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Manzanar Icon Now More Than a Memory

Times Staff Writer

Guard Tower No. 8 has returned to Manzanar, a vivid symbol of what the place was and what it was not.

Above all, it shows that living here, for Japanese American families, was not optional.

“The tower represents what the whole thing was about: imprisonment, loss of civil liberties, loss of identity,” said 82-year-old Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who was honored Saturday at a dedication for the re-created tower.

“The tower was the only icon -- that and the barbed wire.”

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For decades, that symbol lived -- as powerful as an iron shackle once worn by a slave -- in the memories of those interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

But on Saturday, under a desert sun in the Owens Valley some 220 miles north of Los Angeles, more than 100 people gathered to acknowledge the tower’s presence once more on this one-acre site where 10,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly detained during World War II.

In all, there were eight such towers at Manzanar, and this single replica is meant to stand for all of them.

Embrey’s life mission has been to re-create and reinterpret Manzanar for a 21st century society. Her efforts and those of other former internees and their supporters have resulted in the internment camp’s preservation and its designation as the Manzanar National Historic Site.

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In an effort to help explain what seems an inexplicable chapter of American history, the National Park Service has created an interpretive center, trucked back old buildings and offered tours. Construction of the guard tower is a milestone because it shows most directly the constant threat under which detainees lived.

“They had weapons up there, and they were pointed in at the camp,” Jack Kunitomi, 89, said as he stood beside the tower. “People said some [guards] were trigger-happy. You didn’t know what might happen.”

From high atop Manzanar’s eight 40-foot towers, armed soldiers watched the citizens, former detainees said. The soldiers could see when someone strayed too close to the barbed-wire fence that enclosed the camp, so the internees stayed away for fear of being shot.

At night the soldiers sometimes shined lights into the barracks where families slept or would turn a spotlight on a man as he headed from his barracks to the latrine.

“They would rotate the spotlight around,” recalled 73-year-old Mas Okui, who was 10 when he arrived at the camp. “We were always afraid to go to the latrines. You’re a little kid, and it’s an alien and strange place.”

Interviews with military police found in Park Service archives offer hints of the experience from the soldiers’ point of view. Many were young, some had never seen Japanese Americans before, and most never questioned their assignment.

“We never considered them Americans or Japanese Americans,” Pat Tortorello, a former military police officer at Manzanar during the war, said in an interview with a researcher. “The Japanese were our enemy, and we were there to see that no one escaped.”

In May 1942, J.A. Strickland, a government official who conducted an investigation of the military police at Manzanar, noted that “since the shooting of [an] evacuee by the military police, the evacuees have enclosed their feelings in a shell.”

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Strickland wrote that the Japanese Americans were “resigned to the fact that the military authorities are in charge and they will be punished or shot if they venture across the sentry lines.”

The decision to re-create the tower was reached in 1996, with input from the Japanese American community. The Friends of Manzanar, a Los Angeles-based support group, raised $15,000 to rebuild one of the towers, said Lillian Kawasaki, co-chair of the group. Manzanar maintenance staff members spent five weeks building it, using plans based on photographs of the original towers taken by internee Toyo Miyatake. For information that could not be gleaned from the photos, the staff members relied on the memories of the internees, who recalled small details such as its position and whether it had glass windows.

“It’s just been such an honor for us,” said Manzanar’s facility manager, John Slaughter. “It’s a legacy project. It’ll be here for years to come.”

Workers allowed the wood to weather to give the new tower an old look, he said. One major difference between the old towers and the new one is the length of the ladder. The new ladder does not reach the ground, a deviation from the historical model but necessary to prevent people from climbing up.

Plans for re-creation of the guard tower have long been controversial, said Alisa M. Lynch, chief of interpretation at the Manzanar Historic Site. For years, some -- a small minority -- were opposed, she said.

“It’s a hard thing for people to admit that we could have towers and guard our American citizens,” Lynch said. “There are some people who don’t think there were towers here or don’t interpret them as being towers for security. We have some folks who say they were fire towers. That’s a minority.”

That debate is an offshoot of a larger debate over the nature of the camps: Were they an example of American injustice or a means of protecting Japanese Americans? The idea of protection is not voiced as often now, but it persists.

After viewing the exhibits inside the Interpretive Center, guests are invited to write their views in a large book.

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On Sept. 7, a woman named Laura wrote: “Why build such a terrible and visible reminder -- the guard tower?” Another guest wrote on Sept. 14: “We did what we thought we needed to do at the time. For all you so called Americans who continue to talk of this country in a negative and disrespectful manner, I say if you don’t like it, leave it.”

Even when the original guard towers were created there was debate among government officials about their necessity. As the war wore on, the military police stopped manning the towers and security at the camp grew more lax, said Richard Potashin, a Manzanar park ranger. Eventually, they were left empty.

With the guards gone, Okui and friends took slingshots and aimed at the structures. When Okui first saw the new tower, he was certain the creators had made a mistake by putting in glass windows.

“I guess I tried to hide that deep in my psyche,” he said, with a sly smile. “We’d actually broken out all the glass in the windows.”

To Jack Kunitomi, the new tower looked taller than the ones from the war years, where the guards seemed closer, “right above our heads.”

But many things in his memory are crystal clear. “I remember,” he said. “There was always someone in there watching over us.”


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