NOShikata Ga Nai, “It can not be helped.”
.Ten thousand and forty six souls. 10,046 in counting numbers. In 1942 Manzanar was home to over ten thousand Japanese Americans. It was one of ten camps scattered around the United States. From Camp Rohwer in the dismal, mosquito infested swamps of southwestern Arkansas to remote Tule lake in California, they had one thing in common, they were all isolated, inhospitable and barely livable. For the people who were incarcerated there it was to be a long time before the would see their homes again, if ever. On March 25th the first buses from the temporary assembly centers in California rolled through the front gate. Surrounded by barbed wire fences with eight machine gun towers at regular intervals they belied the fact that west coast newspapers and politicians were advertising the voluntary evacuation of patriotic Japanese Americans. There was no doubt that they were in for a hard time. They would have precious little to volunteer for.
The first blocks of barracks were barely complete. The camp was organized like a military base with orderly rows of buildings designed to hold three or four families each. Buildings measured 120X20 feet and were divided into six one-room apartments, ranging in size form 320 to 480 square feet. Each block of 15 barracks shared bath, latrine, and mess buildings. Each family would be housed in a twenty by twenty foot “room.” The room itself was nothing but an undivided space in the barrack. There was no partition between families, no toilet or sink, no insulation or wallboard no ceiling nor carpet on the plank floors. Each of these building was provided with one oil heater to fight of the winters brutal cold and the only air conditioning was the gap between the floor boards which let in the
Family life in a room the size of your garage. National Archives photo
wind, the sand and the dust, for it was nearly always windy in the Owens Valley. The city of Los Angeles owned the land the camp was on and when the US government condemned it for wartime use they simply bulldozed the already barren square mile of all of its vegetation. There was literally not a blade of grass to be found within the compound in the beginning. Keeping the inside of the building clean was a hopeless task, made even more difficult because the people imprisoned there came from a population where cleanliness and order were very important staples of their culture. There was also little or no privacy in the barracks and not much outside either. The 200 to 400 people living in each block tried to achieve some privacy by hanging blanket or sheets on ropes between families but it did little to help. They were provided no furniture, no chairs, tables or dressers in which to store their meager belongings. Nearly everything that made life comfortable was simply denied them.
——We couldn’t cook in the barracks. They told us it was a fire hazard plus they had confiscated our hot plates at the assembly centers. We had to eat in the halls. We stood in line outside no matter the weather, winter and summer We had to eat whatever they had to serve. In the beginning the food was terrible. Once we had jello over rice. I guess they didn’t deport enough cooks.——Yori Kageyama
For the women in particular, the showers and restrooms were excruciating. There were no stalls or enclosures at all. In a culture where modesty is a virtue, having to shower naked in the open or use the toilet was almost more than some could bear. The earliest arrivals had only outhouses located between the barracks. The cess pits were soon overflowing exacerbating the concerns of a people whose entire culture was built around privacy and order.
——-My mother was so humiliated that she would get up at three in the morning with the hope that the shower room might be empty. It almost never was. She simply had to learn to live with it.——-Shigeru Ito
,Absolutely no thought had been given to cultural differences, religious needs or education. There were no schools, nurseries or churches. No playgrounds, no ball fields and only a rudimentary hospital which would be staffed by the prisoners themselves. There were no farm fields for growing crops, no orchards and no parks. Rooms had no furniture beyond an iron bed frame and a mattress which you had to stuff yourself. Nothing had been done to provide for family life in a room the size of your garage. The absolute bare minimum of shelter, period.
At Manzanar, many residents complained about a lack of food. The white camp employees were stealing their already limited supply of food. Sugar and other supplies that were rationed throughout the United States, and many Americans were willing to pay high prices for these goods. The employees cheated camp residents out of part of their food, took the surplus into nearby Lone Pine, Bishop and Independence and sold it at high prices on the local black market. Camp administrators simply turned a blind eye.
Henry Ueno who headed the kitchen workers carefully monitored the theft of sugar and other food items, trying to verify that the prisoners were suffering from this lack of food. He found the supply of sugar delivered to the mess halls to be 6,000 pounds short and went to the camp officials showed them the records and complained. He was quickly removed from his job, labeled as a subversive and troublemaker and promptly jailed in Lone Pine. The next morning he was returned to Manzanar and thrown into the camp jail. People in the camp formed a large protest outside the main administration building. The camps military police quickly formed and surrounded the protestors, armed with fixed bayonets and canisters of tear gas. Someone in the crowd threw a light bulb which popped when it hit the ground. Soldiers then threw tear gas at the crowd. Ueno recalled: “That stifling smoke quickly covered the whole area. People were gasping and coughing and trying to get away. The sergeant in charge was yelling, “Remember Pearl Harbor, hold your line.” Some one amongst the soldiers fired a shot and then they all started firing.” When the smoke cleared, one Japanese American boy, just seventeen lay dead in the dirt and eleven more were taken to the camp hospital where a twenty-one year old died from a terrible stomach wound. This became known as the Manzanar Massacre.
One of the results of this was the immediate removal to the Tule Lake punishment camp in northeastern California of all collaborators (Spies) who were working for special treatment and favors by the government officials who ran the camp. Things gradually settled down after this but the blackmarket thefts never stopped. The prisoners had no direct access to camp supplies in the warehouses and little was ever done by the camp director to stop the practice of theft.
One of the outcomes was that administrators came to realize that the prisoners were not just ignorant farmers or fisherman but were comprised of people from all walks of life. Highly educated people who represented every major profession. Lawyers, educators, business owners, bankers, college students, architects, engineers and union organizers were among those imprisoned.
Manzanar had 36 residential blocks each with 14 barracks all separated by streets and firebreaks. There were no streetlights and it was hazardous to move around at night. The streets were unpaved of course and there was no water in the buildings. In the winter the ground became a sea of mud, often covered by snow and in the summer it baked under the heat to a brick like consistency. At its height the camp held nearly eleven thousand people of all ages who lived, worked and played there.
The blocks held people from they same area which turned out to be a blessing. People from Arroyo Grande or Guadalupe for example were mostly in the same buildings or were close neighbors. This wasn’t done through any sense of sympathy for the deportees but simply because when you were checked off the train or bus from your hometown it was simply easier to keep the group together. For the initial internees it helped to build a small sense of community.
From the very beginning people tried to organize their lives. As thousands of people began to flood into the camps the authorities scrambled to organize and educate them in the rules and schedules of the camp. For people who had recently run their own lives it was a shock to be herded from place to place, stand in long lines and go through the humiliation of being treated as if you were just a number. Just like going to boot camp one said. Poked and prodded by doctors, issued numbers in lieu of your name, standing in line to be issued bedding, a thin mattress for your single iron bed and an two gray Navy issue wool blankets. In a nod to the temperature extremes each resident was also issued a Navy peacoat and in the old photos you can see small children wrapped up in these man sized jackets. Eligible citizens were even issued identification cards that would allow them to vote in the November election of 1942. Wrap your mind around that, imprisoned against your will, deprived of your property and livelihood, locked in a desert hell hole guarded by guard towers manned by soldiers with loaded machine guns and rifles but we are going to make sure you can exercise at least one of the rights given to American citizens by the constitution, the right to vote for the candidate of your choice. The elected officials who sent you here without any due process who said, “It’s for your own protection,” but who also made sure the five wire barbed wire fence was constantly patrolled and machine guns pointed, not outward but inward.
Amongst different age groups two stand out as the most affected. Adults who had managed their own lives and businesses could and did organize themselves, electing block committees, advocacy groups and attempting to build communities within the many, many restrictions set down by the authorities. As with all government agencies, especially those removed from the center of power as the administrators of the camps were, they were charged with imposing rules they did not agree with or had no hand in writing.
It was forbidden to speak, read or write Japanese, . For the oldest among the prisoners this was a major hardship as with many immigrants from foreign countries they had never learned rudimentary or perhaps no English. This was true of people of all countries who had come to the United States though it was only applied to the Japanese. Old folks who came with no family who could translate had real difficulties. Even the Buddhist churches were forbidden their own languages during services.
Then there were the young, the teenagers who had just left their home towns, and high schools where they had never given much thought to any differences in race or ethnicity. This was especially true in small towns like ours where there were differences between adults but not so much amongst kids. Elementary and Secondary schools are a world of their own.
It was April 1942. Arroyo Grande’s Japanese were ordered to report to the high school. They were allowed to carry only one bag with them. Everything a family thought they would need had to be stuffed into that bag. High school kids stood in small groups talking in low voices. Amongst the crowd were kids who were not going, friends who had shown up. Friends who saw no differences.
The busses ground their gears as they pulled up the steep hill and pulled into the parking lot behind the school. The doors hissed open and the WRA officials began checking people in as they boarded. A group of teenage girls were holding each other, some crying out loud some just stunned. Only some were going to The collection center in Tulare, some were not, they didn’t have to because they were white. Really the only difference, they were white. Twenty five of the 58 students in the class of 1942 were Nisei. In one hour the school was reduced by nearly half. Most would never return.
Lapel tag for No. 04220 bound for Poston Camp.
At Arroyo Grande high school, as the busses pulled away and the woman across the street cried, classmates and friends stood quietly, some girls quietly crying boys standing mostly silent, stoic in the way young men must be at times of stress and hurt, one or two reaching up to the window and shaking hands with other boys who they had known all their lives. Boys who they had played with as little children, boys they knew like brothers.
High school kids are for the most part united against the adult world and though they have their differences they can stand together against what they consider unjust behavior by adults. Don Gullickson, Gordon Bennett, Marylee Zeyen, Tommy Baxter and the irrepressible John Loomis would never, as long as they lived, forgive what was done. Teenagers hate injustice.
Clarence Burrell, the principal of Arroyo Grande HS took it upon himself to drive to the Tulare fairgrounds racetrack in June where his students were being held and personally deliver their diploma’s. The Arroyo Grande Women’s Club passed box lunches up through the windows of the busses to people many of whom had lived in this little valley for generations, my grandmother and her friends among them. Mrs Gladys Loomis, Miss Barbara Hall, Mrs Ole Gullickson, Mrs Chester Steele and Mrs J W Shannon, some but not all. Not everyone felt the same way.
The owners had left their keys in the ignitionAt literally the same time, doors were being kicked in, windows broken and the homes and businesses of the departed were being vandalized. Furniture, farm equipment and belongings that could not be taken were destroyed. Cars and trucks were stolen. The owners had simply left the keys in the ignition knowing they could not be saved and before the busses left many of the cars were simply driven away never to be seen again. The hateful had a field day. It was the same town of just over a thousand people. Two sides of the same coin. Many still not reconciled to this day. Uneasy lies the issue of race.
The country the Japanese Americans loved had kicked them to the curb and they felt isolated and alone. Camp administrators at Manzanar did little help overcome this belief. The only thing they could do was to rely on each other as they were all in the same boat. Having a tight community and close friends to rely on would help make the suffering a little bit easier Though locked up in the camps and taken away from their normal lives they organized and tried to bring a sense of normalcy into the camps. The brought tradition with them. They brought philosphy with them and they brought religion. They brought what they had learned in America. They needed to somehow outlast the tough times they saw coming and they did it by relying on things that could distract them form the hardships and atrocities all around them.
What They Did…. Their Stories.
Aiko Hamaguchi RN, Manzanar, National Archives, Ansel Adams