On our drive down from Mammoth last week on US-395, we stopped at the Manzanar Natiional Historic Site. Ironically just a short distance from the town of Independence, Manzanar was one of ten relocation centers where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. There are not many structures left, but you can see cement foundations, outlines of gardens, and signage of the buildings that once stood there, still surrounded by barbed wire fences. A replica of one of the eight guard towers that were used by military police equipped with search lights and sub-machine guns stands as a reminder that the Japanese Americans were held there against their will, and not “for their protection.” The desolate landscape against snow-covered mountains was an eerily beautiful and moving sight, almost haunting, really.
This dark chapter in American history began in 1942 when the U.S. government under President Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to declare areas of the United States (mostly in the western US) as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The Executive Order also established the War Relocation Authority, which paved the way for the creation of relocation camps which would house over 100,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were American citizens by birth or were willing to become citizens but were denied the opportunity due to the immigration laws at the time. No charges were ever brought against any of the internees, nor were there any trials or due process, as prescribed by the Constitution of the United States.
Manzanar resembled a small town housing up to 11,000 prisoners and was self-sustained in many ways. The camp had its own hospital, schools, farms, co-ops and more. There were dances and baseball games. Most people held jobs within the camp or helped with the American war effort by making camouflage nets. Despite the severity of the circumstances they endured, these (mostly) American citizens of Japanese ancestry made the most of their imprisonment and lived hopeful lives even though many had lost everything.
As America celebrated the 235th anniversary of its independence, I thought it was fitting to end with this quote inscribed on a plaque by the guardhouse that says:
May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again.
I know this is more serious than most of my posts, but I was truly moved by visiting this site. If you are ever driving up US-395 heading towards Mammoth, I urge you to stop at Manzanar to learn about the courage and the indomitable spirit of the Japanese Americans and the fragility of the freedom and liberty we sometimes take for granted.
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