this part of my journey, walking through Manzanar, come along with me. I hope my photos and reflections, and especially the commentary of people who lived there, will bring Manzanar to life for you.
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Grace and peace,