California: Manzanar

This was the site of an internment camp for Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens by birth, during World War II. It was the first, and the best known, of ten such relocation centers established in six western states. Located in eastern Owens Valley, the area was important to Native Americans (Paiute and Shoshone) for many centuries, and during the period from 1910 to 1935 it was a highly productive farming area for fruit–especially apples and pears. The area was dormant until the relocation center was established by presidential order early in 1942. During the war years, the center had a population of approximately ten thousand Japanese American detainees. The only remains of the camp are scattered foundation stones, some grave markers, and a few relic objects.

Site Office

Manzanar National Historic Site

P.O. Box 426

Independence, CA 93526-0426

ph.: (760) 878-2932

fax: (760) 878-2949

Web site:

The history of Manzanar–both written and unwritten–extends back some tens of thousands of years. The verdant valley was well supplied by local streams, and the lush grasses and other foliage attracted a variety of game animals. Hunter-gatherer Native Americans, mostly Paiute and Shoshone, used the area for a variety of food items and materials for making cordage, projectile points, and weapons. For reasons unknown, the natives moved elsewhere. The site was unoccupied for centuries until Europeans established settlements and began to raise agricultural crops, especially apples and pears. (Manzanar is the Spanish word for “apple orchard.”)

Between 1910 and 1935, the thriving agricultural village of Manzanar shipped much fruit to California coastal cities. The demand for water from growing coastal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco was partially met by diverting sources in Owens Valley. The productive orchards around Manzanar soon became unproductive, and the area began to undergo desertification. George Creek, named for Paiute chief George, no longer flowed, and cacti and other desert vegetation took over the land.

The Manzanar area lay under the hot California sun as a wasteland for the next decade. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was soon to change the dreary aspect of Manzanar.

The Internment of Japanese Americans

On February 14, 1942, the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in California wrote to the secretary of war requesting permission to evacuate Japanese and other “subversive” persons from the West Coast of the United States. Subversive persons included those of German and Italian extraction since the United States was at war with those nations as well as Japan.

Five days later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This order gave permission to the secretary of war and any military commanders he designated to prescribe military areas in the nation. Any and all persons could be excluded from such areas. The main impact of the exclusion orders fell on the Japanese residing along the West Coast of the United States. Although the United States was at war with Germany and Italy as well as Japan, few persons of German or Italian descent were affected. The order soon came through to forcibly evacuate all persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast. This blanket order included Issei, Japanese who emigrated to the United States after 1907 and were not eligible at that time for American citizenship, and Nisei, persons of Japanese descent who were born in the United States and thus, under the U.S. Constitution, U.S. citizens by birth.

The decision was made to move all Japanese inland and away from the coastal areas. The orders to move in many cases gave the Japanese residents only a few days to settle their affairs and pack the few personal items they would be permitted to take with them. Homes were put up for sale at extremely low prices, and those that could not be sold were simply abandoned. The same was true for furniture, automobiles, and personal items including clothing. The first stops for many Japanese were temporary detainment centers including such places as Santa Anita Race Track.

Ten relocation centers were built. These were Manzanar and Tule Lake (California), Gila and Poston (Arizona), Minidoka (Idaho), Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Granada (Colorado), Topaz (Utah), and Rohwer and Jerome (Arkansas). At many of the relocation centers, it was a race to get the housing built before the first internees arrived. Too often it was a case of the evacuees being unloaded from buses onto the littered bare ground of construction sites still in progress. Trees and brush had been cleared and bulldozers and trucks raised clouds of dust as they moved about. The housing, actually barracks-like wood and tar-paper structures, was set up resembling a typical military base. The individual buildings were constructed of quarter-inch boards over a wooden frame, the whole then covered by tar paper (also called roofing felt) fastened with nailed boards. Each building was twenty feet wide and one hundred feet long, divided into four individual family units twenty feet wide and twenty-four feet long. The family unit, or apartment, was heated by an oil-burning stove. Each apartment was designed for a family of four; however, because of the shortage of space, sometimes as many as eleven evacuees (not necessarily related) found themselves sharing a single apartment.

Furnishings provided by the United States consisted of steel-framed army cots and blankets as well as mattress and pillow bags stuffed with straw, but nothing else. Electricity for lights was also provided but running water was not. Later, resourceful internees gathered scrap lumber and fashioned makeshift but serviceable tables and chairs, shelves, and bookcases.

Layout of the Camp

Manzanar, for example, was laid out in blocks, each with two rows of barracks, seven buildings in each row. The rows were separated by an open area in which laundry and ironing rooms were located as well as separate men’s and women’s lavatory buildings. Each block also included a dining building (mess hall) and a recreational hall. The dining halls were furnished with one-piece tables with attached benches. Some of the internees complained that being forced to eat with strangers made it difficult to perform any of the mealtime family social activities they were used to. Controlling the children was especially difficult.

The structures were not insulated and the summer sun beat down on the tar-paper buildings, sometimes raising the temperature to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, subzero temperatures made the little room heaters ineffectual against the cold. The floors were uncovered for a long time, and the wind blew dust up through the spaces between the floorboards. A common comment of internees at Manzanar concerned the grit in the bedding, in their clothes, and on everything in the apartment.

Despite the primitive conditions, the Japanese residents of Manzanar tried to make the best of it. They established both elementary-level schools and high schools and assembled orchestras and bands for dances and other entertainment. Churches were established and were apparently well attended. Eventually a newspaper was begun as well as a cooperative store to supply items not available from the government stores.

Jobs around the centers, including Manzanar, became available to the internees at a salary range of twelve to nineteen dollars per month. The jobs included carpentry, general cleanup, gardening, and farming in the communal fields. Many of the vegetables which fed the population of approximately ten thousand internees at Manzanar came from internees’ own gardens.

The entire Manzanar detention facility consisted of about six thousand acres. The living area encompassed about 550 acres. All the living area was enclosed by barbed-wire fences and secured by guard towers and light towers. The internees were told the guard towers and wire fences were to protect them from anti-Japanese vigilantes. It was a common joke among the Japanese that if the guards and rifles were for their protection, how was it the guns pointed in and not out?

Vacating the Camps

As the war drew to a close, a trickle of Japanese detainees was allowed to leave the camp. The United States Supreme Court, in January of 1945, declared that the detaining of citizens in the relocation centers was unconstitutional. Peace came to Europe in May, 1945, and to Japan in August, 1945.

The imminent closing of the war relocation centers posed problems for both the United States government and the Japanese detainees. How would movement of the residents from the camps to the world they used to know be facilitated? What should be done with the camp infrastructure?

The resettlement of the Japanese and the dissolution of the camps started slowly and then took on the characteristics of a snowball rolling downhill. Some internees were released as early as 1944 and resumed life, not always in the coastal cities they had known but in Chicago and other Midwest cities. With the establishment of peace in 1945, the U.S. government was eager to relocate all the internees and close down the camps completely.

Curiously, many of the Japanese in the camps resisted leaving the homes they had known for over three years. At Manzanar, a model and plan for a resort-type community had been designed. Manzanar represented a form of security to the internees: They had created a community. Commonly, residents expressed in disbelief, “This is a town. You can’t close a town!” Manzanar, however, and other war relocation centers were closed. With a train ticket and twenty-five dollars “pocket money,” each of the internees was released. The buildings were sold at auction, and eventually all that remained were some of the stone and concrete foundations and a few scattered remnants of items left by former internees. The wind drifted the sandy soil over the site, and the desert reestablished itself.

For Further Information

  • Armor, John, and Peter Wright. Manzanar. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1988. Detailed examination, with photographs, of life in Manzanar as a typical war relocation camp.
  • Chang, Gordon H. “Witness and Victim.” The Humanist 58 (January/February, 1998): 21-23. The strains of camp life on the internees and the United States quandary of what to do with them after the war was over.
  • Conrat, Maisie, and Richard Conrat. Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Los Angeles: University of California, 1992. Photographs, accompanied by extensive captions, of Manzanar and other relocation centers.
  • Elton, Catherine. “The War away from Home.” Mother Jones 23, no. 6 (November/December, 1998): 19. During the time Japanese civilians were interred in Manzanar and other relocation camps, the U.S. government secretly pressured thirteen Latin American nations to deport 2,264 of their citizens of Japanese descent to the U.S. for internment.
  • Gant-Wright, Iantha. “Breaking Barriers.” National Parks 73, nos. 1-2 (January/February, 1999): 47-48. An African American woman relates the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II to minority participation in U.S. National Parks.
  • Okihiro, Gary Y., and Joan Myers. Whispered Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. A professor of history and a photojournalist combine talents to produce a detailed story on the Japanese Americans and their lives in relocation centers.
  • Spicer, Edward H., Asael T. Hansen, Katherine Luomala, and Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People: Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969. Four anthropologists, all of whom were associated with the relocation centers, describe the rationale for the camps and the daily life of the internees before, during, and after the camps were in operation.