Hawaiian hula dancers and a portion of the Ala Kahakia Trail on the Island of Hawai'i
Hawaiian hula dancers and a portion of the Ala Kahakai Trail on the Island of Hawai'i
Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Manzanar National Historic Site
Independence, California
 
White concrete obelisk with Japanese inscriptions I Rei To (the soul-consoling tower), built in 1943,
commemorates the 150 people who died while
incarcerated at Manzanar. Most of those were
cremated, but of the 15 burials, six remain.
Photograph by Tom Walker,
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Manzanar National Historic Site, located in the Owens Valley near Independence, California, preserves and interprets Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of 10 relocation centers throughout the United States built to confine people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast during World War II.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, leading to the United States' entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal of people of Japanese ancestry from these areas. Although the President and the War Department contended at the time that the forced removal was necessary for military reasons, in 1982 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found that to be false. The commission’s report, Personal Justice Denied, states that rather than military necessity, “The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and apologized to people of Japanese ancestry, saying “here, we admit a wrong.” The Act authorized redress of $20,000 to any Japanese American who had been incarcerated during World War II.

In March 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency responsible for the construction and administration of confinement centers throughout the United States. The U.S. military supported Executive Order 9066 by assembling and transporting some 120,000 Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens to 10 inland War Relocation Centers across the nation.

Also in March, the U.S. Army leased 6,200 acres in California's Owens Valley to establish the Owens Valley Reception Center, renaming it Manzanar Relocation Center several months later. Manzanar was the first war relocation center established and after the land was leased, the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast was begun. With little notice, they were told to gather their belongings and decide what to do with their homes, businesses, and other possessions. As Manzanar internee William Hohri recalled, "We had about one week to dispose of what we owned, except what we could pack and carry for our departure by bus." Everything else they either sold or left with friends or religious groups. Those who were unable to sell or rent their homes had to abandon their properties and hope for a quick return.

Historic photograph of rows of one-story Manzanar barracks and roads Road and rows of one-story barracks
at Manzanar viewed from a guard tower
Photograph by Ansel Adams
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By October, the forced removal of 10,000 people to Manzanar was complete. About two-thirds of all Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar were American citizens by birth. The remainder were resident aliens, many of whom had lived in the United States for decades, but who, by law, were denied citizenship.

Manzanar was a 640-acre rectangular lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence and eight guard towers. Today, a replica guard tower stands just outside the replacement barbed wire fence. On 5,560 acres outside the fence, the WRA built housing for military police, a reservoir, a sewage treatment plant, agricultural fields, and a cemetery. Now, only the cemetery, sentry posts, and part of the water reservoir remain.

Inside the barbed wire fence, Manzanar consisted of 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. Each of the blocks had 14 barracks divided into four or five apartments, with no indoor plumbing. Down the center of each block were a men’s communal shower and toilets, women’s communal shower and toilets, a laundry room, and an ironing room. A mess hall and recreation building completed the block. About 200 to 400 people resided in each block. Each barracks apartment was furnished with a stove, a hanging light bulb, blankets, and straw mattresses. Today, Block 14 has two reconstructed barracks and a mess hall with exhibits; many of the other foundations are still visible. The Visitor Center is in the 1944 high school auditorium. Two stone sentry posts, built by concrete mason Ryozo Kado during the war, stand at the historic entrance.

Historic photograph of school children standing in rows and performing exercises. School children at Manzanar practicing calisthenics
Photograph by Ansel Adams
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Within the barbed-wire residential area, people at Manzanar attended school, participated in church services (in recreation halls designated as Buddhist, Catholic, or Christian churches), formed social organizations, and established sports leagues. They played music, danced, planted gardens and orchards, built rock gardens and ponds – 12 of which have been excavated – and published the Manzanar Free Press. Manzanar functioned like a town, with people working daily in a variety of professions such as doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and teachers. The largest employer was the mess hall operation.

While life in Manzanar was generally peaceful there were incidences of unrest, most notably what came to be called the “Manzanar Riot.” In December of 1942, six masked men attacked a suspected FBI informant, former Japanese American Citizens League leader Fred Tayama. Tayama identified one of the attackers, who was then arrested and removed from Manzanar. The next day, hundreds of people gathered and marched to the administration area to protest the arrest. After negotiating with the camp administration, the crowd dispersed and the suspect was returned to Manzanar's jail. That evening, several hundred men and boys returned to the camp jail to demand the suspect’s release. The camp director called in the military police. When the crowd refused to disperse, the military police threw tear gas and then opened fire. Two men were killed and nine wounded. The War Relocation Authority removed the suspected leaders of the “riot” from Manzanar and sent them to Isolation Centers in former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps.

Many of the people incarcerated at Manzanar helped with the war effort to prove their loyalty to the United States. After Japan cut off America's rubber supply, scientists at Manzanar began working on finding alternative sources of rubber. Under the guidance of Dr. Robert Emerson, they experimented with guayule, a desert plant, and were able to successfully extract rubber from its woody components. This was one of many jobs the Japanese Americans performed to support the war effort. Eventually they were able to demonstrate their patriotism fully when the U.S. military allowed Japanese Americans to be drafted.

Dogtag for Jack E. Wakamatsu Jack Wakamatsu who served in the US Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Wakamatsu's family was interned in Manzanar during the war. By the end of the war, nearly 26,000 Japanese
Americans from all relocation centers had
served in the U.S armed forces.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

At the end of the war, nearly 26,000 Japanese Americans from all camps had served in the U.S. armed forces. Of those who enlisted, 9,486 died fighting for their country. Sadao Munemori, whose parents were confined at Manzanar, died while fighting in Italy and was the only Japanese American to be awarded the Medal of Honor immediately following World War II. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian awards, to the Japanese Americans who served in World War II.

When the war was over, the U.S. government closed all the relocation centers, and Manzanar was officially shut down on November 21, 1945. The barracks and other wooden buildings were sold as war surplus; some still can be seen throughout the Owens Valley. Today, Manzanar National Historic Site is one of the best preserved of the War Relocation Centers and provides great insight into the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II.

At the site, visitors can begin their tour at the restored auditorium, where the Manzanar Visitor Center and bookstore are located. Here, 8,000 square feet of exhibits tell the history of Manzanar and some of the diverse stories of Japanese Americans who were confined during World War II. Visitors can learn about the highlights of Manzanar's history, including stories of the Owens Valley Paiute Indians, miners and homesteaders from Scotland, France, Mexico and Chile, and the apple orchard community for which the area of Manzanar (Spanish for apple orchard) is named.

Replica of an historic guard tower located along the perimeter fence at Manzanar Replica of an historic guard tower built in 2005
at Manzanar National Historic Site
Photograph by Gmatsuda, 2007, Wikimedia

The exhibits include photographs, artifacts, and a large-scale model of the Manzanar War Relocation Center as it looked during during World War II. Visitors can also see a list of the names of the more than 11,000 Japanese Americans confined at Manzanar. Next to the visitor center is Block 14 where visitors will find two reconstructed barracks and a mess hall with exhibits.

Manzanar's cemetery is on the west side of the site, about a mile from the Visitor Center. The cemetery monument is a white obelisk with an inscription in Japanese that translates as "Soul Consoling Tower." One hundred fifty Japanese Americans died while at Manzanar, but most were cremated. Of the fifteen people buried there, only six remain.

Beyond the Visitor Center, visitors may take a 3.2-mile self-guided auto tour past the sentry posts, camp auditorium, ruins of the administrative complex, concrete foundations of many types, rock gardens, portions of the water system, a replica of a guard tower, and the cemetery. On foot, visitors may tour recent excavations of the Japanese American gardens and ponds as well as Merritt Park, the center's community garden. Visitors may also explore the chicken ranch, historic orchards where visitors may sample and pick the fruit in season; and other structures not visible on the main auto tour road.

Plan your visit

Manzanar National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located 9 miles north of Lone Pine, CA and 6 miles south of Independence, CA on the west side of U.S. Highway 395. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The park grounds are open daily from dawn until dusk. The Visitor Center is open daily except for December 25. For more information, visit the Manzanar National Historic Site website or call 760-878-2194, ext. 3310.

Manzanar National Historic Site is featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary. The site is also the subject of an online lesson plan, The War Relocation Centers of World War II: When Fear was Stronger than Justice. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service's Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. Manzanar Relocation Center is featured in the National Historic Landmark Theme Study Japanese Americans in World War II.

The National Park Service’s Museum Management Program provides a Virtual Museum Exhibit and two lesson plans on Manzanar National Historic Site: Traveling Beads: American Indian Currency and The Language of Confinement: Writing from Manzanar.

Many components of Manzanar National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, including: the Military Police Post, Owens Valley, Observation Tower, Merritt Park, Rock House, Garden, Chicken Ranch, Hospital, Internal Police Post, Cemetery, Reservoir, and Auditorium.

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