Skip to main content

Effort to preserve Manzanar ongoing

April 30, 2014

Members of the UCLA Kyodo Taiko drum group perform at the 45th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday, April 26. Photo by Jon Klusmire

The bronze plaque in the rock monument looks like an ordinary State of California Historic Landmark. The words on the plaque, however, are extraordinary.
“Concentration camp.”
“Injustices and humiliation.”
“Hysteria, racism and economic exploitation.”
The plaque was placed at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in 1972, after a long and sometimes bitter debate within the Japanese American community and with state officials. Just acknowledging the memories of life in “camp” among their families and communities was the first struggle activists faced intheir effort to educate the public about the forced incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
In the following years, the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage became a highly visible and powerful teaching tool, as it brought thousands of internees and their families to the former camp. The momentum behind “remembering” eventually became a multi-track movement to preserve the Manzanar site and obtain an official apology from the U.S. government for the incarcerations during WWII.
Today, as the Manzanar Pilgrimage celebrates its 45th year, those goals have been accomplished, and the event celebrated those successes with the theme, “A Memory … A Monument … A Movement.”
The memories of those hard-fought and relatively recent victories and the emotional impact many feel when visiting the camp site in person, help put in context the passionate opposition organized by the Manzanar Committee to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s proposal to build a 1,200-acre solar power facility south of Independence that will be visible from the Manzanar National Historic Site.
The solar facility represents the “greatest threat to Manzanar” since WWII, Bruce Embrey, chairman of the Manzanar Committee, told the 1,000 people attending the pilgrimage on April 25.
That’s quite a statement considering the controversial and often acrimonious battles over Manzanar during the last 50 years, battles which ultimately paved the way for the U.S. Park Service to take over the site and present a factual and unflinching look at what Manzanar was and came to signify, now and in the past.
When the first group of “pilgrims” started coming to Manzanar in 1969, the site was overgrown with sagebrush and desert scrub, its roads buried under dirt. The white cemetery monument, two rock sentry stations and the auditorium, which was serving as a Road Department shop building, were the only structures standing on what used to be a city of 10,000. Members of that first group (including Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Bruce’s mother) “knew this special place needed to be remembered.”
Now, 45 years later, “this special place” looks far different. The Visitor Center on the site opened 10 years ago, in 2004, and became the cornerstone of the Park Service’s efforts to shine a light on this dark chapter in American history.
The former camp auditorium features a bookstore that is brimming with dozens of volumes documenting virtually every aspect of camp life in Manzanar, and broader treatments of the entire WWII internment experience in the nine other relocation centers and in the Department of Justice Detention Centers. The number of scholarly and popular books, movies, articles and personal histories about the internment camps has exploded in the past 15 to 20 years, virtually assuring their place in the history of America during WWII.
The Visitor Center proper is filled with interpretive and educational displays and objects that explore and explain multiple aspects of life for internees before, during and after their stay in camp. Exhibits and photos examine the camp experience, from school to health care to confrontation and conflict. Familiar voices from WWII fill the air, from the stern broadcasters narrating newsreels to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.
Manzanar was “a city of barracks” that covered about 500 acres. Two replica barracks and a mess hall contain exhibits that help visitors understand how the camp functioned on an individual and “neighborhood” level. The tar-paper-sided barracks also give visitors a sense of what the internees endured during their stay, and hint at the scale and scope of the fully developed camp. While the majority of the site remains a swath of sagebrush and desert scrub, it’s also easy to spot concrete slabs, little rock walls, rusted iron stakes and other remnants of the once vibrant “city.”
Another major improvement on the site has been the unearthing and repair of the camp’s famous Japanese gardens. Built by the internees, the gardens served as a bit of beauty and calm in the desert camp. The gardens on view include a small garden built by a family’s barrack, larger gardens built beside mess halls to break the monotony of standing in line, and the large, Merritt Park garden, complete with a wooden bridge.
The Visitor Center, barracks and gardens are substantial, tangible additions to a site that was almost bare for more than 50 years after it was closed at the end of the war and virtually all of the buildings were torn down.
The addition of new, permanent structures that tell the story of Manzanar can help personalize the camp experience, but they cannot covey the deeply personal stories of the thousands of internees. The extensive collection of oral histories compiled, starting in 1972, under the direction of Dr. Art Hansen for the Japanese Oral History Project at Cal State Fullerton, helped preserve those stories, and led to Hansen being honored at this year’s Pilgrimage for his work.
Maintaining and expanding the exhibits at Manzanar and continuing events like the Pilgrimage are necessary to pass the story along to a new generation, Embrey said, “because memories fade, the past is forgotten or mis-interpreted.”
Interpreting the impact of being forced to leave homes, schools, business and communities and made to live “behind barbed wire” in an unfamiliar place such as the middle of the Owens Valley requires that the landscape around the camp site continues to appear as unforgiving as it did in 1942, said Embrey.
Maintaining the sense of “isolation and desolation” created by the Owens Valley’s empty spaces between two, towering mountain ranges, a landscape the U.S. Military specifically sought out to help intimidate the internees, is critical to relating the story of the selection of the site for a camp, and the day to day life in the camp, he added.
The LADWP’s solar project (the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch) poses a direct threat to the integrity of the Manzanar National Historic Site, Embrey said. “This solar factory, this massive industrial project” consisting of 1 to 2 million solar panels on 1,200 acres of land northeast of Manzanar, will be visible from virtually every area within the Manzanar National Historic Site. Having an “industrial project’ within the site’s viewshed will change visitors’ experience at the site for the worse and hinder efforts to explain the effect of the isolated location on the internees, he added.
For that reason, the Manzanar Committee, other Japanese American groups, and those interested in preserving the nation’s history, are not just opposed to the solar project, but “demand that it be withdrawn from consideration,” Embrey said. He added the land has been sacred to the Owens Valley Paiute for centuries and the industrial-solar installation will have a negative impact on the valley’s tourism-based economy. Pilgrimage attendees, many of whom are from the Los Angeles area, were urged to sign and send a letter opposing the LADWP solar project to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The LADWP, which owned the camp site, initially fought the establishment of National Historic Site, and even proposed that it could open and operate some sort of historic park at Manzanar. Finally, LADWP grudgingly yielded to political pressure and sold the Park Service the land for the site. Embrey said the attempt to place a large solar project within view of the site is another example of LADWP not being sensitive to area’s unique history, and/or aware of the significance of the internment camp experience to the Japanese American community in California, the West and the nation.
“The LADWP has to finally respect our history,” Embrey said, to the applause of the crowed.
“We can’t watch our past be erased … this must not happen.”

Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes