Historic Resource Study/Special History Study
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In March 1942, a site in Owens Valley, approximately five miles south of Independence, California, was selected by the U. S. Army for establishment of a reception or assembly center for persons of Japanese descent who were to be evacuated from the west coast. Located on lands that had been settled by a fruit-growing community known as Manzanar during the early 20th century, this site would become known as the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Although this site's historical significance is based primarily on the events that occurred here during World War II, the historical development of the Manzanar vicinity and Owens Valley provide insights into the settlement and growth of a little-known chapter in eastern California history.


Two principal sources provide explanations for the military's decision to locate a reception or relocation center in the Owens Valley in March 1942. The first is the Project Director's Report, prepared in February 1946 by two men who would play influential roles in the development and operation of Manzanar. The two men were Robert L. Brown, who became reports officer at Manzanar on March 15, 1942, and later served as assistant project director at the relocation center from January 1943 to February 1946, and Ralph P Merritt, who served as project director at Manzanar from November 24, 1942, until the center closed on November 21, 1945. [1] The second source is a report written in early April 1942 by Milton E. Silverman, a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who was given a 60-day assignment by the Western Defense Command to investigate the relocation center operations of the Wartime Civil Control Commission. [2] Although the two reports offer some conflicting viewpoints on the events surrounding the Manzanar site selection, they corroborate each other in the essential details of the decision.

The Brown and Merritt report noted that the Manzanar site was located in Inyo County in the Owens River Valley, approximately 230 miles north of Los Angeles. A "long, narrow, semi-arid valley bounded on the west by the towering Sierra Nevada mountains and on the east by the colorful, but not quite-so-high Inyo mountains," Owens Valley had "a colorful history having been the scene of one of the great 'water-wars' of the West."

In the early years of the 20th century, the City of Los Angeles "in its quest for water turned to the steams flowing down the eastern slopes of the Sierra" in Owens Valley and "conceived and built a 230 mile aqueduct to carry these waters to its rapidly expanding boundaries." During the next two decades, Los Angeles, through its Department of Water and Power (LADWP), purchased "most of the land in the Owens Valley to protect this source of water [i.e., the water rights], and, as a consequence. forced most of the land to revert back to semi-arid desert land." "A few cattle and sheep men were given grazing leases, the farmers moved away, and the towns shrank to semi-ghost towns."

In the 1930s, "with the advent of better roads and increased population in Southern California," however, Owens Valley "began to be visited by vacationists looking for recreation spots during the summer months)." This "early trickle" of tourists "kept the towns from complete annihilation, and pumped new hope into the veins of the merchants who had refused to leave." "New leadership," according to Brown and Merritt, "began to focus the spotlight of national publicity on the injustices perpetrated by the City of Los Angeles." During the late 1930s, a "great wave of interest in Inyo and the Valley swept California" as tourists "flocked to the high mountains, the towns prospered, Los Angeles sold back some of the town property, and leased some ranches for farming." Owens Valley was again in the public eye and on the 'uphill' grade."

One of the supporters of the "new development" of Owens Valley was Manchester Boddy, influential publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News. Boddy was also a friend "of the Roosevelt Administration," and as such "his advice was often sought by the Administration on matters of national importance affecting the Pacific Coast." It was "by no strange coincidence," according to Brown and Merritt, that "when the publisher was asked for help and advice by the Administration on the handling of projected evacuation of citizen and alien Japanese," he "was the first to suggest their evacuation to the Owens Valley." Aware of the "plans outlined by a citizen group in the Valley aimed at developing a stronger economic position for the residents," Boddy also "knew the Japanese and shared none of the fears of the 'Yellow Peril' decried so loudly in front page banners" by the Hearst newspapers. Knowing "the temper of the California 'public,'" Boddy agreed "to aid the Administration in laying the groundwork for an orderly evacuation of the Japanese by the Army, and an orderly reception of them where they were sent)."

On February 21, 1942, two days after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Glenn Desmond, the public relations director of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, called Brown, executive secretary and public relations director of the Inyo-Mono Associates (today known simply as Inyo Associates) organization that was promoting the valley's economic development through tourism, requesting that he travel to Los Angeles "for an off-the-record talk" with Boddy "on a matter of great importance." On February 26 Boddy told Brown and Desmond "that the Army had already decided on the Owens Valley as one place of 'detention' for as many perhaps, as 50,000 Japanese." He asked for suggestions on "handling the delicate relationship between the Army, the Department of Justice, the City of Los Angeles and the people of the Owens Valley." At the request of Attorney General Biddle, Boddy introduced the two public relations men to Thomas C. Clark, who had just been named by General DeWitt as Alien Control Coordinator and head of the civilian staff of the WCCA with responsibility for working out the preliminary organization of the evacuation. Evidently on Brown's advice, Clark chose to work with a citizens' committee that Brown would select. [3]

Following the meeting Brown returned to Owens Valley, enlisting the aid of some of its leading citizens. Among the individuals that agreed to aid in the endeavor were Merritt, a "rancher" near Independence and chairman of the committee on relations with the City of Los Angeles who was representing the people of Owens Valley in their discussions with the city "over land and Water." Merritt, who would serve as project director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center from November 1942 until its closure in November 1945, was a gifted agricultural organizer with a lengthy career in business, politics, and agricultural development. Since Merritt would play a significant role in pre-World War II Owens Valley history as well as the development and operation of the war relocation center at Manzanar, it is appropriate that his career, especially his relationship with the Japanese government, be examined.

Merritt was born in 1883 on a cattle ranch along the Sacramento River in Rio Vista, California. After growing up in Oakland, Merritt entered the University of California, Berkeley, in 1902. He dropped out of school after his freshman year to work as a cowpuncher for Miller and Lux, a large livestock concern with extensive landholdings in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Merritt reentered the University of California in 1904, becoming student body president in 1906 and graduating from the College of Agriculture in 1907. After graduation he served as secretary to the president of the university for several years, and in 1909 he was elected graduate manager of athletics. During 1911-13 Merritt served as vice president and general manager for Miller and Lux. By that time the company had acquired approximately 10,000,000 acres of land on which it raised some 600,000 cattle and more than 1,000,000 sheep. It owned a number of meat packing plants and was the largest distributor of meat and meat products in northern California. Merritt served as the University of California's first comptroller from 1912-17, organizing its business operations and properties and overseeing building expansion on the Berkeley campus. In 1917 he was appointed adjutant general of California, becoming chairman of the first civilian draft board in the state to oversee the draft during World War I. That same year Herbert C. Hoover, federal food administrator, appointed Merritt as food administrator for California, and in that capacity he was responsible for the state agricultural program and development of food supplies needed by the government. Merritt became a close friend of Hoover, working with him in the widely-heralded operation of Belgian relief. In 1919 Merritt returned to the University of California as its comptroller and served on the administrative board of the institution. In 1920 Merritt left the university to campaign for Hoover's presidential campaign After Warren G. Harding was elected President of the United States in 1920, Merritt opened a consulting and property management business in San Francisco. He purchased 1,200 acres near Wasco in Kern County to develop a commercial cotton-growing demonstration project. During the early 1920s, Merritt continued to be associated with the University of California, serving as its chairman of endowments and as its acting chairman of the Grounds and Buildings Committee. In the latter capacity, he supervised the first construction on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1919 he became the director of the California Development Board, which would later become the California State Chamber of Commerce in 1929, and from 1925-28 he served as director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the 1920s, Merritt also served as chairman of the first statewide water committee, playing a leading role in the Central Valley Project that developed a dependable water supply for the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Other responsibilities of his during the 1920s included taking an active part in the campaign to reapportion the state legislature and serving as a member of the Bay Bridge Committee in San Francisco. In this latter capacity, he worked with Secretary of Commerce Hoover to lay the groundwork for the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Appointed to a federal agricultural committee by President Calvin Coolidge in the early 1920s, he worked with the War Finance Corporation to alleviate the crisis in sheep prices and with banking institutions to solve problems associated with marketing farm products. He became a leader in the field of cooperative marketing of agricultural products, helping to establish the California Rice Growers' Association and serving as its president during 1922-23.

In the latter year Merritt became president of the Sun Maid Raisin Growers' Association, a Fresno-based farm cooperative that stirred controversy in the San Joaquin Valley. He soon faced charges of violating anti-trust laws, but, as a result of his contacts with Harding administration officials, the indictment was dropped. He was with the Harding party during the president's last illness and death in San Francisco and helped with arrangements for removal of the president's body to Washington for funeral services. In 1924 Merritt and his wife went to the Orient to open markets for Sun Maid raisins in China, Japan, and the Philippines. During his visit the Japanese government proposed to award him with a medal and other honors "for having saved Japan at the time of its rice riots because the advent of the California rice into the Japanese market had quieted the rice riots and returned the people to a feeling that their kind of rice would be forthcoming." Although he declined the honors, Merritt developed significant relationships with Japanese government officials on the trip. While visiting Tokyo, word was received that the U.S. Congress had passed the Immigration Act of 1924 barring further Japanese immigration to the United States. In the wake of this announcement, violent anti-American demonstrations broke out as angry Japanese took to the streets. Merritt spoke to the crowds, promising to attempt changing the legislation if they would stop the demonstrations. Merritt would later say that this incident "began my interest in the Japanese people and my interest in trying to get this Exclusion Law and the [California] Anti-Alien land law stricken from our statutes. It finally led me to my part in the War Relocation Authority and being Director of Manzanar in World War II, the Presidency of the Japan America Society in Los Angeles in 1951, and my friendship with Crown Prince Akahito."

During the mid-1920s, Merritt purchased a vineyard outside Fresno to demonstrate his belief that vineyards should be removed and replaced by other crops to reduce the surplus of grapes and thus raise their "price" in domestic and foreign markets. The Sun Maid Raisin Growers' Association went bankrupt in 1928 and was taken over by its creditor banks. Following the financial collapse of Sun Maid, he went to Europe, broken in health, spirit, and finances. After his return, he worked with grape growers for a period, but soon suffered a severe attack of pneumonia. Merritt had relatives in eastern California, and had maintained a long-time close friendship with descendents of John Shepherd who in 1864 had homesteaded the land that would later form a portion of the Manzanar War Relocation Center site. Thus, Merritt retreated to Death Valley to recuperate under doctor's care in the early 1930s, later buying a ranch and establishing his home near Big Pine in Owens Valley. A long-time friend of Horace M. Albright who served as Director of the National Park Service from 1929-33, Merritt played a pivotal role in the effort to have President Hoover issue an executive order establishing Death Valley National Monument on February 11, 1933. Merritt began to speculate in silver and lead mining ventures in the Death Valley area and purchased additional ranch lands in the vicinity of Yerington in western Nevada. In 1937 he helped to found the Inyo-Mono Associates. [4]

Other persons in addition to Merritt that Brown contacted included George W. Savage, a resident of Independence and owner of the Chalfant Press which published the three major Owens Valley newspapers; Douglas Joseph, a Bishop merchant and president of Inyo-Mono Associates; R. R. Henderson, a lumber company owner in Lone Pine and chairman of the Inyo County Evacuation Committee; Inyo County Superior Court Judge William Dehy, one of the county's most respected citizens and a leader in the valley's resistance to the Los Angeles aqueduct during the 1920s; Dr. Howard Dueker, a medical doctor in Lone Pine, president of the Lone Pine Lions Club, and spokesman for medical aid and sanitation in Inyo County; and George Francis, a resident of Independence and District Attorney for Inyo County. These men, according to the Brown and Merritt report, "all saw the [Japanese relocation] program as a beneficial one to the area, but all of them also saw the difficulties ahead in handling public reaction." [5]

This "ad hoc" committee with Merritt as chairman was "asked unofficially" by Clark "to draw up a program for the Japanese which would be beneficial to the Valley" He also requested that they "aid the military in selecting a site" and "give advice to the military and to his office on the best and most timely way of informing the people of the Valley of the coming influx of people."

On February 27 Merritt and Brown, along with an Inyo County supervisor, accompanied "officers from the U. S. [Corps of] Engineers on a detailed tour of the Valley" during which several sites, including locations near Olancha and Bishop and one on the east side of the valley, were inspected. According to Brown and Merritt, the engineers selected a site on the west side of the valley between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine, primarily because of its relatively level ground and the water available from several streams which ran down from the Sierra Nevada. The location selected was the site of John Shepherd's 1864 homestead and of an early 20th century "irrigation colony" known as Manzanar, where portions of the drainage system and concrete conduits George Chaffey constructed were still in place. [6] In his report, Silverman stated that the military selected the site "because of its distance from any vital defense project (except the Los Angeles aqueduct), its relative inaccessibility, the ease with which it could be policed, and its general geography" The following day a first draft of a detailed plan "for the use of the Japanese and methods of handling public relations" was presented to Clark. [7]

A preliminary report on the Manzanar site was prepared on February 28 by Colonel Bendetsen and Lieutenant Colonel I.K. Evans but was not made public. [8] Confusion and controversy developed on February 28 when personnel of the Corps of Engineers "without consulting Clark on any method of approach on the delicate matter of public reaction, called on [H. A. Van Norman] the Chief Engineer of the Department of Water and Power." To "his utter consternation," according to Brown and Merritt, the military officials "demanded a lease on Department of Water and Power land in the Owens Valley amounting to 8,000 acres, for a 'prison camp' for 'Japs'!" Refusing the request, the chief engineer "started immediately to use his own influence in Washington to counteract any idea of the Army to use City-owned lands to house evacuated 'Japs'." Instead, he attempted to convince the Army that a site near Parker, Arizona, should be selected for a relocation center, and he tried to interest federal government officials, including the FBI, in the Japanese consulate's inquiry into the construction and operational details of the Los Angeles municipal water system in 1934, implying that the inquiry and subsequent hiring of 12 Japanese civil service employees by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was part of a conspiracy by the Japanese government to sabotage the system. [9]

According to Brown and Merritt, this lack of coordination in handling the situation in Owens Valley prevented the "carefully worked out plan by all parties in the Clark agreement" from being presented.

Rumors began to spread through political circles in Los Angeles as well as the communities in Owens Valley, causing anxiety, fear, and anger. Anxious to get rid of its Japanese residents, Los Angeles officials nevertheless bitterly protested the choice of the Manzanar site. The vital aqueduct that carried water to Los Angeles originated in the Owens Valley and had been sabotaged in the past, and they feared that the Japanese would present a physical or sanitation threat, or both, to their water supply. Leading the attack against the Manzanar site was Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron and Congressmen Thomas F. Ford of Los Angeles, both of whom had consistently called for the evacuation and internment of persons of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast. Ford noted:

In my mind, I can see Tokio grinning with joy because of the opportunity this action will afford to sabotage the water supply of 1,500,000 people. I cannot penetrate the mind of the General [DeWitt]. He may have reasons for his action that are satisfactory to him, but I most vigorously protest this action as in my judgment as [an] inexcusable piece of stupidity. I sincerely hope that his military superiors in Washington will stop this move until a more thorough examination of the dangers inherent in the situation are investigated. [10]

Mayor Bowron, while reiterating his support for evacuation and internment, trembled to think of placing the Japanese in Owens Valley. Nevertheless, he added that if the Army really won't take anything but the Owens Valley" we "certainly can't stop them." [11]

Meanwhile, the residents of Owens Valley were also becoming embroiled in the heated controversy On March 3, for instance, the situation in Owens Valley was aggravated when a private contractor told a local garage owner that he had come to look over the area where the Army was going to build "16 miles of prison camps" for those "damn Japs."

To restore order Clark on March 5 asked Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron to call together members of the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commission, the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power, publishers of the four Los Angeles daily newspapers, and the president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. At the meeting, according to Brown and Merritt, Clark "brought order out of the chaos by masterful handling of the situation and forceful presentation of the will of the government." Among other things, Clark emphasized that the Western Defense Command had determined that an area "of some 6,000 acres situated between Lone Pine and Independence was absolutely essential to the Japanese evacuation program." Press releases were agreed upon by all present that would be published in each of the major dailies the next day. In addition, Savage produced extra editions for his three valley newspapers that were published on March 6. [12]

Highlights of the press releases included the story that the former Manzanar site had been selected by the Army for a "processing station" or reception center to house 10,000 to 15,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Bids for the contract to construct the center, however, had been opened the previous day. The public was assured that the military was in complete control of the project "for the time being at least." All rights of the county and towns in the valley would be fully protected. Clark was quoted to the effect that the center would be "a boon not a burden to the community." In his editorial comments on March 6, Savage pointed to all the good that could come to the valley from such a project, praised the federal government for its ability to work quickly, and complemented the City of Los Angeles for its cooperativeness.

While the publication of the press release helped to inform the local residents of the contemplated moves by the government, it did not allay the fears of many people nor did it stop the "growing crop of rumors." One local resident, for instance, became so excited over current rumors that he attempted to form a "vigilante" committee that mapped out a plan of defense for the town of Independence, some five miles north of the site of the proposed relocation center. The plan, according to Brown and Merritt, contained "all the old methods of 'Indian Fighting,' including a 'delaying action' from rock to rock as the band of 'defenders' were to fall back when being pressed by 'superior forces.'" [13]

On March 7 General DeWitt sent a letter to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, formally informing it that the Army had selected the Manzanar site as a reception or relocation center site. He stated:

. . . . In order adequately to provide the means for orderly and rapid accomplishment of these [evacuation program] objectives, the immediate establishment of necessary facilities to care for persons excluded is necessary With the assistance of Federal, State, and local agencies a careful reconnaissance has been undertaken of possible sites for this purpose. Although many areas were suggested as immediately available, actual surveys on the ground revealed only two sites possessing all the features necessary and desirable for the intended use. Both of these sites are absolutely essential to the program. One of these sites lies in the area known as Owens Valley within Inyo County, California, the ownership of which is in the City of Los Angeles.

In view of the urgency of the situation, I have initiated construction of necessary facilities in Owens Valley near Manzanar upon property owned by the City of Los Angeles and within the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply thereof Use of this property will be for so long as the present emergency requires, following which possession will be relinquished. Incident to the use of the said property, water in the watershed in which the said property lies will be appropriated in such quantities and for such specific purposes as may be necessary, fully bearing in mind, however, the needs of the City of Los Angeles for such water.

DeWitt "assured that adequate provision will be made and continued for protection of the Los Angeles Municipal Water Aqueduct and works appurtenant thereto against any injury or pollution by reason of the project." The general stated further:

I therefore advise you in the name of the United States Government that, effective immediately, temporary possession of the said property described . . . will be taken by duly authorized officials and agents of the United States Government for such uses as may be necessary

DeWitt closed the letter by stating that he Was acting under the broad powers of the Tucker Act under which the Army could take property necessary for national defense. Although not mentioned in the letter, DeWitt promised city officials during private conversations that the Manzanar site would be patrolled by military police. [14] On March 9 the Los Angeles City Council debated the question of the military's acquisition of the Manzanar site, determining to postpone a vote of endorsement pending further study. More than a year later on April 15, 1943, the city council, after acrimonious discussion, would resolve that the city's "agricultural lands and water in the Owens Valley may be made available to the Federal Government, conditioned upon the same being placed under agriculture and tilled by the internees at Manzanar, and the vegetables produced therefrom be made available to the armed forces of the United States or sold in the open market at prevailing prices to the residents of the City of Los Angeles." [15]

Although the military was taking physical possession of the land for the Manzanar relocation center, the legal issues involved had not been settled. The federal government filed a civil complaint for condemnation of the land "under the power of eminent domain" on June 27, 1942, based on authority given to the Executive Branch by the Second War Powers Act of 1942. [16] The US. District Court for the Southern District of California, Northern Division, granted to the United States immediate possession under a leasehold interest expiring June 30, 1943, for 6,020 acres. The order included all water wells and pumping installations in addition to the land. [17] The Western Defense Command and the City of Los Angeles disagreed on the annual payment that should be made for the use of the land, with the military claiming $12,000 and the city $25,000. The court decided in favor of Los Angeles and a "Declaration of Taking" was issued, granting the Western Defense Command the legal right to occupy and use the land "for a term of years ending June 30, 1944, extendable for yearly periods during the national emergency" and six month periods thereafter. [18]

Under the pressure of persistent rumors that continued to spread throughout Owens Valley, the "ad hoc" committee arranged for a series of public meetings to be held in the Lone Pine, Independence, and Bishop, the three principal towns in Owens Valley. Representatives of the Justice Department, the Army and the WCCA spoke at the meetings, outlining the government evacuation program, according to Brown and Merritt, "in such a manner that there was no possible chance of misunderstanding on the part of the residents." Acceptance of the program by the majority of valley residents, however, was another matter, as "racial intolerance" "made itself manifest." The Inyo County Board of Supervisors was antagonistic, in part because they had not been consulted by federal authorities. According to Brown and Merritt, most "of the residents of the county (population 7,000) having known each other on a first-name basis for a long time, infused personalities into the program from the beginning." Members of the "ad hoc" committee were accused of making "deals" with the government for personal gain, and the charge of "Jap lovers" was hurled in the town meetings in the valley. [19]

Following release of the first newspaper stories on the project on March 6, Merritt reconvened the "ad hoc" committee. An amended program of suggestions, with local problems and suggested means of solution, was adopted. The recommendations were taken by Brown and Savage to Clark at WCCA headquarters in San Francisco. Clark supported the committee's recommendations, and felt that the use of a local committee during the "first hectic days and weeks of this project and others like it soon to come was ne answer to helpful community relations in those communities where other camps were to be located." Thus, Clark formalized his appointment of the members of the "ad hoc" committee to the Owens Valley Citizens Committee with Merritt as chairman, thus giving that group "dignity and status in the community." [20] At the same time Clark urged Brown to leave his public relations work for the Inyo-Mono Associates and take over public relations work for the government at Manzanar.

He assumed his new position on March 15, the day after the first truckloads of lumber arrived at the relocation center site and the day when workmen began land-clearing operations for construction of the center.

In his report Silverman observed that local residents in Owens Valley "wanted no prison camps, it wanted no Japanese, and particularly it wanted no deal wherein any part of the City of Los Angeles was concerned." It took "nearly two weeks for the valley people to cool down, to realize this was a war and the acceptance of the so-called "prison camp" was necessary wartime sacrifice." A key change of heart in the valley occurred when George Savage had shifted his alarmism to the highroad of patriotism. In an editorial published in the Inyo Independent and his other valley newspapers on March 20, Savage now saw "History in the Making":

These changes were not of our asking, but the military necessities of war brought war to our own doorstep in an unexpected manner. Thus we see that the people of Inyo County have a definite part to play in the American wartime effort. Let's do the job so that the eyes of the nation and the world will be focused on the citizens of this county and outsiders will say that 'there's a group of people who are tackling a most strategic international problem and doing a great job of it." [21]

Furthermore, Silverman noted that "public opinion" was modified after "a group of leading valley citizens" received "tentative approval from the Wartime Civilian Control Authority (or so the citizens understood) for a series of public works projects which the Japanese could undertake for the permanent benefit of the valley." [22] Based on this understanding Merritt's committee met on March 30 and developed a set of proposals that were forwarded to Clark on April l. These included use of the Japanese internees at Manzanar for: (1) agricultural development; (2) broad gauging the railroad between Lone Pine and Mina, Nevada; (3) construction of mine to market roads for development of strategic materials and metals; (4) improvement of roads under a plan already worked out by the state Division of Highways; (5) development of small industries to be taken over by veterans after the war; (6) national forest and national park development and protection; (7) development of facilities for veteran rehabilitation; (8) development of wildlife conservation; and (9) other long range projects that may arise or have been planned by federal, state, and City of Los Angeles agencies. [23] Despite the initial support that the proposals received, however, they would never be implemented as a result of conflicts between WCCA and WRA and opposition by western state officials.

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Last Updated: 01-Jan-2002