Manzanar: Confinement and Human Resilience in the Desert

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On Feb. 19, 1942, 75 days after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating “war relocation centers,” designed to confine “threatening” domestic groups. This wartime law concerned Japanese-Americans. Facing hostility, families had to choose: stay in the “safety” of your own home, or move to the safety of a relocation center. And for three years, tens of thousands of Americans moved to war relocation centers throughout the southwest. One of the largest lay in Manzanar, California.

Seventy-five years later, our van pulled into the front gate of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. As the howling

monument to interned Japanese-Americans at Manzanar

The Sierra Nevada Mountains loom behind a monument to the thousands of Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar during WWII.

wind kicked up dust, I took in the scene. The remote land tract sat at the foot of the mighty Sierra Nevada. A deserted place in a desert landscape. I could see why our group made the trek.

Deserts united us. In fact, while taking a course entitled “Deserts,” my classmates and I centered our study around four locations: Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Death Valley and Owens Valley in California. We approached each location with interdisciplinary lenses, looking at underlying geology, cultural histories and art. However, the class had abstract qualities, as most of us had never actually been to a desert! But fortunately, with the help of generous grants, our studies culminated in a hands-on field trip to the great southwest.

Mere hours after commencement, seven of my peers and our two professors landed in charming Las Vegas, Nevada. Over the next few days, we saw first-hand wonders at the Hoover Dam. Volcanoes erupted outside The Mirage on the Vegas Strip. We descended below sea level into Badwater Basin, lifted our spirits in the rustic saloon at Stovepipe Wells, and hiked to 10,000 ft. above Death Valley, on Telescope Peak. These experiences are some of my favorite memories. But even these pale in comparison to our trip to Manzanar:

“… I could see a few tents set up, the first rows of black barracks, and beyond them, blurred by sand, rows of barracks that seemed to spread for miles across this plain… Inside the bus no one stirred. No one waved or spoke. They just stared out the windows, ominously silent.” – Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, from Farewell to Manzanar

Manzanar wasn’t always as barren as Houston recalls. The Owens Valley once featured some of the most fertile farmland in the country. But Los Angeles’ booming population needed water, and started taking it from the Valley in 1913 via the controversial LA Aqueduct. By the time of Manzanar’s conception, Owens Valley was completely arid.

Fighting relentless wind, we made our way past a dozen boulders, engraved with numbers representing Americans who spent WWII in domestic war relocation centers. The sobering information only seemed to add weight to an air already heavy with silence. The museum’s entrance merely lowered the air’s temperature as we viewed the main exhibit, highlighting life at Manzanar.

At seven years old, Sab Sasaki journeyed to Manzanar. Now a jovial elder with a quick wit and contagious laugh,

relocation center for interned Japanese-Americans at Manzanar

Confined against their will, Japanese-Americans at Manzanar War Relocation Center gained strength from the community they created.

Mr. Sasaki met us, and upon learning we were a college group on a trip, he generously talked with us about life at Manzanar. His message? Life went on. Youngster Sab spent days playing marbles with other schoolboys and, well, being a kid.

But how could a former confined community member have such fond memories of a place that represented horrible, humiliating memories for countless others? Part of it was age, yes. Youngster Sab couldn’t have fully understood global politics. However, I gathered that a lot of his perspective grew out of a community of support.

Like Mr. Sasaki said, life went on. Outside the main exhibit, the National Park Service has carefully reconstructed some of Manzanar’s buildings. We walked through tight barracks, with quarters separated by bed sheets. The mess hall and fire station allowed us steps back in time. These community-run organizations were truly held together by the strength of the people.

But as we journeyed further, I encountered a feeling that thousands of people must have encountered daily. No matter how much communal support Manzanar’s residents could offer, they were still confined. After a mile’s journey to the back of the site, we did in fact come to a fence. With the mighty Sierra looming on the other side, it was as if we were separated from the freedom and majesty of nature itself. And it was crushing.

For the weary souls of Manzanar, its people erected a towering obelisk, almost mirroring the freedom that lay beyond the fence. In Japanese, it reads “soul consoling tower,” offering a semblance of comfort amidst barbed wire. For those who lived there, may we never forget the struggles they endured. But for those who made them live there, may we never create another Manzanar.

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Peter Whitehouse

Peter Whitehouse '18 is an environmental studies and music double major from Vass, North Carolina.

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