Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Manzanar Prison Camp




Although the U.S. government called Manzanar a "War Relocation Center", the people ordered to vacate their homes, close their businesses and move here during the interim of World War II "for their own safety", called it for what it was--a prison camp.  Manzanar, located in a remote area of central California, was a 5,000 acre tract of land surrounded by barbed wire.  It had sentry posts and military guards.   Even if you escaped the camp (which no one attempted), crossing the High Sierras to the west or the vast Mojave desert to the east would have been certain death.

Thousands of Japanese Americans had to wait the war out within these barbed wire communities.   They must have lived in fear and uncertainty on a daily basis.  Women wept as they got off those buses and saw the barracks.  Young men were confused and finally, humiliated.  And yet, as the years ticked by, this prison camp grew into a community of people struggling to make the best of things.  Schools, factories, shops, mess halls, hospitals and churches were all constructed.  Ornamental gardens and ponds were designed and helped alleviate dust and create a semblance of beauty in a world gone mad with paranoia.

Manzanar is now a National Historic Site and is hauntingly beautiful.  A museum is housed in the original recreation center, but most of the camp buildings are gone with only foundations left.  An excellent documentary entitled "Remembering Manzanar" is shown in the theater every thirty minutes and there are many exhibits about the government's relocation policies.  The most moving exhibits, however, are the personal ones-- the artifacts belonging to the people who lived here and the stories surrounding them. 

Be sure to take the 3-mile self-guided tour, which circles the site.  The large concrete obelisk in the cemetery is a memorial to the 150 internees who died here.  Its Japanese Kanji characters read "Soul Consoling Tower" on the front and "Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943" on the back.  Thousands of Americans come here every year to reflect and worship at this memorial.   Many are of Japanese ancestry, but many, like me, are not. 

 I thought of my father--a young man pulled out of a Midwestern college to serve on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.  He had never seen the ocean before and being on a ship at sea was a frightening experience.  "But the idea of  killing a man was unthinkable.  And yet that's what we had to do," he confided in me once.  "We were taught to hate the Japanese.  It was the only way we could pull that trigger."    

It made me understand the injustice done here, but not to condone it.  I left this place feeling a little sad.  War.  Hatred.  Intolerance.  When will it ever stop?


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