Never Again

Manzanar, California



Gary B. Speck


Light beige dust billowed lazily behind the van as we slowly cruised down the dirt road.  A long ago rain-caused washout sliced a shallow scar diagonally across the road ahead.  I inched through the rough spot, and accelerated slowly.  Several hundred feet ahead, a dusty white Nissan Sentra was parked, and a sad-faced elderly Japanese couple walked slowly away from their car towards an overgrown tangle of trees. He was 70-ish, and pointed to some foundations hidden under the trees.  I could see the lady nodding and saying something to him.  They stopped and stared at the trees as I neared them.


As I passed them they looked up at the van.  Copper flashes of sun glinted from tears rolling down well-weathered cheeks.   


We stopped in a large turnaround a quarter mile west of them.  Further off to the west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains shouldered granite flanks nearly three miles into the sky.  Behind us, a mile to the east, the late afternoon sun-flicked firey flashes on the windows of passing vehicles speeding by along US 395.  I retraced our drive, and stopped near some concrete foundations off to the right.  We stepped out of the van, and the warm breeze carried with it the quiet sounds of the desert. 


Missing were the busy sounds of humanity.  Missing were the busy hands of people at work, trying to make a life in this God-forsaken dry corner of Owens Valley, midway between Independence and Lone Pine.


Fifty years ago, this location swarmed with people.  Here 10,000 people, mostly American citizens of Japanese ancestry, called tarpaper wood-framed barracks home.  It was World War II, and this was one of ten "relocation centers" scattered across seven Western states, and established to house 110,000 Americans.  These Americans were moved from sensitive coastal and aerospace industrial areas, to places where they could be watched.  It was feared that they could collaborate with the enemy, so the government decreed that they would be relocated away from any possible interaction with enemy agents that just might try to contact them. 


(For those of us born after World War II ended, it isn’t possible for us to know how the government leaders felt.  I'm not trying to rationalize or cast moral judgment on those leaders.  Right or wrong, they reacted to an extremely frightening situation during a period in our history marked by the hysteria of war.)


I heard the Nissan's engine start, and the couple drove off to the east, through the washout, and past two squat stone structures that mark the entrance to what is one of the world's most unique ghost towns. 


Manzanar...That word is simply from the Spanish for apples.


Back in the later half of the 1800s apple and peach orchards were established in the area surrounding the John Shepherd ranch.  By the turn of the century, other people had settled in the area and a small railroad station was established along the narrow-gauge Carson & Colorado Railroad.  On May 13, 1911 a post office was established in Ira Hatfield's small general store.


During the mid 1910s, the Los Angeles aqueduct through Owens Valley was built, and soon groundwater pumping sucked the land dry, and creeks were siphoned off to slake the thirst of millions of Southern Californians.  The orchards withered and died, and the people left.


On December 31, 1929 the post office was closed, and Manzanar shriveled like an apple in the hot desert sun.


Then came the “Day that Lived in Infamy”.  Early in the morning of December 7, 1941, the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory, was attacked by hostile forces under the command of the Empire of Japan.  At that time nobody knew how that attack would literally create a city in the desert where just 11 years earlier another one officially died.


On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066.  It established a number of "military areas" in which people could be excluded, or their movements restricted.  This was in response to a letter sent to the president from some West Coast congressional representatives who feared the large Japanese population "could possibly jeopardize or hinder the Nation's war effort."  Translated into common English, the proclamation said that all Americans of Japanese ancestry were to surrender themselves for detention beginning on March 30.  In California, 13 temporary detention centers were established (including one at Manzanar), with the detainees held there while construction progressed on the permanent relocation centers at Manzanar, and Tule Lake (In the state's NE corner). 


Starting in March 1942, Manzanar grew into a barbed wire-ringed city built to house some 10,000 of the “relocated” people.  On June 1, it officially came under control of the War Relocation Center, and was considered permanent.  The buildings were tarpaper covered wooden frame barracks elevated on concrete piers.  There was little privacy, other than what could be obtained by hanging blankets across the open room.  There was no heat or cooling, and the thin walls of the buildings didn't allow for very good energy efficiency!


The internees were fed military style in mess halls. To most, they were treated as if they were in prison.  Many accounts have been written about the horrible living conditions at the camp.  Stoically and bravely, the people endured.  Many established vegetable gardens and orchards to try and obtain fresh food.  Some semblance of normal life was tried for.  Unfortunately the nasty weather extremes in this part of the state made food raising difficult, especially for those that came from moderate coastal areas with rich soil.  The gardeners struggled against the elements.


Many men from the camp, and other similar centers volunteered for military duty.  They were trained and sent overseas to Europe.  Other people were sent to the middle of the country for work, but they had to undergo extensive questioning regarding their loyalty and character.


For those left behind, life was a living hell.  During the short period of the camp's operation, there were over 200 deaths.  Only six of the people were buried at the camp cemetery.  The other bodies were sent to old home towns and other areas for burial.


The war officially ended with the surrender of Japan on August 11, 1945.  On August 25, the camp was slated to be closed by December 1.  On September 1, the Manzanar Free Press (the camp newspaper) suspended publication.  At 11:00 A.M., November 21, 1945, the last 42 Manzanar detainees walked out the front gate of the camp, and it officially closed. 


Soon the buildings were torn down.  Orchards and gardens died, and today skeletons of dry trees punctuate the concrete slabs and what little greenery remains.  At the eastern entrance two squat stone guardhouses stand in mute testimony to a bitter chapter in American history.


As the historical monument plaque states..."May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again."


To that, all I can add is AMEN!


Each spring, as has been tradition since 1969, a group of Japanese-Americans return to Manzanar.  They come for various reasons, but the most common is so the past is not forgotten.


Manzanar Relocation Center (in contrast to the first small agricultural hamlet), California is one of the most unique ghost towns in the country.  It is one of the few ghost towns that should have never been.  Unfortunately it was, and because of that, should never be forgotten.


As my family and I slowly walked among the foundations of barracks and viewed the sidewalks, stone walls and dead trees, the quiet reverie was broken only by the crunching of footsteps on gravel.  The desiccated remains of this relocation center bear mute testimony to the fear and hysteria that swept the country a mere 50 years ago.  Here in the shadow of the most beautiful mountains in the world lie the ugly scar of man's inhumanity to man.


Manzanar is a state historical landmark, and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  If you are in the area, stop and visit.  The skeletal remains of this place are guaranteed to haunt you.  As you stand here amid the memories, the wind will whisper to you... “never again...never again.”


NOTE:  In early 2004 a visitor center/museum opened in the renovated gymnasium located on the north end of the site.



Location (CENTER of site):

·        Secs 10, 11, 14, 15, T14S, R35E, Mount Diablo Meridian

·        Latitude: 36.7263211 / 36° 43’ 35” N

·        Longitude: -118.1537035 / 118° 09’ 13” W


Visitor Center:

·        Latitude: 36.727500

·        Longitude: -118.148346



·        Latitude: 36.725470

·        Longitude: -118.162637



This was our original GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH in September 1998 and in September 2008 was resurrected in celebration of a decade of these postings.




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FIRST POSTED:  September 01, 1998

LAST UPDATED: September 21, 2009




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