Historic Resource Study/Special History Study
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After the Army selected the Manzanar site to serve as the first reception or relocation center for Japanese evacuees in early March 1942, the Western Defense Command made hurried plans to construct the camp to house evacuees. Before construction of the camp was completed, evacuees began arriving at Manzanar in large numbers. Amid the chaos and confusion of this early period, the Manzanar center began to take shape under the direction of the Wartime Civil Control Administration, the civilian arm of the Western Defense Command. [1]


As soon as the Manzanar site was selected, the Western Defense Command immediately developed plans to construct the camp. Since this was the first reception or relocation center to be built, neither the Army nor the WCCA had devised standardized construction plans. Nevertheless, specifications were hurriedly drawn up and bids for the general contract to build the camp were opened by the U. S. Engineer's Office in Los Angeles on March 5. [2] According to the Inyo Independent of March 6, three of the major contracting firms in the southwestern U.S. submitted bids. Although the contract was not located during research for this study, its specifications, according to the newspaper, included provision that 6,300,000 feet of lumber be delivered to the site within 30 days. [3] The military was interested in keeping construction costs for Manzanar as low as possible. As a result, the Western Defense Command prepared an "advance copy of a [confidential] directive for the construction of a camp for alien enemies in the vicinity of Owens Valley, California" on March 6. It was noted that this "general directive" was necessary in view of the fact that speed in construction is necessary and that it implemented the directives of Secretary of War Stimson to DeWitt on February 20, authorizing him to "take all necessary measures and incur necessary obligations for movement of enemy aliens." The directive was formalized by the War Department and transmitted by the Adjutant General's Office to the Chief of Engineers with authorization to proceed with construction on March 8. The directive set out the basic requirements for camps to house alien enemies. The Chief of Engineers was to "collaborate with the Commanding General, Western Defense Command, and take the necessary steps to initiate the construction desired by him in the vicinity of Owens Valley, California." Layout plans and location of the site would be "as determined by the Commanding General." The directive stated further that minimum requirements consistent with health and sanitation will determine the type of construction. In general, the facilities afforded by Theatre of Operations type of construction will not be exceeded. This project will be limited to a cost not to exceed $500 per individual.

During the course of deciding upon these requirements the military had consulted with personnel in the Works Projects Administration and the Farm Security Administration, because of their experience with development of low cost housing projects. The construction directive and authorization to proceed with construction was transmitted to the Division Engineer, South Pacific Division, in San Francisco on March 13 and to Leonard G. Hogue, the District Engineer in Los Angeles who would provide direct supervision for the work at Manzanar. On March 13 the Surgeon General was notified that the directive contained no "specific mention" of "hospital facilities to be provided." [4]

On March 6, Griffith and Company of Los Angeles received the general contract for construction of all temporary buildings and structures that were initially built at Manzanar, including installation of plumbing equipment and fuel oil lines. Lieutenant Colonel Edwin C. Kelton was the contracting officer for the Corps of Engineers, and the company, using building plans drawn up by the Corps of Engineers, worked under the supervision of Leonard G. Hogue, the District Engineer in Los Angeles. The company's contract representative was J. Hopinstall, while its representative at the construction site was C. E. Evans. [5]

According to the aforementioned "Project Director's Report" by Brown and Merritt, the first truckloads of lumber began to arrive at the Manzanar site on March 14. The following day workmen began to clear the sage-covered land and dig the first ditches for water and sewer lines, and on March 17 the first buildings began to go up. [6]

As construction of the Manzanar camp began, the Wartime Civil Control Administration issued a press release on March 18. The statement, which was overly optimistic in tone and somewhat misleading in detail compared with actual conditions that the evacuees would experience, noted that brush "was being cleared and prefabricated houses were springing up today at Manzanar . . . where hundreds of mechanics, carpenters and laborers are constructing the first Japanese Resettlement Camp on the Pacific Coast." Complete facilities "for housing and caring for 1000 evacuees" would be completed "by the first of next week," and the camp would "house 10,000 Japanese when finished." Houses "for the resettled Japanese are of the 'family unit' type, in order that family units will not have to be split." The camp was expected "to be largely self-sustaining." Opportunities "for development of truck gardening and small industries — such as commercial fisheries and pheasant farms — appeared 'excellent.' " The camp was "ideally situated, away from the sandy soil near the mountains." The first contingent of Japanese would be put to work "clearing brush and building gardening installations." A 50-bed hospital, staffed by Japanese doctors and nurses, would be ready for the evacuees. Recreation facilities were being arranged "in the form of movies, athletic games and possibly university extension courses." Provision "for free religious worship of all denominations," including Buddhism, had been made. Since the camp would be "composed largely of voluntary migrants," officials expected "close cooperation from the Japanese on camp management." [7]

In his report that was discussed in Chapter Six of this study, Milton Silverman observed that on March 18 "Manzanar was in the painful, dusty throes of becoming a boom town. By March 19, he noted that "huge lumber trucks were roaring up the . . . highway from Los Angeles and 400 carpenters were already working a 10-hour shift." Soon a "hundred-foot administration building was standing where the old Manzanar packing house stood." Within "24 hours," the workmen started "on the first of 25 city blocks." The schedule "called for completion of one block a day." Silverman observed that

the workmen moved into action like an army of trained magicians. One crew led the way with small concrete blocks for foundations. A second followed with the girders and floor joists. A third came right along with the flooring, a fourth with prefabricated sections of sidewalls, a fifth with prefabricated trusses, a sixth slapped on the wooden roof, a seventh followed with heavy tarpaper, and an eighth finished with doors, windows and partitions.

All around them were other crews clearing and leveling the land ahead, excavating for sewer and water pipes, and bringing in truckloads of the prefabricated sections made in a centralized prefabrication mill only a few hundred yards away. At the same time, still other workmen were setting up the first of 25 oil centers to hold fuel oil, 40 warehouses and the barracks for military police.

The workmen had no time to build wooden buildings for themselves; they slept in a tent city.

During the early phases of construction the first complaints about wind and dust were voiced. According to Silverman, "over, under, and around and inside everything was the dust loosened by the tractors and scrapers, and blown by the interminable south wind. On mild days, the wind picked up only this dust, but it really worked up to a blow, it carried dust, sand, stinging bits of gravel and even white soda dust scooped up from the deposits at Owens Lake more than 20 miles to the south. [8]

In an article in the Inyo Independent on March 20, E. B. Milnor, assistant superintendent of Griffith and Company, stated that between 1,000 and 1,500 workmen would be employed during the peak construction period at Manzanar and that the weekly payroll of these men would average between $50,000 and $70,000. The workmen were engaged six days a week in 10-hour shifts in order to complete the center within 30 days. The article also noted that military guards were expected during the week "to put [the] district under surveillance." Clearing of trees and brush from the western portion of the center site was underway. City of Los Angeles personnel were working on water facilities. Water in the Los Angeles Aqueduct was cut off during the week, and a large sewer line was being constructed under the aqueduct. The sewer line led to a sewage plant under construction east of the aqueduct. Telephone crews were installing lines to the principal administration buildings and offices. Old irrigation ditches dating from the orchards that had been planted at Manzanar in the 1910s were being reopened, and grading of roads in the center was underway. The "entire project was abuzz, reminiscent of a three-ring circus." [9]

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Last Updated: 01-Jan-2002