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The Big Stall at Manzanar

Manzanar is easy to miss. If you’re roaring up the Owens Valley on U.S. 395, you can zip by some small stone huts on the left and never know you just passed the remains of the nation’s most famous concentration camp.

That’s because, aside from those huts, the site of the camp has been wiped clean. After the government closed Manzanar in late 1944 and set free the thousands of Japanese-Americans held there, all the wooden buildings were pulled from their foundations and sold to local folks in the valley.

So today, what’s left of historical Manzanar can be found here in Lone Pine or up the valley in Independence. The Willow Motel in Lone Pine was constructed from parts of Manzanar. Ditto the Mt. Whitney Rifle Club and the Sierra Baptist Church in Independence.

No one should be surprised, I suppose, that a country would want to obliterate the signs and symbols of its wartime misdeeds. Fifteen years ago, some Nisei groups in California tried to persuade the state to memorialize Manzanar by creating a state park at the site.

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Nothing doing. A great cry rose up from American veterans of World War II, many of whom had suffered hunger and torture in Japanese prisoner of war camps, and the state park idea died quietly.

But there is something about sites like Manzanar, places where mistakes of terrible proportions took place. The victims of these places do not forget. They keep coming back, making pilgrimages, wanting some acknowledgement of the crimes committed against them, a gesture that will expiate their pain.

At Manzanar, you can see the evidence of these pilgrimages at the small stone huts. Since they are all that’s left at the site, the huts have become the spot where the children and grandchildren of the internees have scrawled their own memorials.

“Tribute to the Tokumaga and Shiozake families,” says one message. It is signed, “Cory Shiozake 4/28/90.”

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Another says, “Junko Mashashita lived here four years too long.” It is unsigned.

Right now, these messages are the only sign that Manzanar has not been forgotten. All else has been returned to desert. But that may soon change. It appears that the federal government wants to end its decades of official neglect.

In Washington, legislation that would create a national historic site at Manzanar has passed the House of Representatives. Sometime this fall, a favorable vote is also expected in the Senate, where no organized opposition has emerged.

Except from one quarter. As you may know if you have been reading the news, the Manzanar site happens to be owned by the people of Los Angeles. It is part, albeit a minuscule part, of the city’s great water farm in the Owens Valley, 250,000 acres dedicated to keeping the city’s faucets running.

Before the legislation creating the historic site can be finally approved, the land must be conveyed to the federal government by the city through its Department of Water and Power. And the DWP is holding out.

Why? No one seems to know except for those in their bunkers at the DWP.

Thus far, the department has repeated a charge that the Manzanar legislation constitutes a threat to the city’s water-gathering operations. But this legislation is about the creation of a historic site, not water policy. The bill passed by the House never mentions water except to assure Los Angeles that the historic site would require only enough for its own operations.

Otherwise, the legislation says, the city’s water rights “shall not be affected.”

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This language has been rejected by the DWP as if it were a trick. DWP General Manager Dan Waters has referred darkly to indirect effects of the bill. And in a recent letter to a Manzanar supporter, DWP President Michael Gage said the historic site legislation “does not adequately protect the city’s water rights.”

The city will keep trying to cleanse the legislation of the water rights threat, he said. Still, if adequate protection for the city is not forthcoming, Gage said, the DWP “will be unable to transfer its property.”

Hey, could that be the real purpose of DWP’s endless frittering over the Manzanar issue? To perceive so many threats, to make the simple so complicated that Manzanar never gets transferred to the feds?

You wonder. In the conclusion of his letter, Gage made an odd promise to the Manzanar supporter. If the congressional legislation failed, he wrote, all would not be lost. The DWP “is prepared to develop a memorial project at Manzanar comparable to the National Park Service proposal.”

Now there’s an offer for you.


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