Hidden in the California desert, in the shadows of the Eastern Sierras, lies a dark part of American history that is largely forgotten. Officially known as the Manzanar National Historic Site, this is one of 10 camps in which the US government imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II.
After the United States officially joined the war, the government rounded up over 120,000 persons of Japanese descent and moved them “relocation centers” around the country. About 65% of those imprisoned were native-born US citizens.
Like the other camps, the government chose Manzanar for its geographical isolation. Located in the high desert near the town of (ironically) Independence, it was prone to extreme weather, high winds, and dust storms. Summers were blistering hot and winters biting cold. High winds and punishing dust storms were problematic year-round.
Manzanar, like the other camps, designed to be mostly self-contained, not unlike a small city. There were schools, churches, medical facilities, and even recreational facilities. However, despite the “amenities”, conditions were harsh.
Most of what was Manzanar no longer stands. While there were originally over 800 buildings in the camp, only three of those remain. Two of those are the sentry towers, which loom overhead as you reach the camp entrance.
The third remaining building, the Interpretive Center, is the first stop when touring the camp. This building was the auditorium while the camp was in operation. It is filled with exhibits that provide insight into the daily working of the camp and the story of those held here. There is also a 20 minute film about the history of the camp.
Artifact exhibits include such as clothing, furniture, and even toys. Many of the furniture pieces were handcrafted by prisoners.
Be sure not to miss the photo exhibits showing daily life in the camp. Many of these incredible photos were taken by photographer Toyo Miyatake while he was interred at Manzanar.
There are two options for exploring the rest of the camp- the self-drive tour or the walking tour. The self-drive tour does not limit what you can see because there are places to park along the dirt road so you can see areas up close.
Several camp buildings are on display as well. Some buildings were re-purposed elsewhere in the area after the camp closed, such as the mess hall. There are displays within the mess hall of the tools used daily by internees to cook meals for the thousands of people in the camp.
Others, such as barracks, have been reconstructed to allow visitors to understand how those imprisoned here truly lived. When originally constructed, the hastily assembled buildings were covered with tar paper and provided little protection from the severe conditions. They offered little privacy as several families, regardless of size, were assigned to a 20’x25’ area in the barracks. Although there were dividers between each family’s area, they did not reach the ceiling.
A reconstructed latrine is another reminder there was no option for privacy. Open rows of sinks, showers, and toilets line the walls of the building. The latrines lacked even the dividers provided in the barracks.
As you move deeper into the camp, there is a lovely garden area built by incarcerees. You can still see a wooden bridge that was built over a now dry stream, surrounded by a rock garden. This is just one of several garden areas built to try to beautify the barren surroundings of the camp.
There is also a small cemetery located at Manzanar. Although most of those that were buried here were later moved by family members, there are few remaining graves left. There is also a beautiful marble monument that was hand carved by Ryozo Kado, who was incarcerated at Manzanar.
As you wander through the rest of the grounds, you will find mostly cement foundations of the buildings that were either torn down or relocated when the camp was closed. Each foundation is marked with a sign post, allowing you get an idea of the size of the entire camp.
Although there is an attempt with some of the exhibits to place a positive perspective on life in the camp it is easy to see through that, especially if you do a bit of reading before your visit.
While Manzanar is not a quick trip from almost anywhere in California, it is certainly worthwhile to make time for a visit. Plan for 2-3 hours if you intend to do the self-drive tour and up to half a day for a walking tour. Both are approximately 3 miles in length.
Manzanar National Historical Site
5001 Highway 395
Independence, CA 93526
Notes: Keep in mind this can be a long distance from just about any major city in California, so you’re looking at a 3-4 hour drive from almost anywhere. You should be sure to have plenty of water (there are convenience stores in Lone Pine) and study shoes.