Sands of Manzanar

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What remains of the cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t the deadly black sand that greeted the US Marines on Iwo Jima.

But as we stood on out on the desert, white powdery dust would swirl up in the softly blowing arid wind…  and I then realized it was upon this gawd-awful sand that my Aunt Shiz and Uncle John built their future for their family.

It was their Iwo Jima…  It was called the “Manzanar War Relocation Center” by our government back during World War II.

They were forced onto these forsaken sands by FDR in April of 1942 but made the most of it.  Quietly.  仕方が無い…  我慢.  Shikataganai and gaman.

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FDR called it relocation centers.

It’s just my opinion but political correctness be damned.

It was a prison.  Complete with eight guard towers and soldiers manning .30 caliber Browning machine guns.  Barbed wire fencing all around.  No freedoms.  Chow at specific times.  Public toilets and showers.  No running water in your “cell”.  No cars.  No soda jerks.  You were classified as “Enemy Alien” even though you said your Pledge of Allegiance or were a Boy Scout.

There were ten well known ones like Manzanar.  But quite a number of smaller or special purpose prisons were scattered about the US – some of which have been long forgotten.  But one thing in common was they held Americans incarcerated just because they looked Japanese.  Not one was ever convicted of spying for Japan.

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Pictured: Aunt Shiz and my four cousins.  There was no notation other than the date but if I were to take a wild guess, this may have been taken as they left Manzanar the second prison they were moved to: Tule Lake. I base it upon the barrenness of the area surrounding them. (Edit 9/27/2013)

I had never been to Manzanar.  However, since Aunt Shiz passed away at the age of 95 last year at this time, I heard a call to visit.  So my friend and I decided to make the 500 mile+ round trip the Friday before Labor Day weekend.  It was time to go.

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Manzanar back in 1942 was an isolated, desolate desert wilderness.  Hell, it still is for the most part.  The 2010 Census only reported about 2,000 residents; imagine how uninhabited it may have been seventy years ago.  Temperatures soar to over 110F in the summer and plummet to the 20’s in the winter.  It was exactly 100F and humid when we arrived that Friday.  It lies between Lone Pine and Independence on US 395.

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The lonely Lone Pine train station, perhaps the 1930’s?

If you haven’t heard of these prison camps during WWII, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 (There’s those danged Executive Orders again!) ordering Japanese (Issei) and Japanese-Americans (Nisei) to evacuate from the West Coast of the United States.  The FBI and the US Army were there to ensure they left.  These families could only take what they could carry with many everyday items prohibited.  Knives, guns, tools…and cameras because they were looked upon as the enemy.

Many family heirloom photos and letters were burned or tossed.  Favorite dolls.  Bicycles.  Silverware.  Dishes.  All gone.

Here are some official US Government photos (except for my color one) from that period; please note many of these were taken by the Government and were meant to appease the public:

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American workers putting together the shoddily built barracks. They only had tar paper on the outside to keep out the elements. Big gaps existed between the boards – walls or floor boards.
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My two littlest kids and a friend stand in front of an actual barrack from a WWII prison camp. Notice the tar paper remnants and the gaps between the wooden planks. Families actually were forced to live in these shacks.
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Japanese Americans were loaded onto buses or railroad cars under armed guard to be transported to the prison camps. This April 1942 photo was taken in “Little Tokyo”, an area in Downtown, Los Angeles.
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Japanese-Americans disembark from the railroad cars at Lone Pine, CA and are now waiting for buses to take them to their new “homes” at Manzanar. My aunt’s family may just be in the photograph.
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Boarding buses headed to Manzanar under guard.  The US Army soldier should be concerned someone would grab his holstered .45 ACP.  After all, he was amongst the “enemy” as FDR determined.
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A new family brings in their worldly belongings into Manzanar. Notice the dust being blown up around them. Both Aunt Shiz and my dad talked about how everything in their assigned barracks would be covered with dust…down to their Army issue mattresses and sheets. Imagine that for days on end.
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Arrivees at Manzanar. Note the ID tag on the evacuee at left. Everyone got one…even babies.
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Mess Hall chow line. You ate here whether or not it was freezing or scorching outside.

As general information, a relative said the latrines were so cramped that you almost touched each other while sitting on the toilet and that there weren’t any stalls.  Just holes when the first arrivees showed up or after toilets were finally installed a little later.  It was hot and stuffy inside with the stench and flies unbearable.  They had to wait in line to use the latrines, take a shower or eat.

During the war, Manzanar internee Pfc Sadao Munemori – through his brave actions on the battlefield – was bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor…posthumously.  (Twenty-one Japanese-American soldiers were bestowed the Medal of Honor.)

Interestingly, two-thirds of the Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar were under the age of 18 per the National Park Service.   There were 541 babies born at Manzanar; my cousin Roy was one of them.  (Another cousin, Neil, was born in Tule Lake, CA while his older brother Bobby perished at another camp at six years of age.)

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It is still difficult to believe all of my stateside relatives of that time – all American citizens – were subjected to the degrading treatment depicted above.  But I think my Aunt Shiz had the toughest experience raising four children – with one born in camp.

As we walked through the museum, I perspired profusely even though it had a cooling system.  While my friend was intently reading a number of exhibits, I tried to occupy my mind with other thoughts; I still didn’t know how I would react to being here.

Then, I saw several faces in photographs lining a hallway honoring Toyo Miyatake.  I had often seen them in my youth walking about Little Tokyo or at the temple (I am Buddhist.).  The familiar faces somehow made me “feel at home” or secure in a way.

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Standing is Hisao Kimura, the father of my good friend Sadao. They founded Kimura Photomart where I worked in Little Tokyo. Toyo Miyatake (seated at left) frequently came to Kimura Photomart to sit on a stool after retiring. Toyo’s son, Archie, is on his right. Please click on this link to learn more of the Miyatake heritage and connection to my family. Toyo Miyatake

Here are some other snapshots taken during the visit:

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My friend intently read the information on the exhibits during our brief visit. I feel she learned “stuff” that is not in our textbooks.  I was happy she took interest.
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At the very bottom left of the camp model, you will see a “greener” area. It housed the US Military as well as administrative staff. These barracks were more thoroughly constructed with running water and toilets.
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This is one bit of information that can be drawn up to the CPU. However, I am at a loss when it shows that Aunt Shiz was moved to Tule Lake.
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My friend appears to have a solemn look on her face while looking at the prison camp’s layout.  Over 11,000 men, women, children and babies were made prisoners and incarcerated at Manzanar – all civilians.
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Our good friend Toyo Miyatake, who had illegally snuck in a lens, fashioned a self-made camera around it to take historical pictures from inside the camp. However, photography had been forbidden. For a more complete history on Toyo Miyatake, please click on this link: Toyo’s Camera.
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A recreated barrack stands alone on the desert sand beneath spectacular clouds.  These recreations were MUCH better made than the original barracks as the National Park Service had to build these to Code.  They even had fire alarms and exit signs. 🙂
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Inside of one of the re-created barracks. According to the National Park Service website, “Any combination of eight individuals was allotted a 20-by-25-foot room. An oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw were the only furnishings provided.”
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The backside of the memorial at the Manzanar cemetery. I would not have appreciated being buried in such a desert to be forgotten. On the other hand, many of those killed in action were never found as well.
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The slightly humid desert wind blows through my friend’s hair as we stand by the memorial erected in 1943 marking the cemetery.

Lastly, a recreation of a tag each individual had clipped on his/her person to be incarcerated.  While the Nazis tatoo’d ID numbers INTO the flesh of Jews, this tag served essentially the same purpose.  This one reflects Toyo Miyatake:

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We walked on the same sand that Aunt Shiz, Uncle John, Hiroshi, Bessie, Shozo and Roy walked on for 3-1/2 years.  We experienced the heat, although it was but 100F when we arrived there and partly cloudy.  The dust that got kicked up by the warm gusts did swirl around a bit as Aunt Shiz described.  My Subaru Outback was coated with that fine dust.  It was almost like the powder law enforcement uses to bring out latent fingerprints.  And perhaps it is TMI, but I did step inside a modern “port-a-potty” set up out in the desert.  Believe me…  it was hot and stuffy in there.  That will suffice.  But I think that they all endured that for all those years…  Unbelievable.

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As we drove home, my friend asked me how I felt.  I had mentioned to her I might shed a tear or two (from the dust, of course, as real men don’t cry) before we went.  After pondering her question, I answered, “Elated.”

Bizarre answer?  Perhaps.  But I was elated I got to slightly experience what they all did 70 years ago.  No, I did not have to sleep on straw mattresses in stifling cramped rooms nor eat prison-grade quality food at the beginning of incarceration.  Nor line up for chow or to take a shower… Nor have to fear .30 caliber Browning machine guns pointed at me…

But I did finally see that my aunt and uncle built their future upon what they had lost – and what they learned to be important for family – on these white sands of Manzanar.

72 thoughts on “Sands of Manzanar”

  1. That must have been a very moving experience. Horrible similarities to other forced incarcerations. Thankfully most survived but what must they have taken away with them from that long and pointless experience.

    1. In Europe, such forced incarcerations usually had death a commonplace. While two Manzanar Japanese-Americans were shot and killed by the military, there were (thank goodness) no gas showers. Still, they took with them strong feelings and will to make it in general.

  2. Koji thank you for an eye opening look. Not many of us know the different angles that apply to every story. Every event. You do an incredible job of showing us all of the story. I can’t begin to imagine what your family, and other Issei and Nisei’s went through. If only we would learn from such events and mistakes…..

    1. Alas, do we learn? And remember… Lincoln was Republican and FDR, a Democrat! But one thing is for sure: Aunt Shiz and Uncle John worked and worked hard for their living… They didn’t believe in entitlements!

  3. And, it wasn’t only FDR. William Randolph Hearst had been raised with Aryan ideals, the Mexican fruit workers admitted a lot of their push was for economic reasons to get the Japanese out of Calif. and another was Carew family buying up land – A very horrific part of U.S. history! These camps were a complete contradiction – we were fighting for freedom, but incarcerating our own.

      1. Well, FDR< Teddy & Hearst were like 3 peas in a pod – that's just how they were raised in the Ivy League schools. Keep going west to conquer and even if you're proven wrong. (eg. During a World's Fair, Teddy depicted Filipinos as wild natives.)

      2. A horrific story found in “The Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley; don’t think you would want to read that book – some heroes are truly shot down.

  4. I’ve often driven by the site Koji, and also stopped there. Each Time I am reminded of what we, as a nation, did. On another note… having just spent a week in the Nevada desert at Burning Man… I get the heat, dust, and port-a-pots. It is ever so hard to imagine being forced into those conditions and being surrounded by barbed wire. Thanks again for your thoughtful reminders of those terrible times. –Curt

  5. Ok now I understand your reply to my email! We must never forget Koji! Never ever! I know I will not! Thank you for this. BTW did you see the Quartermaster dishes they found there? Makes me wonder. From my dad’s reaction when I tried to speak to him about it I thought he may have been there. What a wonderful job they have done to preserve what we must not forget.

    1. Our time inside the hall was limited due to time! But Smitty just MAY have been there. The desert elements, searing sun, vandalism and time have done their job. Only remnants of such structures remain, one of which was in my color picture.

      Thank you for your time and thoughts!

  6. I am glad that there is someone finally telling the story of the American side – the atrocities committed by our own government under the guise of self-protection. It is these little ‘fragments’ of war that so often get lost in the shuffle and rewriting of history – for they are not “little” at all. They were people’s lives, and those of their children, and for many it did not end well. I’m glad your family came out of it, and you have undertaken the task of documenting it as best you can.

  7. Never underestimate the power of fear and ignorance to motivate ill-advised policy.

    Take a look at the Ebola situation now, where the reaction is all out of proportion to the actual risk compared with more common causes of death (flu, automobiles, handguns, etc. etc.), yet the politicians are turning it into political hay by doing the fearful and ignorant thing in response to the improbability of anyone actually catching the disease here in America.

    The main difference here is the inhumanity of the WWII policy and the decades of failure of this nation to address the financial and psychological damages done to one element of the population, thanks to fear and ignorance of the place the Japanese immigrants and their American-born children, grandchildren held in American life and their loyalty to this country.

    Look at the war records of Japanese Americans in WWII, many enlisting straight from the camps, and how they fought with great courage and honor, and every American should feel shame for how they and their families were treated.

    1. It is difficult for me to cast a political twist on this general event in our country’s history. There will always be opposing views on WHY they were imprisoned. But I did write about some interesting evidence in “What Did FDR Know”… and yes, many gave life and limb. One uncle was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart although he never, ever talked about it like many other combat veterans regardless of ethnicity. Thank you for reading and your good thoughts.

  8. Thank you for sharing some of your own personal journey and history. I think I understand that feeling of elation. Sometimes understanding…even if we understand how bad something is/was can make all the difference in how we feel about something.

  9. FDR must have been a remarkable man, for few among our 44 presidents have had the capacity to see inside men’s hearts and judge which of them pose a danger to America. The contrast between then and now is nothing if it is not astounding. Back then, there may have been a few Japanese-Americans who became traitors, but there were not very many and they certainly did not have the ability to cause widespread damage to the war effort. In contrast to this, we have Imams every single week who stand in their mosques and urge their membership to hate non-Muslims, and to rise up and kill them—and yet, nothing is done about that. Were I a Japanese American, I would be screaming foul! More than this, I would not be a Democrat.

    1. Let’s not get me going on that, Mustang! 🙂 And as you know, I am still dumbfounded as to why many of my dad’s generation and their children were Democrats when FDR stripped them of their rights and shoved them into prison if they couldn’t get away from the “exclusion zones”.

      As you write, there may have been a few Japanese or Japanese-Americans who went against the red, white and blue but relatively few. On the other hand, many Italians working the docks on the Atlantic were clear in their efforts to help the Axis… yet nothing was done en masse. U-Boats were just waiting for the ships knowing what was being transported to Europe.

      Perhaps Japanese-Americans should be screaming but because of 我慢 and 仕方が無い, they won’t. But maybe that may change, too, when Jihad hits home with greater frequency and violence. The POTUS is clearly dismissing such attacks as non-terrorist.

  10. Mustang, Thanks to gp for bringing many of us over here to your website! What a story to see first hand what suffering interment caused on a personal level. Phil from excuseusforliving.com

  11. Oh, Koji, this must be difficult for you but I do appreciate you sharing. Even though it was before my time, I’ve heard little bits and pieces that come about but it’s truly hard to fathom the extent this country went to and the suffering of so many innocents.

    1. It is not difficult; I accept what happened 70+ years ago. I certainly don’t condone it but I firmly believe it is the civilian that ultimately pays the price (other than the armed forces) when our “elected” officials pursue their own agenda. Thank you for reading! I just got back from my little girl’s dance competition – little girls can make so much noise! 🙂

  12. Whoever said that ignoance is bliss it’s folly to be wise were right about these so called leaders. Always the innocent made to suffer by the rich, powerful and usually racists leaders of socalled democracies, and dictatorships but it goes without saying really there.
    Thank you for the post not enjoyable, how can this be enjoyable, but compelling reading.

    1. I totally agree with your sentiment of the consequences of failed leadership… 100%. I have written earlier on how FDR ushered in war but the entire world was filled with leaders with personal agendas. Civilians (and the Armed Forces) suffered beyond belief.

  13. A very interesting and informative read, on a dark side of the treatment of American Japanese, it intrigues me in your statement,Manzanar internee Pfc Sadao Munemori – through his brave actions on the battlefield – was bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor.
    How could a soldier who served, become an internee ? seems odd.
    Was interesting to read of Toyo’s camera, a very resilient man.
    Ian

    1. I hope I didn’t confuse you, sir. I erred a tad. Munemori was in the US Army at the time of Pearl and but was relegated to menial duties. However, although he was already in the Army, his parents were forced into Manzanar. Interestingly, medals awarded posthumously to Nisei’s could not be given to their mothers in camp as they were classified as enemy aliens. Instead, they were presented to siblings who then presented them to their mother.

  14. Reblogged this on Lineage Hunter and commented:
    This is important to remember. We must not forget the inhumanity we have forced on others. It colors our history in ways we don’t realize. There is a distinct lack of truth in the teaching of history. It seems the actors, sports figures and the plain notorious are the “famous Americans”. We neglect the painful, shameful things like those in this reblogged post, as well as our treatment of the Native Americans, the German-Americans who were interred and other injustices our nation has perpetrated. As a genealogist history and the truth are greatly important in understanding the lives and actions of our ancestors.

  15. Don’t kid yourself, real men do cry. That was powerful… I am speechless. You hear about the interment camps but you don’t see much about them. It’s like a dirty little secret in America that pops up now and then. As I read I thought of the Jews and what they suffered in Europe… it take my breath away. The photos are beautiful; I am happy for you that you made the pilgrimage to see and touch those buildings and see the museum. Your writing brought it to life for readers – thank you.

    And your precious children.. it is good that you took them with you. ❤

  16. Thanks for sharing this very well composed post. Love it and can’t believe it took me this long to find, given all of the previous threads I’ve read, along with your flickr stream. I need to make it out here.

    1. Thank you, Emura-san. If you visit and stop at the cemetery then look at the mountains, you will feel a deep sense of loneliness. Thank you for stopping by and reading this story!

  17. Another awesome post, Koji-san. Very heartfelt and filled with history many don’t know enough about. Your photos and personal family stories help us all to see through the internees’ eyes. And wow! Toyo Miyatake is a good friend? I learn more about you with every post!

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