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 them 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 best.
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 them.
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 many.
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 Pearl 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 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 orchardman’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.
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 walk-in cooler.
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 like.”