Manzanar, California

The Manzanar Relocation Center was located in central California, about 220 miles north of Los Angeles. The site was first opened on March 22, 1942, as the Owens Valley Reception Center, an assembly center administered by the Wartime Civil Control Administration. On June 1, 1942, the War Relocation Authority took control of the center, and it became the first of ten camps used to intern those of Japanese descent during World War II. It closed on November 21, 1946.

Located in the barren, windswept Owens Valley, the camp had stunning views of Mt. Whitney and was nestled between the steep Sierra Nevada Mountains and the White-Inyo Range. But summers in the area can top 100 degrees, and snow falls in the winter. The harsh environment can be exacerbated by fierce dust storms. Manzanar, which means "apple orchard" in Spanish, was a farming community founded in 1910 but abandoned when the city of Los Angeles purchased the land for water rights in the late 1920s.

Construction of Manzanar began in March 1942, and 800 Japanese Americans volunteered to help build the camp. Manzanar's population reached its peak of more than 10,000 by the fall. Over 90 percent of the evacuees were from the Los Angeles area; the others were from northern California, and Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The camp covered 540 acres and was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and eight watchtowers. It had 67 blocks, including 36 residential blocks, two staff housing blocks, an administrative block, two warehouse blocks, a garage block, and a military police compound. Each of the 36 evacuee residential blocks had 14 barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, two communal bathhouses, a laundry room, an ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank. The hospital became the largest in the county, and later on there was a Bank of America branch and a Sears Roebuck catalogue store. Most of the buildings were flimsily constructed of wood frame, board, and tarpaper.

The camp’s churches, shops, canteen, beauty parlor, barbershop, and photography studio were all located in barracks and recreation buildings. By the fall of 1942, 18 nursery schools and seven kindergartens were organized. The elementary and high school classes were held in barracks, mess halls and laundry rooms, but the internees built an impressive 14,140-square-foot wood frame auditorium that still stands today.

Daily Life

During the early months of the camp’s operation, confusion and problems mounted and issues were not easily resolved. Unrelated families were housed together, and in some cases, wives were assigned to room with men other than their husbands. The lack of privacy in the barracks was difficult, especially for the women, and toilet paper was scarce. The pressure of relocating 10,000 people within a few months took its toll on everyone.

A little-known chapter of Manzanar history revolves around the camp’s orphanage known as Children’s Village. All the Japanese-American orphans in the West Coast evacuation zone, including half-Japanese babies living in Caucasian foster homes, were sent to Manzanar. Although directors from the three orphanages in California—the Maryknoll Home for Japanese Children, the Shonien (Japanese Children's Home of Los Angeles) and the Salvation Army's Japanese Children's Home in San Francisco—urgently pleaded for clemency they were unable to save the orphans from evacuation. The internees at Manzanar constructed three buildings with running water, baths, and toilets for the more than 100 children who were housed there.

The primary work at Manzanar was industrial. The garment factory was started in May 1942 by ten women with a borrowed portable sewing machine, and it later expanded to two warehouses with 38 industrial machines. There was also a mattress factory, a food processing unit, and a camouflage net factory that supplied the U.S. Army for a short period. (Employment at the camouflage net factory had been particularly contentious because its workers earned the highest wages in the camp and non-U.S. citizens were not allowed to work there.) Smaller businesses included a furniture shop, a dressmaking shop, a typewriter repair shop, a sign shop and a domestic sewing machine repair shop. Workers also produced their own shoyu and tofu.

Some large-scale farming took place outside the fenced central area. Chicken and hog farms were established but cattle were only raised for a short time because of the prohibitive cost involved. There were a number of victory gardens, and some of the experienced growers managed to cultivate fruit from about 1,000 apple and pear trees that the original farmers had planted before the town was abandoned decades earlier. Evacuees also conducted experiments for the California Institute of Technology on extracting rubber from guayule, a small woody shrub, to aid in the war effort.

Money worries were a major concern among the evacuees at the outset. They believed that they would be paid Army wages although payment decisions were delayed for months, and internees were asked to "volunteer" their services to keep essential operations going. After failing to receive any pay for three months, internees protested and the turbulence resulted in the riots on December 6. To complicate matters, the resentment of the Owens Valley residents toward the Japanese Americans and the camp itself was worsening.

The Manzanar "Incident"

On December 6, 1942, one of the most serious civil disturbances to occur at all the relocation centers erupted at Manzanar. Months of internal tension and gang activity had raged between members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and many of the first-generation Japanese. Although the JACL leaders acted as representatives to the administration, the elders did not share their views and had little respect for them. Meetings turned into shouting sessions with beatings and death threats against the pro-administration group.

On the night of December 5, six masked men beat JACL leader Fred Tayama while he was in his bed. The leader of the Kitchen Workers Union, Harry Ueno, was arrested for the beating and jailed in the nearby town of Independence despite a lack of conclusive evidence. The next day about 2,000 internees gathered in support of Ueno, and a "committee of five" was selected to negotiate his release. Center Director Ralph Merritt attempted to talk with the agitated crowd and subsequently agreed to bring Ueno back to the relocation center jail to avoid further violence or bloodshed.

Ueno was brought back to the camp jail on December 6, but several thousand evacuees gathered again to demand his unconditional release and air other grievances. The director requested a military police presence because the agitated protesters began arming themselves with knives, hatchets, stones or any weapon they could find. A small group had forced their way into the hospital looking for Tayama and another 500 protesters surrounded the police station demanding Ueno’s release. The committee of five continued to negotiate with the police chief as the crowds swelled.

By evening, the soldiers who were stationed in front of the building drew a line in the sand but the hostile protesters surged closer. The crowd became extremely unruly and tear gas was used to break up the demonstration. Although no orders were given to shoot, soldiers fired into the crowd, and a 17- year old was killed and eleven others were wounded. One of the wounded died later on December 11.

Protesters who were considered troublemakers were removed from the camp and held in local jails. Those who were U.S. citizens went to a WRA isolation center at Moab and non-U.S. citizens were sent to Department of Justice camps. Most work, except oil delivery and kitchen crews, was suspended by the administration until after Christmas. By early January 1943, the camp’s operations fully resumed, and schools reopened on January 10.

Establishing a Sense of Normalcy

Tensions subsided as the "peace of Manzanar" was established in early 1943. In July, Dr. Morris E. Opler, an anthropologist from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, arrived at Manzanar and served as Social Science Analyst at the camp until November 1944. Opler lived in the barracks among the internees and studied the population so he could advise the administration on the center’s policies. Although Director Merritt was opposed to Opler’s presence, the reports provided a rich source of information in understanding the Japanese-American communities and attitudes.

People did their best to make the surroundings more attractive by adding walkways, gardens and small ponds around the barracks. Even the hospital had an elaborate garden, with a pond, a stream, rock gardens and other landscape features. Nearly every residential block had its own volleyball or basketball court and some had playground equipment.

Organized recreational and cultural activities flourished despite a shortage of sports equipment and materials. Picnic areas, parks, outdoor theaters – and a nine-hole golf course at Bairs Creek – were developed throughout the camp. Rose Park (later renamed Merritt Park after the camp’s director) had over 100 species of flowers, two small lakes, a waterfall, a bridge, a Japanese tea house, a Dutch oven and pine trees. Cherry Park was developed when a nursery wholesaler donated 1,000 cherry and wisteria trees. The South Parks were located outside the fenced area and opened in early 1943 under a permit system. Sports facilities included a judo building, football fields, baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Equipment, toys and art supplies were donated and more were later purchased by the WRA.

All internees, whether or not they were U.S. citizens, were given the chance to sign loyalty oaths and leave the camp if they had sponsors. The oaths asked two central questions: Would you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States, and would you serve in the military of the United States? Eighty-six percent of the population answered the loyalty questionnaire positively and many of the younger people and those fluent in English were able to leave for jobs and schools in the Midwest and East. But some 1,900 internees refused to answer or answered "no-no" and were transferred to Tule Lake in 1943 and 1944.

As the war progressed, the government allowed Japanese Americans to join the military. One hundred seventy-four men from Manzanar were inducted directly into armed forces. Their parents wore blue stars for sons in the military and gold ones for those who died in combat. The lone Japanese American to win the Medal of Honor, Private First Class Sadao Munemori, was from Manzanar. He served briefly with the Military Intelligence Service at Camp Savage, Minnesota, but had survived bloody combat in Italy and France as part of Company A, 100th Battalion. On April 5, 1945, Company A was assigned to take a key hill near Seravezza, Italy, where the Nazis had resisted Allied advance for five months. Munemori led the attack after his squad leader was killed. When a grenade bounced into the hole he was hiding in with two of his men, he threw himself on it to smother the blast. He saved the lives of the two men at the cost of his own and was instrumental in his company’s victorious advance.

Several renowned photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, came to record life at Manzanar, but it was the work of 47-year-old Toyo Miyatake that truly captured the camp experience. Using a lens and film holder that he had smuggled into the camp, the professional photographer from Los Angeles secretly built a crude wooden box camera with the help of a carpenter friend. The camera looked like an unobtrusive lunch pail and he was able to get film from his supplier in Los Angeles. The internees were forbidden to take photos in the camp, and Miyatake was caught by the camp police in early 1943. But Director Merritt allowed him to openly choose his subjects and work with a Caucasian staff member who would trip the shutter. Restrictions were relaxed shortly thereafter, so Miyatake sent for his studio and darkroom equipment and opened a fully equipped photo studio that served the entire camp.

Of the 135 people who died at Manzanar, 28 were buried in Manzanar’s cemetery and six remain today. A large concrete obelisk contains Japanese inscriptions on two sides. The front reads "Monument to Console the Souls of the Dead" and the back reads "Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943."

Manzanar was the sixth relocation center to close, and by December 1946, it was completely dismantled except for a few buildings in the administration and staff housing area. Manzanar is a registered California Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1992 Congress designated Manzanar a National Historic Site.

Americans of Japanese Ancestry Who Died in World War II
(Enlisted from Manazanar)



First Name

Last Name



Date Died





Frank N.



Los Angeles, CA



Evergreen, LA



Paul T.



Los Angeles, CA


Vosges Mtn -St. Die

Evergreen, LA



Sadao S.



Glendale, CA


Po Valley Campaign

Evergreen, LA



Robert K.



Fresno, CA


Po Valley Campaign

Evergreen, LA



Booth, William. "A Lonely Patch of History: Japanese Americans Were Forced to Live Here: They Don't Want It to Be Forgotten," Washington Post, April 15 1997.

Colon, Aly. "Bainbridge Residents Recall Confinement," Seattle Times, May 7, 1996.

National Park Service: Manzanar National Historic Site website.

Niiya, Brian, Japanese American History: An A to Z Reference, 1868 to the Present, New York, Facts on File, 1993.

Unrau, Harlan D. The Evacuation And Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry During World War II: A Historical Study of The Manzanar War Relocation Center, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996.

Reprinted with permission from "Echoes of Silence:  The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII" with thanks to the AJA WWII Memorial Alliance educational project who produced the CD.