Mom ,What’s the movie about?
The little girl asked as we all sat down in the seats in the darkened theater. I couldn’t really fully see the folks behind me but I could tell it was a woman of Japanese ancestry and her young daughter.
It’s the movie about where your grandmother was born.
Those words caught my breath. I think even walking around the museum The words reminded me to recall how it’s not just a place in some textbook, but a real place that has affected lives even today.
Table of Contents
About Manzanar National Historic Site
Manzanar was one of ten relocation centers that were built specifically to house Japanese as well as Americans of Japanese Ancestry.
Manzanar was the first built of these Japanese Concentration Camps. Some may balk at the term concentration camp, but it is appropriate. It was a camp built specifically for people of a minority group who were interned for political or other reasons simply on the basis on that minority.
FDR established these camps by executive order on February 19, 1942 and only one month later Manzanar started accepting inmates. If you can imagine, with only a month, the area was not even developed or suitable for habitation. People were brought from across California (mainly LA) to be imprisoned at Manzar. At it’s peak over 11,000 people were interred there of nearly 120,000 people across all the prisons.
The camp covered over 540 acres and included 8 guard towers and 36 housing blocks which were hastily built. The place was harsh to live. The extreme temperatures were not easy on the inmates many who came from much milder locals and the living quarters were not suitable for the conditions. You can’t possibly build high quality housing for 11,000 people in mere months. Privacy was a premium that didn’t exist for most.
Visiting the Internment Camp
Most of what was at the Manzanar Internment camp during its operations is gone. There are definitely some remnants, some rebuilt or resurfaced areas that were excavated. There’s been work on restoring the gardens in the park which can be seen at Merritt Park. Most of the buildings did not last, even the barracks you see were reconstructed. I think even with the lack of things it’s important to visit.
On my first visit through the area, I was the only person of non-Japanese descent. It’s a common pilgrimage for families affected by the camps to visit, but important for others too. The remote location of the camp often makes visits less frequent for many visitors. However, I think it’s important to visit one or several of these camps. We cannot forget the impact these places had on our citizens and the world. And we cannot let such things to reoccur.
Places to Visit
The visitor center is the first and probably best place for visitors to get information and understanding of the site. One of the things you notice most about the site is the lack of buildings, etc in the area. Much of the site and buildings no longer exist. There has been work to restore and recover things such as Japanese gardens. But to understand life here you should stop at the Visitor Center. The 22 minute movie is definitely worth watching. It really is emotional.
I appreciate this sentry post remains while most of the rest of the camp is destroyed. It gives a bit of a view of the entry and exit of the place. If you are driving around Manzanar NHS, you’ll pass through the area of the Sentry Post on your way around to the other sites within Manzanar.
Probably the most famous photo and picture of Manzanar is the memorial. The white marble monument signifies those lives lost here at Manzanar. More than 150 people never saw freedom from their incarceration here at the Concentration Camp. It’s a sad reminder of this part of American History.
Block 14 Buildings
Block 14 contains two reconstructed barracks to help shed light on what it was like in the buildings and in the camps. The mess hall is identical to the ones that covered the camp that provided meals to the inmates during the years of operations. The areas show the living quarters, latrines, group showers, and other aspects of life. Important is to consider the “loyalty” questionnaire. Which made them “prove loyalty” to the US over Japan. This was problematic for several reasons such as those who were non-US citizens who worried what denouncing the king would do to them, or others who didn’t trust or understand why they had to denounce their heritage.
Wandering or Driving the Grounds
There is a starkness to the land in this area of California. Being on the Eastern side of the Sierras it was mostly arid and desert here in Manzanar. Most people came from way more inviting areas such as Los Angeles and Washington State. It has a beauty and sadness to the place.
There’s been an effort to continuously unearth some of the 100+ Japanese gardens that had existed throughout Manzanar Internment Camp. This War Relocation Camp had quite a few gardens which was probably one of the most beautiful things I’m sure in the park. You can visit Merritt Park and see most elaborate of the gardens from the camp. The gardens served as a community refuge through harsh times and conditions.
5001 Highway 395 Independence, CA 93526
The visitor center is the first place anyone should stop during your tour of the site.
The center contains the movie, exhibits, information about the site, information for heritage, and other aspects for visiting Manzanar.
Open daily from 9:00 am – 4:30 pm; Closed Christmas Day
The Park is open daily from Sunrise until Sunset. However, the visitor center (with the movie) has shorter hours. Generally 9:00 am – 4:30pm.
There is no fee to visit Manzanar War Relocation Camp
Website: Official NPS Website
Getting to Manzanar National Historic Site
Manzanar is located on US-395 in the eastern Sierras of California.
Manzanar is about 6 miles South of Independence, CA and 10 miles North of Lone Pine, CA.
Getting to the eastern Sierras can be a bit more problematic from other parts of California. From parts of northern California you’d have to get around the Sierras to get to Manzanar. During the Summer if you are coming from San Francisco the quickest route is to cross through Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. However, this is closed in the winter. Expect to take 7+ hours from San Francisco. 9+ is not unheard of.
From other points of California in the South, traveling south around the Sierras is the best option. From Los Angeles you’d take CA-14N to 395N to reach Manzanar. Expect to take 3-4 hours to reach Manzanar from LA.