Manzanar: American Concentration Camp

A camp surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers with shoot to kill orders. This is how Manzanar Relocation Center has been described by the Japanese Americans that were forced to live there. The remains of this camp can still be seen in the arid Owens Valley area of California. The National Park Service administers it as a memorial to a dark period during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans – most of whom were citizens – were stripped of their freedom and put in concentration camps.

In 1924, growing racism against the Japanese had led to an anti-immigration law that made Japanese immigration and naturalization extremely difficult. The US government continued to monitor the activities of Japanese immigrants (Issei) and American-born Japanese (Nisei). By 1932, the FBI’s list of possible “enemy aliens” consisted primarily of productive members of the community, none of whom showed any sign of being involved in anti-US activities or espionage. The bombing of Pearl Harbor caused an eruption of the paranoia and racism that had been under the surface of American society.

It was decided that the FBI detention of suspected subversives was not enough to keep the country safe. On December 29, 1941, Lt. General John L. DeWitt issued the order that all Japanese in the Western states would surrender cameras and shortwave radios.

In 1942 an executive order allowed DeWitt to put US citizens and residents of Japanese decent into relocation centers. These men, women, and children were suddenly “enemy aliens” and were sent to Manzanar and nine other isolated concentration camps. Their businesses were closed, their homes were abandoned, and they were forced to take only what they could carry.

Located in a hot desert area, the walls of the barracks at Manzanar failed to protect inhabitants from frequent dust storms. Barracks contained six, small one-room apartments, and each group of 15 barracks shared a latrine and bath. Japanese Americans, used to warm California weather and possessing warm weather clothes, were unprepared for the cold in their new locations. Mattresses were often filled with straw.

Understandably, many Japanese Americans were angered by their government’s treatment of them, but many Japanese Americans in states like Hawaii were free from deportation and were determined to prove their loyalty. Thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered for the US war effort, working in Military Intelligence or the segregated all-Japanese 100th or the 442nd battalions. Despite the decorations received by these units, individual Japanese soldiers still felt the sting of racism and distrust in their own country.