The Manzanar War Relocation Center at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Independence, California is a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service. The site is just one of ten military style camps in which Japanese American citizens and permanent residents were forced to live during World War II. It is the most remarkably preserved of all ten locations, with recent excavations and refurbishments that reveal even more features of what the camp and grounds looked like in the 1940’s.
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The Manzanar Visitor Center, which used to be the camp’s high school auditorium, offers several exhibits on the history of the site. Exhibits begin with the site’s history from 1885, with a focus on the location’s use as a Japanese Internment Camp in the early 20th century. Exhibits occupy 8,000 square feet of space and include photographs, artifacts and audiovisual presentations. A large-scale model of the internment camp was built by Japanese internees. In addition to the exhibits, an award winning 22-minute film called ‘Remembering Manzanar’ serves as an introduction to the site and its history. The film begins at the Visitor Center’s theatre every 30 minutes. A large memorial graphic lists the names of the more than 10,000 Americans who spent all or part of the war at the camp. Next to the Visitor Center, guests can walk through Block 14, which is a reconstructed barracks and mess hall resembling what it would have looked like during the war. The site includes Merrit Park, which was once a community garden, remnants of orchards and chicken coops, building foundations, and the camp cemetery. Eleven recently excavated rock gardens and ponds offer further insight into the lives of the Japanese Americans who were interred there during World War II.
History: Manzanar, Spanish for ‘Apple Orchard’ was, in the early 1900’s, a farming settlement occupied by farmers who grew apples, pears, peaches, potatoes and alfalfa in the area. Beginning in 1905, the City of Los Angeles began purchasing water rights and land in the area for use in building Los Angeles Aqueduct. By 1929, the land and water in the area were entirely owned by the City of Los Angeles, effectively putting an end to farming, and forcing residents to abandon the town. In 1942, during the Second World War, over 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were forced to leave their homes, businesses and livelihoods and relocate to military style retention camps. The 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had created deep fear in America, and in 1942, President F.D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order allowing for the internment anyone of Japanese ancestry without due process. Those targeted for relocation were given just 7 days to dispose of their homes, belongings, and businesses. The U.S. Army leased over 6,000 acres from the City of Los Angeles to build the internment camp. While some residents of Manzanar were initially opposed, others welcomed the job opportunities and worked to build the site. Many of the workers were Owens Valley Paiute, Native Americans who had been forcibly removed from the area in the late 1800’s to make way for ranching efforts. More than 10,000 lived at Manzanar at the height of the war. The Manzanar War Relocation Center closed in 1945, three months after the Japanese surrendered and World War II ended.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Visitors are welcomed to explore the site on their own on foot, by car or by bicycle. A 3.2-mile auto-tour guides visitors past the sentry posts built by internees to each of the camp’s areas of interest. While cars are restricted to the tour road, guests may exit their vehicles at any time for a closer look at the camp’s features. Guided tours led by Park Rangers are available on a regular basis. Tours last between 15 and 90 minutes. Updated schedules may be found at the Visitor Center. 90-minute school group tours may be booked by scheduling in advance, and are free of charge. Manzanar Committee, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to education and awareness of the violation of civil rights that occurred at Manzanar leads an annual pilgrimage to the site each April. Former internees, friends, family and anyone else who wants to join meets at the Manzanar Cemetary to pay their respects, share stories, and learn from each other and the history of the site. The pilgrimage has taken place annually since 1969, and is nearing its 50th anniversary.
5001 Highway 395, Independence, CA 93526, Phone: 760-878-2194