Manzanar National Historic Site, Cal

Visit Date: October 09, 2015

One Camp, Ten Thousand Lives; One Camp, Ten Thousand Stories

In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.

I had the opportunity to visit Manzanar on a recent roadtrip, and although it seems like there isn't much to see or learn from the almost "wiped-clean" relocation center, that is not the case. No matter where I went, the sense of history and the "ten thousand stories" seemed to resonate with me. Everywhere I looked, there were remnants of people's lives scattered about the location, but not in obvious ways. The thing that grabbed my attention the most were the remains of all the gardens that the camp inhabitants created, to make their temporary home a beautiful place.

There's no way this post can even begin to tell the story about Manzanar, but there is a lot of information online available for those wishing to learn more. Start with the NPS website, click HERE.

The first thing to do is stop at the Visitor Center and watch the 22-minute film. Then go out and explore the two reconstructed barracks, drive the 3.2-mile auto tour to see the remnants of orchards, rock gardens and ponds, building foundations, the camp cemetery, the reservoir system and the chicken ranch.

Here are some of the things I saw as I drove along the tour. It's easy to spot something and then spend 30 minutes wandering about an old building foundation or rock garden. Plan to take your time when you visit.

This is the historic entrance to Manzanar. These two stone buildings would have housed the check-in personnel and the military police.

Only a few stone walls, foundations and scattered cement steps mark the area which once held staff housing.

The administration buildings were located near the front gate.

The auto tour road basically circles the camp, in a counter-clockwise rotation. Each of the signs in this picture mark the site of a "Block," the former site of one of the long wooden barracks that were home to the inhabitants of Manzanar.

Two barracks have been rebuilt and now house displays and exhibits, showing what it was like in 1944.

The site of the baseball field.

Water was supplied to the camp by a large system of reservoirs and canals.

Throughout the camp are many gardens, with rock sculptures and pools, with cement paths. If you watch the movie at the visitor center, you'll see how beautiful they were.

An image from the Library of Congress of one of the Gardens, taken in 1943.

All those cement blocks that dot the landscape were once foundations for the barracks.

At the halfway point of the auto tour, at the back of the camp, is the cemetery. On May 16, 1942, Matsunosuke Murakami, 62, became the first of 150 men, women and children to die in camp. He and 14 others were laid to rest in this cemetery outside the barbed wire fence in an old peach orchard. Most of the others who died in camp were cremated and their ashes held in camp until their families left Manzanar. Today, only six graves remain, including Matsunosuke Murakami.

From this point, separate roads lead to the water reservoir area and the site of the chicken ranch. The reservoir is towards the north, the chicken ranch to the south.

An image from the Library of Congress showing the reservoir filled, taken in 1943.

At numerous places along the reservoir, workers inscribed their names into the wet cement. Bottle caps were also pushed into the cement at different spots and in different configurations.

This is the site of the Manzanar Chicken Ranch. At one time, there were a lot of buildings here.

Poultry farm, Mori Nakashima, Library of Congress. Taken in 1943.

Each of those cement foundations once held a chicken coop.

Back inside the camp boundaries, this was the Japanese Garden of the Block 12 Mess Hall.

The Block Nine Mess Hall Garden.

Back at the entrance, looking out to the main road.

Manzanar is open from dawn to dusk and is a must-see. Do try to visit while the visitor center is open, as there is a lot of information available inside. 

Here are a few more vintage photos from the Library of Congress.

June 1942 - Ichiro Okumura, 22, from Venice, Calif., thinning young plants in a 2-acre field of white radishes.

Sumiko Shigematsu, foreman of power sewing machine girls

Mrs. Yaeko Nakamura and family buying toys with Fred Moriguchi

Five boys huddled around a book.