Travels in the American Southwest

A Black Page in U.S. History

Labor Day already. I couldn't believe that my vacation was coming to an end. Glanced at the thermometer I had left outside the van - 42 degrees at 6 AM. Brrrrr. Took a deep breath and slid open the door. The cold air at 8,000+ feet was, shall we say, bracing. Like a madman, I threw paper and the last of the wooden pallet into the fire pit, striking a match with shaking hands. The paper caught, then the wood. I huddled around the flames, my body soaking in the heat like a dry sponge soaks up water. A steaming cup of tea later, I started to reload the van. Back in went the seats, after being carefully wiped to remove the last of the playa dust. In went the boxes to be turned over to UPS for their long trip home. A hearty breakfast made a further dent in my supplies, but it was obvious that I had packed more food than I could have ever used.

Grabbed my map, even though I knew the route by heart. I had one more stop before heading east. I was going to head south on US395 towards the small town of Independence. It is near there, on the west side of the highway, that my destination lay. What is now a National Historic Site was, almost sixty years ago, a monument to U.S. xenophobia. With the stroke of a pen, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 and 120,000 human beings, some resident aliens, many US citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken from their homes on the west coast. Allowed to take only what could be fit in two suitcases, 11,061 people were taken under military guard to Manzanar. A one mile square area of desert containing 36 blocks of hastily built wooden barracks became their home. Here, surrounded by barbed wire and under the watchful gaze of eight guard towers, the new inhabitants tried to make the best of a very bad situation. Barracks were painted, orchards planted and even small ponds (around which small gardens bloomed) were dug in an attempt to beautify this barren patch of land.

How did the residents respond to the blatantly racist incarceration? The heavily Japanese American 100thBN/442nd Regimental Combat Team was one of the most decorated groups in the European theater. Many members and their families came from Manzanar. Sadao Munemori's family was held behind the barbed wire. He, a 19 year old boy, received the Medal of Honor for his bravery and heroism in Italy. It was awarded posthumously. Ralph Lazo lived in Manzanar. Of Irish/Mexican ancestry, he was incensed at seeing his friends taken into custody for forced relocation so he simply joined them. He was the only non-Asian (who was not married to an Asian family) to voluntarily enter a relocation camp.

Today, the buildings of Manzanar are gone but the roads still crisscross the site. A self-guided auto tour weaves through the remains of the city. Signs indicate the locations of barracks, hospital, schools and the Houses of Worship; Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic. Sagebrush now grows through the cracks in the concrete foundations and streets. Some fruit trees growing in the orchards still survive, but they are greatly outnumbered by the bare-limb dead cottonwoods and other trees. The cemetery sits at the westernmost point of the barbed wire enclosed camp; Gravestones silently standing watch over those buried in a place of which they had no choosing. The wind whistling as it blew threw the barbed wire fence raised the hair on the back of my neck. I whispered an "I'm sorry" to those who might have been listening secretly knowing that it could never be sufficient.

With goosebumps on my arms, I turned and slowly walked back to the van wondering if the disgrace which built Manzanar could happen again...

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