In Spanish, Manzanar means apple orchard. The Manazanar that we visited near Lone Pine, California was at one time an apple orchard, but that was not why it was famous or rather infamous. This Manzanar was one of the largest relocation camps for people of Japanese descent during World War II.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order mandating the encampment of all Japanese people away from the west coast of the United States. There was fear that the Japanese Empire would attempt a military strike against the US west coast and that people of Japanese descent might help in some way to facilitate that attack.
A series of internment camps were quickly built generally east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The buildings were essentially barracks with tar paper exteriors. Showers, toilets, laundry facilities, and mess halls were all community buildings. Manzanar housed about 10,000 displaced people out of the 110,000 in total that were interned. The displaced Japanese were given only days of notice of their relocation. They were only allowed to take the barest of essentials – basically clothing. They had to sell off or dispose of all their other worldly possessions, often at pennies on the dollar of their value. Until they arrived, the Japanese did not realize their encampment was going to to be surround by barbed wire and guard towers. Over 60% of those interned were American Citizens.
Life in Manzanar was very difficult. Daytime temperatures could be scorching. Nights and Winters were cold. As we can attest, the winds in Manzanar whip down and off the mountains and are ever present and are always blowing the dust of the valley. There is an on site cemetery at Manzanar. About 150 died at the camp during its existence.
The people in the camps worked there, some in vegetable gardens, some in the mess, and many in small onsite factories building camouflage netting for the war effort. There was school for the children and sports team, but they had to play all their games at “home” as they were not allowed to travel outside the camp.
Manzanar operated for three years from 1942 to 1945. As internees were released, they were given $25 and a transportation ticket, but they could not return to the west coast or their former homes and businesses.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into Law an Act that provided for a formal apology and a $20,000 reparations payment to each surviving detained.