We left Alamo, Nevada, on October 21, 2020, with Bishop California as our destination. Welcome to the smoky Eastern Sierras. When I made the reservations, the dirty air had not yet filled the Owens Valley with ash and smoke that obliterated the mountains from sight.
The only spot I could find in Bishop was at the Inyo County Fairgrounds. The best part about the campground was the high-speed Wi-Fi connection, which allowed us to stream Netflix. We treated ourselves to dinner out on the patio of Whiskey Creek Restaurant, a place we sometimes visited when passing through town on our way to or from Mammoth Lakes decades ago.
The next morning, the air quality was worse, reducing visibility to about a quarter mile. Lone Pine’s air quality wasn’t as bad, so we headed south to see Manzanar National Historic Site. We had driven by the property for years when all we could see was a gate, fence, and a sign listing it as a historic landmark. We were eager to find out what was behind the fence.
A driving tour took us around the camp where there were places to park and explore different sites with information panels to tell us what we were looking at. Only a few buildings had doors open that we could peek into but not enter.
In reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. The order authorized the Secretary of War to remove individuals deemed a threat to the war effort for relocation at one of 10 centers in seven states around the country.
It turned out the threatening individuals were 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Whether they were American citizens by birth or lived in the country for decades, they entered the camps with only a small amount of what they had owned.
Manzanar was not one of those fancy summer camps near a lake. Military police manned eight guard towers with searchlights and patrolled a barbed wire fence that enclosed a 500-acre housing section comprising 504 barracks arrayed into 36 blocks. The remaining 5,500 acres outside of the fence included housing for military police, a reservoir, a sewage treatment plant, and agricultural fields.
Several Japanese American men and women arrived in Manzanar in March 1942 as volunteers to help the Army build the camp. It was the first camp to open. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) took over operations on June 1.
Around 10,000 Japanese American internees occupied the camp by September 1942. Imagine the disappointment on their faces as they descended the bus steps and encountered 110-degree weather. Carrying their meager belongings, they walked along paths, sand filling their shoes.
When they reached their assigned barrack, they found it divided into four 20-by-25-foot rooms to be shared by eight individuals. The only furnishings included an oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and straw-filled mattresses. Families shared a laundry room and mess hall and endured communal toilets and showers lacking any kind of privacy.
As if the hot temperatures weren’t enough, the weather dropped below freezing during the winter months. During the year, the internees dealt with strong winds blowing dust and sand through the camp and into the barracks and up through the floorboards.
I admire the way the Japanese Americans managed during their incarceration. With ingenuity and cooperation, they established boys and girls clubs, churches, and temples. They built gardens and ponds, developed recreational activities, sports, music, and dance, and even published the Manzanar Free Press, a newspaper, even though the people were not free. Growing vegetables and raising chickens, hogs, and cattle were among their enterprises. Through the pooling of resources they operated a general store, beauty parlor, barbershop, and a bank.
The way the Japanese Americans prospered under such an oppressive situation impressed on me how we humans are a resilient lot able to overcome adversity.
World War II ended with Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945. Manzanar War Relocation Center closed on November 21, 1945. In 1972, California established Manzanar as a California Registered Historical Landmark. It became a National Historic Site on March 3, 1992, and the interpretive center opened on April 24, 2004.
I’m embarrassed when I learn how our country has mistreated groups of people during our history. Places like Manzanar National Historic Site tell the stories of what happened there, what people endured, and how they survived and thrived. They bring light to the darkness of those days to future generations who hopefully avoid a repeat of our misguided actions.
Stay tuned for more Bishop, California, fun coming up next.