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Journey to Manzanar

Hello, all.

First, very sorry for being so slow in updating over the last six months or so. Mea culpa.

Second, before I launch back into EoA, I want to discuss my experiences and thoughts about my time visiting Manzanar. I was in Los Angeles for another reason last week, but as I had a rental car, I knew I wanted to, if at all possible, take the opportunity to go to Manzanar. It turns out to be a three and a half to four hour drive from LA, and I went up on July 5, 2014.

Because of the heavy image content of this post I have hidden them under a cut.

My first impression, when I turned off Highway 14, was that the area was as desolate as the mental image conjured up by the idea of a remote internment camp.

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And then turning around to look across the highway, I saw this:

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I drove a bit of the way down the road and saw a guard tower in the distance, which I believe has been restored and preserved to show what they looked like in the 1940s. I approached a little further and got a better picture, along with a photograph of the highway sign marking that road. (The red car is mine, the pickup is someone else)

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The first sign of anything approximating civilization is the large interpretive center that’s at the entranceway to Manzanar. There are some introductory exhibits and signs that give a sense of a “slice of life” in Manzanar. It’s a reminder that even amid extraordinary and adverse circumstances, people still find a way to go about their daily lives.

IMG_0089IMG_0094 IMG_0095 IMG_0101 IMG_0104 IMG_0105 IMG_0108 IMG_0114Inside, there is a 22-minute video, which I watched and which has commentary from internees as well as from some of the people who worked at the camp. One of them was a teacher who objected to what was going on and was determined that the children in the camp be able to get an education. So even though she could have had her pick of wartime jobs, she went and taught there.

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There is a scale model that really gives an impression as to the size of the camp; eleven thousand people were there at some point between 1942 and 1945.

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There are more exhibits which explain what happened and how, from the initial stages of gathering people up, placing them in transit camps, and then finally putting them in the “War Relocation Centers” themselves.

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Also, lest we think Canadians were exempt at all from this war-related hysteria, I made a special point of taking this close-up:

IMG_0145I did some research and the nearest Canadian internment camp in any reasonable condition to visit is so remote it is actually easier to drive to Manzanar than there. But what I have found out is that the majority of those were in the backwoods of BC or in remote areas of Alberta. Hardly any more hospitable than Manzanar, and certainly even colder in winter!

Aside from the intepretive center, there is a self-guided tour.

First of all, the incredible, all-pervading heat is not something that can be easily captured in pictures. At my arrival to Manzanar, it was already flirting with the 35-degree Centigrade mark, and when I left, it was pushing 40 degrees. Now I could get in my car and leave any time, and it had air conditioning.

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But for the prisoners who lived at Manzanar, there was no escaping the perpetual wind blowing this dry, hot air at you every day for months in summer. Words are completely inadequate for my reaction to the idea of having to face that kind of weather day in and day out, knowing you can never leave. The worst part is that the showers were communal, and for anyone wanting to try to cool off with some water, they had to endure the total lack of privacy in the process. It’s not surprising to me that some people chose to simply never shower rather than face that, even if it would have meant feeling a bit better for a while afterwards.

The other thing I want to get across is that there’s almost nothing out there today. The elements and nature have reclaimed much of what once was at Manzanar:

IMG_0081IMG_0159 IMG_0164Take a good look at the last picture of three: that is the only thing showing that there was any sign of human habitation: the concrete foundation for what once was a barracks at Manzanar. For many parts of the camp the only indication that anything was ever there are small wooden signs with names of the block numbers.

In fact I’ve been told by at least one person that, not knowing what the place was, they simply drove right past Manzanar, assuming it was a nature park.

I saw repeated signs of this unpurposeful neglect of the camp – part of it was that in 1945, with the war over, the US government no longer needed it and so took almost everything down. But another part surely must be that at least some element of wanting to forget that a crime had been committed was at play.

And I think it is absolutely correct to call it a crime: thousands of people who had done nothing to deserve it were nonetheless locked up at this place for three years. I actually found it somewhat disturbing how little remains of the camp, for this reason. If there was not an active program in place to keep this camp’s knowledge alive, it would be so easy to let nature and the elements completely erase what had happened there.

More pictures like the above follow, showing how much of the camp has been reclaimed by the native plants, but there are some more persistent reminders of human presence among them:

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The most iconic part of this camp is the cemetery monument. I made a special point of going there.

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This is what I saw after entering the cemetery grounds proper.

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I had a hat on to keep the sun off me, but when I walked past the gate that actually encloses the large white spire monument, I had a strong feeling I ought to take it off. I don’t know why, but I did and I felt hesitant to tread too heavily, because I discovered smaller stone markings that indicate the graves of people who have been buried near that monument.

There is also a cemetery for pets, as well.

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After leaving the cemetery area, I continued. Again, many signs of human habitation are gone, though there are efforts to preserve what is there:

IMG_0230Part of the disturbing feeling I mentioned earlier came from seeing things like this:

IMG_0232That’s all there is. Period. And yet at one time this was a place where people who needed more than just to stay alive once practiced a martial art, for no other reason than they wanted to.  Words really are inadequate to express the sense of wrongness at realizing something like this.

And then there’s this:

IMG_0235 IMG_0238 IMG_0239 IMG_0240Here was a place of vital importance, where even though they might be prisoners, the people of Manzanar still were willing to work on behalf of the country which had shown at best indifference, and worst, outright hostility, when a country many of them had never seen attacked the country in which they lived.

IMG_0242By this point I was near the end of the tour. The entry and exit guard buildings are the best preserved. Aside from that little remains to indicate the presence of the administration building, newspaper, and other parts of the nerve center of the camp.

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And that was the end of my trip to Manzanar.

I think if I had to say how I felt, I would say not that I’m glad or happy, but rather that it was good to go, because it was a very real, visceral educational experience. I probably will never go back, but the impression left on me will remain for a long time: thousands of people lived here, in this place – and they had to endure it for years as a physical reminder in addition to the emotional weight of realizing they were the targets of a nation’s fear and anger toward an enemy and if they couldn’t attack that enemy they would find their own.

It’s worth noting that Manzanar and other camps like this are and should always be reminders that even “civilized” nations that consider themselves guardians and preservers of freedom nevertheless can fall far short of that mark, and when they do, that is a crime which should be made right and not ignored:

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I think it is also a reminder that what we do, today, will one day be judged in the eyes of a humanity that has evolved as far beyond us as we have gone past the 1940s. I can only hope that we will not be measured and found so wanting as to have had no positive aspects about the era we live in.

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One thought on “Journey to Manzanar

  1. Just wanted to reiterate what I (think I) said elsewhere: These are really powerful images, and it’s something we must never forget that our country did out of fear and cowardice.

    I hope you’re doing all right, and hanging in there. Things haven’t quite been the same on Clark’s blog without the unseen charge-zero lepton!

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