Times Past

Manzanar relocation camp: ugliness surrounded by beauty

A guard tower left from World War II at Manzanar National Historic Site.
A guard tower left from World War II at Manzanar National Historic Site. Courtesy photo

To my mind, it’s one of the most starkly beautiful sights on earth.

In the background, Mount Whitney forms a curtain of the southern Sierra Nevada. In the foreground are the twisted and contorted Alabama Hills, which became the setting for hundreds of Hollywood “shoot-um-ups” culminating in the 1939 paean to the British Empire in danger of collapse, “Gunga Din.”

Because of its relative isolation, along with access to Highway 395 and a railroad connection to Los Angeles, Owens Valley was an ideal location for Manzanar War Relocation Camp, one of 10 camps where Japanese Americans were held during World War II.

At the end of the war, my father’s medical doctor ordered him to take some time off from management of an aircraft factory. The eastern Sierra Nevada provided access to superb fly fishing. For a 5-year-old, the drive to Mammoth Lakes offered a chance to, however briefly, stand near some of the best six-gun play of Tom Mix and William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

My grandmother wanted me to know something about the “other history” of the area. Up through the early 1900s, Manzanar had been a fairly prosperous apple orchard. When Los Angeles’ Owens Valley Water Project diverted its supply of the Sierra snowpack, the land became a high desert characterized by frequent sandstorms.

The last remaining internees had left the camp just months before my family’s visit. A good deal of the camp’s infrastructure had vanished. When we’d ask questions, the U.S. Forestry Service, which had taken over the Manzanar Fire Station, said, “we don’t talk about those things anymore.”

Residents of the nearby town of Independence were still more secretive.

It was only through my friendship with a classmate who had been at Manzanar that I got to understand how he and other Japanese-Americans found the cramped living conditions, badly prepared food, unfinished barracks and swirling dust that blew in through every crack and knothole.

Shiro summed it up by saying, “on some days the camp’s setting was beautiful, but we knew from looking at the guard towers that it wasn’t intended to be a picnic.”

It 1973, I was asked to teach California history. Gene Smith, the chair of the Cal Poly history department, handed me a copy of “Farewell to Manzanar,” a recently published memoir by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. It graphically confirmed everything that Shiro had taught me nearly 30 years earlier.

Gene Smith was the son of Methodist missionaries, born in Nagasaki, Japan. His father had worked for the War Relocation Authority through his Methodist ministry. The wartime correspondence of the Rev. Frank Herron Smith is an important resource in Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library Special Collections Department.

Rev. Smith’s letters of complaint concerning conditions at Manzanar to federal officials anticipated the national movement for Japanese-American redress in the 1980s.

Today, Manzanar is a National Historic Park. A few miles south along Highway 395, the Lone Pine Film History Museum welcomes people interested in the California motion picture industry. To the east, Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest is a key site for the study of nearby Native American petroglyphs. This, combined with the Harmony Borax Works and Death Valley, provides a view of part of California seldom visited by those of us on the Central Coast.

I hope that readers will join me and the Mission San Luis Obispo Museum Docents in a trip to California’s eastern horizon on April 20-22. Reservations are available through Silver Bay Tours, (805) 772-3409.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.