from the Wednesday, December 11, 2002 Los Angeles.
Pictures by Bryan Chan (LA Times photographer), story by Bettina
Boxall (Times Staff Writer).
The national park ranger pictured below is John Slaughter.
Reassembling a Sad Chapter of History
The park service is re-creating
the Manzanar camp to teach about Japanese internment during WWII.
|Manzanar, Calif. - A piece of Manzanar came
home this week, trucked down U.S. 395 past the snowy teeth of
the Eastern Sierra to the empty flats on which it once stood.
The return of the weathered mess hall building is a small milestone
in a painstaking effort to tell an inglorious American war story:
the 1942 roundup of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese
descent and their internment in government camps.
Ten thousand of them were sent here to a plain of stunning scenery,
biting winter wind and searing summer sun, where they managed
to fashion a community out of a charmless, instant town of tar-papered
barracks ringed by barbed wire.
The Manzanar War Relocation Center,as it was called, was dismantled
after World War II, its 800 wooden buildings between Independence
and Lone Pine taken apart or carted away for use by churches
and local towns. Aside from a large auditorium later used by
county road crews, a couple of deteriorating stone guard gates
and a cemetery, not much was left except memories, some of them
good, some of the bad.
The National Park Service is slowly changing that, as it gathers
the fading threads of the Manzanar story and endeavors to weave
them into an enduring public display of America at its less than
For most of the millions who have driven 395 over the past decades,
Manzanar has been a barely noticed blur through the windshield
on the way to the ski slopes of Mammoth Mountain or the campgrounds
of Yosemite National Park.
Even those who stopped and wandered past the camp's half-buried
rock gardens or picked fruit from its old, wind-bent trees often
had little sense of what happened here or what it meant.
"I had no idea we interned 120,000 people. My mom didn't
know," said John Slaughter, who grew up outside Los Angeles
and as a teenager hunted quail and picked pears at Manzanar on
family trips to the Eastern Sierra. He even had a favorite lunch
spot, a rock sculpture built by internees for one of their gardens.
But he never thought much about why the small granite boulders
had been stacked in the middle of nowhere or who had stacked
He became more curious while working as a civilian employee at
the nearby China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Now the facility
manager for the Manzanar National Historic Site, it is Slaughter's
job to make the camp's history known.
"The story really got to me," said Slaughter, 36, who
lives in Ridgecrest. "I come from a very conservative family
and was never told about that. Finding out our country was capable
of doing that - I was ashamed. And I'm ashamed a lot of people
don't know and don't get it."
Chronicling Manzanar is no simple task. Many who lived here are
dead, and the pool of aging internees shrinks every year. More
critically, there is no single truth about Manzanar. There are
For many, internment was a dreadful, humiliating experience,
a brutal reminder of America's racism and its historic demonization
of Asian immigrants. Families whose members had served in the
U.S. Army, become American citizens and barely knew a word of
Japanese were uprooted from their homes and businesses in the
months after Pear Harbor and shipped to the Owens Valley, where
the main product seemed to be dust.
They lived in military-style barracks, stood in chow lines to
eat, showered and went to the bathroom in communal latrines bereft
of even a shred of privacy.
But they also made a life here, sending off for mail-order furnishings
to decorate their spartan quarters, pushing back the long wooden
dining tables for Saturday night dances in the mess halls, planting
their own victory gardens between barracks and even making illicit
booze in secretly excavated cellars.
"I have never felt bitter against the government,"
said George Izumi of Los Angeles, who was sent with his family
to Manzanar when he was 21 and remembers the experience as relatively
benign. Had Japanese Americans been left on the coast, he said,
they probably would have been attacked and harassed because they
looked like the enemy. "If someone had been killed on the
street, no one would have cared. It just would have been another
dead 'Jap,'" he said matter-of-factly.
It is important, Izumi added, for the park Service to memorialize
not only the camp, but what internees accomplished here.
Many others describe Manzanar as a place of woe. In one of the
booklets of camp recollections given to schoolchildren who visit
the site, Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi paints a bleak picture.
"The train ride to Manzanar was like we were being transported
like a criminal. The shades were drawn as we left the city....
After the train ride we were bused into Manzanar Camp behind
a barbed wires and sentry guards with machine guns. It was windy,
dusty and miserable.
"We shared our room with two other families who were strangers,"
continued Kakuuchi, who was 16 when she arrived at Manzanar with
her family. "There was no privacy, only sheets hanging,
separating each family.... As a teenager, one of the hardest
things to endure was the communal latrines with no partitions
and showers with no stalls. This situation was embarrassing,
humiliating and degrading."
Some families spent the duration of the war at the camp; others
were allowed to move to cities in the interior of the U.S.; and
some men signed up for military service.
Designated a national historic site in 1992, Manzanar is overseen
by a tiny staff with a small budget. Slaughter's office is a
trailer at the camp. park rangers work out of cramped offices
in nearby Independence.
In the last few years they have conducted focus groups and invited
the public to inspect and comment on planned exhibits. They have
gathered binders of camp photos taken by Dorothea Lange for the
War Relocation Authority and others taken by internee Toyo Miyatake.
They have recorded long interviews with former internees and
people who worked at the camp.
They have scoured old real estate brochures and newspaper articles
for mention of Manzanar in the early 1900s, when it was
promoted as an orchard man's paradise. That was before the Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power bought up rights to the
valley's water and piped it south to the city [Los Angeles].
And they have hunted for Manzanar buildings that have not been
bastardized. "A lot of the buildings have been modified
beyond the ability to restore," Slaughter said. "We
get calls all the time from people who say 'I've got an old Manzanar
building.' And it's been converted into a duplex with two bathrooms
- it used to be a Manzanar building."
The mess hall, moved to Bishop after the war, is a comparative
gem. It was used for a few years as an infirmary by a military
training group stationed at the Bishop airfield and later became
a clubhouse for a sand golf course scratched out of the sagebrush
next to the airstrip. "I think it was more of a drinking
society than anything," Owens Valley native Fred Phillips,
who works on the camp maintenance crew, said with a chuckle.
The building was subsequently used for storage and then abandoned.
But it was never carved up. The kitchen area still contained
the huge original iron stove used by camp cooks, as well as the
What's more, Inyo County was willing to donate the structure
to the Park Service. "Generally, what we hear is, 'I have
a building, how much will you give for it?'" Slaughter said.
"And that's not what we're about. We don't want to get in
the real estate business, buying up old buildings."
Two sections of the hall were transported the 45 miles from Bishop
on Monday by a Southern California house-moving company. The
other half was scheduled to be trucked down today. The parts
will be joined together at a spot near the old camp auditorium,
which is undergoing a $5.2 million conversion into a visitors
center scheduled to open late next year.
Along with the mess hall, the Park Service hopes to erect a couple
of original barracks and reconstruct some outbuildings to create
a small demonstration block that will provide visitors a glimpse
of Manzanar life.
"It really helps bring back a flavor of what the site must
have looked like," Manzanar superintendent Frank Hays said
after the first two sections of the mess hall arrived at Block 14. "It's only one building on
a pretty flat expanse, but it does help you imagine what it was