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Manzanar: A Japanese Camp

Manzanar means apple orchard in Spanish. There was a significant community in Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierras founded in 1910 to grow fruit. It thrived until water was diverted to Los Angeles via an aqueduct built by the Lost Angeles Water District, which converted Owens Valley into a man‐made desert.

During World War II it became the site of the first of ten “relocation centers” to imprison 10,000 of the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, 70 percent of whom were U. S. citizens. The rest were aliens from Japan who were denied the opportunity to become citizens. Manzanar became a city, one mile square, enclosed by barbed wire and guarded from towers by military police with searchlights and guns pointed inward.

The last weekend of April 2010, I joined approximately 70 people from Sacramento on the fifth annual pilgrimage, sponsored by the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, a caring, supportive group of former internees, students, Arabs, and civil rights activists, to visit Manzanar, which is now a national historic site. This is where I was incarcerated with my family almost 70 years ago. I remembered the heartache and loss that my parents and others experienced. They had to get rid of all of their worldly goods (for less than ten percent of their value) or store them in a matter of a few days or weeks, and be prepared to take only what they could carry to a forced extended “campout” in a location yet unknown to them.

Getting there, we were distressed to see the flimsy barracks made of inch plywood and covered only with tar paper, the dust seeping through the knot holes and cracks. We were to sleep on metal cots, and we filled our “mattresses” with straw. My mother, with the beginning stages of polyarthritis, had to sleep on a cot with a straw filled mattress as well. We ate in a mess hall and had to go outside our apartment to go to the latrine, shower and do our laundry, even when the weather was rainy or snowy (and the dust blew the rest of the time).

Since there was a shortage of teachers at first, I was unable to continue high school, so I found a job as a typist, earning $12 a month. Then I applied for and was hired as a crafts teacher. As a “professional” I earned $19 a month.

After about one and a half years of internment, in September, 1943, with the help of Friends (Quakers) and others, I was allowed to leave camp to attend Western Michigan College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After my first year I was unable to get a job because of discrimination. My brother, now living in Minnesota, suggested I move there. I was able to get a job in St. Paul, Minnesota, then learned about, applied for, and was accepted into a nursing program at University of Minnesota.

My parents remained in Manzanar for three and a half years. At the end of their internment, they received transportation to Los Angeles and $25. My mother had to be placed in a nursing home. My father got a job as a “houseboy” to start his career all over again at age 59. Three months after he was released from camp, he was hit and killed by someone driving a truck.

The idea of our recent pilgrimage is to educate and raise public awareness of what happened to one ethnic group and to make every effort to prevent the violation of constitutional rights of others. What happened to the Arab‐Americans after 9/11 is a case in point.

The ongoing question is: “Could this happen again?”

Grace Ito Coan is a member of Sacramento (Calif.) Friends Meeting.

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