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Best Of Up The Road: Remembering Manzanar

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Tom Hilton
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Flickr Creative Commons
Soul Consoling, Tower of Manzanar.

Up the Road rolls on this week to Manzanar, a World War II internment camp on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. “Relocation Center” was the preferred official term.

Manzanar faces Hwy. 395 six miles south of Independence, California—an irony only in historical hindsight. Because the Japanese-Americans citizens rounded up and relocated here had no independence.

Stroll through an unsavory yet also surprising chapter of U.S. history.

At last report, the restored buildings and exhibits were still closed because of COVID-19 concerns. (Things are changing fast, in summer 2021, so check the website before.) But even when the park is closed you can still explore. Take the self-guided auto tour, or bike it, or take a walk. Bikes and cars have to stick to roadways, but on foot, you can go anywhere.

If the visitor center, in the camp’s onetime high school, will be closed when you arrive, before leaving home watch the short documentary Remembering Manzanar on the park’s YouTube channel, which also offers oral histories and other videos. To get the picture, explore online extensive Manzanar photographs by Dorothea Lange, as well as Ansel Adams’ photos—quite controversial at the time, though he thought them his best work.

Echoing official PR, news of the day called Japanese-American internment a “voluntary evacuation” for government protection. But when internees arrived, the armed soldiers, barbed wire, guard towers, and forbidding barracks gave another impression.

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Most of Manzanar is still bleak and desolate, little more than granite dust and sagebrush. Two pagoda-like stone guardhouses stand at the entrance. Remnants of building foundations stick up from sand-like bleached bones.

A few buildings (camp restoration is ongoing), reviving fruit trees, a cemetery, and a monument—the austere Soul Consoling Tower, or Buddhist “tower of memory”—honor Americans forced to live hereafter Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. That event shocked a reluctant United States to sign on for World War II.

Executive Order 9066, signed in 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt, created 10 Pacific Coast internment camps. Some 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were immediately removed from their communities. Many lost their homes, businesses, and personal possessions as a direct result.

Manzanar means “apple orchard” in Spanish. To the camp’s new arrivals—most of them U.S. citizens, many with sons serving in the war—the name surely seemed strange. But there had been a thriving small town here, famous for its apples, before L.A. took Owens Valley water. Allowed water and a chance to work the land, internees soon returned this dried-up farmland to lush, productive acreage.

They also built a real community. In addition to its orchards, gardens, parks, and hog and chicken ranches, Manzanar soon boasted its own Bank of America branch, Boy Scout troop, baseball teams, pools, nine-hole golf course, and swing band, the locally famous Jive Bombers.

The Supreme Court struck down Roosevelt’s executive order as unconstitutional in 1944, and Manzanar closed. Its legacy lived on, however. Returning to their hometowns, former internees often faced blatant racism and discrimination from former neighbors. This time, they faced it largely alone.

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.