Manzanar National Historic Site

Cemetery shrine, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Daniel Mayer (Wikipedia Commons)
Cemetery shrine, Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Daniel Mayer (Wikipedia Commons)

Manzanar National Historic Site

– 1992 –


Nebuchadnezzar carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.

– 2 Chronicles: 18-20

Little remains today of what was once a community of 11,000 people. Gathered under the auspices of national safety, it was in fact a racist program created in fear. In a valley between the Sierra Nevadas and the Nevada state line, Manzanar National Historic Site remembers one of our country’s most shameful decisions and honors those who endured the hardships of war in ways we choose to ignore.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, military officials feared Japanese-Americans on the West Coast posed a threat to military bases and civilians on the Pacific coast. Two months into the conflict, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the War Department to detain Japanese-Americans without cause. In the following years, 110,000 people of Japanese descent, most American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, relocated to 10 camps as far east as Arkansas.

These War Relocation Centers began as poorly constructed camps. Flimsy barracks, built of pine walls covered in tar paper, offered little protection from summer heat, winter cold, howling wind, or ever-present dust. Families crowded into 450-square-foot rooms and communal showers and bathrooms provided not even a semblance of privacy. Medical care focused on disease-preventing immunizations and food poisoning, emblematic of the primitive conditions.

Manzanar was the first camp, located on a square mile of land purchased by the City of Los Angeles 230 miles south in its unquenchable thirst for water. At each of the camps, the exiled Japanese-Americans created new communities with schools, newspapers, sports, and other community services. Trying to create home in an alien land, they planted gardens and created rock sculptures.

Of the relocated, 30,000 were children. The camps made cursory efforts to continue their education, though immense class sizes, a teacher shortage, and virtually no resources made that a monumental task. Taught in English, classes often focused on "patriotic values", and student were directed to share their learnings with their families in the evenings.

Life and conditions in the camps improved somewhat, but resistance and conflict were reported at many camps. Biographies released in the years since the detainment paint a picture of stoic acceptance among the interred. Children realize now their parents internalized much of their agony, trying to inspire their children to stay strong.

It would be easy to understand if Manzanar’s residents harbored resentment toward American ideals and the war effort, yet some residents volunteered for the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, serving with valor in Europe, and others served in the Pacific.

As the war wound down, Manzanar’s population declined. Eventually the facility closed in November 1945, and residents were given meager resources to find a new place to live; some had to be relocated again so the site could be leveled.

Today, all that remains of the camp are two sentry posts; the old high school auditorium, converted into a county road maintenance facility; building foundations; water and sewer infrastructure; some of the residents’ decorations; and the cemetery. Only five of the 146 people who died at Manzanar remain interred there, but a monument constructed during the war remains. The War Department documents 1,862 deaths across the ten camps.

Almost forty-three years later, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 formally apologized for the Japanese internment and authorized a $20,000 payment to each camp survivor. A meager payment for such a costly sin.

As much as we try to ignore it, the sins of Manzanar continue today. We still incarcerate people who are innocent, who are imprisoned because of their ethnicity, held captive because of the prejudices of others. We continue to exile God’s children in our own country.

Have you ever been accused of a crime simply because of your heritage or appearance? How do you judge the innocent based on the bad choices of others? How do you reconcile those judgments with the Biblical imperative to love your neighbor as yourself?

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