The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

The sixth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395. Please note, this installment differs in tone from the previous chapters in this series.

One of the wonderful things about travel is the opportunity to experience those places that excite in us a sense of wonder. In 2015 I took my wife, Cora, to Yellowstone National Park. I’d been there three times before, and since my  first visit, during my childhood, Yellowstone has been one of my favorite places on Earth. During my last visit, the one with Cora, Yellowstone blessed me with a new joy as I watched Cora’s reaction to that amazing place. In 2021, we took a road trip that brought us to the Grand Canyon. The panorama literally brought us to tears. Devil’s Tower, the Black Hills, a stand of ancient redwoods and Mount McKinley at sunset. The grandeur and beauty of these places touches something in all of us.

And then there are those places that touch us in a different way. These are the sobering places. I remember the afternoon when I stood on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. It was a steamy July afternoon, exactly 135 years after Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry, ammunition and numbers depleted, held off repeated Confederate charges. At Antietam I stood at the Sunken Road where over the course of three hours two armies suffered over 5500 casualties. At the Lorraine Motel in Memphis I stood at the very window where Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was assassinated. The most profound jolt among the many at the Holocaust Museum is in the final room where the shoes of 4,000 victims are on display. It’s an exhibit that one not only sees, but also smells. Places such as these can be unpleasant and emotionally draining, yet they are vitally important to our understanding of the human story.

Visiting Manzanar

Just eight minutes out of the little town of Independence, California, on Highway 395, those heavy emotions revisit me as we drive beneath a guard tower and through the gates at Manzanar.

A visit begins at the museum where the visitor learns of the early history of the area. While the exhibits cover the period from 1885 to the present, the focus is on the war years and the camp’s history as a concentration camp.

A self-guided walk through the grounds includes visits to two barracks, a mess hall and a women’s latrine.

This is a harsh area of sagebrush, and sand and rock, where temperatures can reach 100 degrees in the summer and drop down into the 20’s in the wintertime.

The hills on the eastern side of the Owens Valley

The Spanish word, Manzanar, means apple orchard, a description that conjures pleasant images of crisp fruit, freshness, sweet fragrance and good health. There is none of that within the confines of what was once a concentration camp, in which American citizens, summarily stripped of their rights, were detained.

Decades before the barbed wire was strung, the rude barracks built and the guard towers erected, this area in the Owens Valley, in the shadow of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, was an apple farming community. Before that it was cattle country.

A dirt court on the grounds of Manzanar

Yoshiko Uchida

Yoshiko Uchida grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Berkeley, California. She and her mother and father and older sister Keiko, lived in a rented, single story, stucco bungalow on Grove Street. The family straddled the line between assimilation and maintaining their Japanese heritage and traditions. Like all Asian families in America, the Uchida’s fell victim to racism; both the overt and the thinly veiled.

In her book, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family, which I bought at the park bookstore, Ms. Uchida describes her struggles growing up in the shadow of bigotry. “The insolence of a clerk or a waiter, the petty arrogance of a bureaucrat, discrimination and denial at many establishments, exclusion from the social activities of my white classmates – all of these affected my sense of personal worth.”

The slights, the insults and the injuries that Yoshiko suffered, were nothing compared to what she and her family would endure during and after December 7th, 1941, the day that the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy, bombed Pearl Harbor.

The family had spent the early part of that day away from the house. During their absence their house had been ransacked by the FBI. When the family returned to find that their home had been violated, Yoshiko’s father reported the break in and the police and the FBI returned. Yoshiko’s father was apprehended and an FBI agent remained at the home “to intercept all phone calls and to inform anyone who called that they were indisposed.”

Four months later, Yoshiko and her family were informed that they would be removed to a detention facility across the San Francisco Bay at Tanforan, an old horse racing track. On May 1st, 1942, the family gathered at an evacuation center in Berkeley. From there they were bussed to Tanforan. They took only those possessions that were authorized. The family had already given away or sold whatever they were forced to leave including Laddie, the family dog, who they would never see again.

For months, the family lived in a ramshackle horse stall before being transferred to a concentration camp in Topaz, Utah, While Yoshiko and her family were not confined at Manzanar, their experience was typical of that of the internees at Manzanar.

Stories of Manzanar

In an interview with NPR, Aiko Yoshinaga recalled the day when the principal of her high school in Los Angeles announced to the Japanese students, “You’re not getting your diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Momo Nagano arrived at Manzanar on April 2nd, 1942. “I had pictured Manzanar as a camp of little white cottages. I can still vividly recall my dismay … as we pulled into Manzanar … and saw rows of black tar papered barracks, some finished and others still being built, our home for an indeterminate future.”

The barracks of tar paper and scrap lumber were shared by multiple families. The only semblance of privacy was provided by makeshift curtains.

Wilbur Sato was twelve years old when his family was taken from his home and detained, “People were pushed into these cars.It was dark and children were crying. We didn’t know where we were going.” After spending twelve hours in the dark, he was greeted at his new home by “soldiers with bayonets on their rifles.”

Aiko Yoshinaga described the hot and dusty April day when she arrived at Manzanar. “The only thing that was in the ‘apartments’ when we got there were army metal beds with the springs on it, and a pot bellied stove in the middle of the room. That was the only thing. No chest of drawers, no nothing, no curtains on the windows. It was the barest of the bare.”

The inside of a barracks as it might have looked in 1943

Her mattress consisted of a burlap bag that she filled with hay. Just newly married, Aiko’s first conjugal bed was that straw filled burlap bag, which was exposed to the other occupants of the building.

One former internee recalled, “You know it was a very humiliating experience to be rounded up by your own government. It was very painful because you not only were just cast as enemies, you lost everything materially.”

Sets Tomita, said of his arrival, “It was like being abandoned.”

Besides the hardship of living in substandard housing, the struggle was compounded by the necessity to compete for simple basic luxuries. Kinya Noguchi recalled, “Camp life was highly regimented. It was rushing to the wash basin to beat other groups, rushing to mess hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

The women’s latrine offered no privacy

Over time, the internees established a relatively stable community, given the circumstances. Schools were established and community service organizations set up. There were plays and music performances as well as spartan holiday celebrations. Still, they were prisoners in a concentration camp and despite their pursuits at normalcy, the internees had to live with the fact that they had been betrayed by their own country and that they were living in an open ended state of detention. They had no release date to look forward to. Release depended on the cessation of hostilities and even that was not a given.

Manzanar didn’t close until three months after the war ended. That was because many of the prisoners had nowhere to go.

Before the war, Sets Tomita’s father had owned a thriving trucking business. Said Tomita, “A more devastating part of my life history is when we came out of camp. Because in camp you were fed three times a day. You had the necessities of life.” After the war, Tomita’s family was destitute. Tomita’s father found work cleaning rabbit pens. The family of nine was forced to live in a two car garage. “All it had was one single light bulb. No water, no heat, no electricity, no gas. We had two beds.”

Post War

Every last Saturday in April, there is a Manzanar Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Manzanar Committee. The committee’s mission statement reads,
“The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger.”

The first pilgrimage was in December of 1969. The event was attended mostly by students who learned of the detainees’ hardships through talks given by former prisoners, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Karl Yoneda, Elaine Black, Amy Ishii, Henry Matsumura, Rex Takahashi, and Jim Matsuoka.

In 1972, the Manzanar Committee sought to establish Manzanar as a California State Historic Landmark. The group met with resistance from the state due to wording submitted for the plaque which included the terms “hysteria,” “racism,” and “concentration camp”. In the end, Manzanar was given the historic status that it deserves. Shortly thereafter, Manzanar was granted National Historic Landmark status.

Cautionary tales

The story of Manzanar has relevance today. Manzanar presents us with two cautionary tales.The first describes America’s immediate reaction to the events of December 7, 1941.

America, for the most part, acquitted itself well during the war years. With the help of the other Allied Nations, America helped to defeat the forces of tyranny. Within its own borders though, America practiced a domestic version of tyranny and injustice, by detaining and incarcerating its own legal residents and citizens.

After Pearl Harbor, there was an immediate backlash against Japanese living in America that was manifested by racism, violence and vigilantism that not only targeted Japanese citizens but Asians as a whole.

Unable to differentiate one Asian-American group from another, vigilantes often mistakenly targeted Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans. In her memoirs, Korean-American, Mary Park Lee describes incidents of racism and injustice suffered by her and members of her family. She recalls events in which Korean-Americans were stopped on the highway, pulled from their cars and beaten.

Racism went unbridled. In a December 1941 issue, Life Magazine published an article with the bold headline, “HOW TO TELL JAPS FROM THE CHINESE”. Chinese and Korean Americans took to wearing buttons that identified them as Chinese or Korean.

In February of 1942, injustice was made law when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Shortly thereafter, over 100,000 legal residents and citizens of Japanese descent were sent to concentration camps.

There’s an oft repeated and rarely observed quote about the dangers inherent in not learning from the mistakes of history.

Over time, the United States Government owned up to the injustices perpetrated on Japanese-Americans during the war years. That said, the lesson hasn’t sunk in, certainly when it comes to scapegoating and raining violence on innocent people because of who they are, how they look or dress, or how they worship.

In the aftermath of 9/11, men wore turbans and women wore hijabs at their own risk. Anyone who looked Muslim ran the risk of suffering a variety of indignities, from being verbally harassed in a supermarket line, to being beaten, to being killed. In 2002, then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a man not known for his sense of equal justice, implemented a new Special Registration Program that was designed to register foreign visitors from designated countries. Not coincidentally, nearly all of the 25 countries on the list were those with large Muslim populations.

In January of 2017, the then sitting president signed into law Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Trump Muslim Ban, which saw the U.S. Government once again codifying racism. The ban, which lowered the number of refugees to be admitted into the United States, and completely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees, was unabashedly aimed at Muslims and Muslim countries. Order 13769 was superseded by Executive Order 13780, which placed restrictions on entry by nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Fast forward to the days of COVID, when large-scale violence against Asians returned, largely fueled by hateful rhetoric from the same former president. Hate crimes spiked after that president tweeted remarks using terms such as “Chinese virus,” and “kung flu.”

If history repeats itself it’s because ignorance endures and is not only openly promoted but is made policy. This is the second cautionary tale.

When I was growing up, the recipe for American history consisted of a few measures of fact mixed with copious measures of crap. Manifest Destiny was a God given right, Junipero Serra was a kindly padre who arrived with a righteous mission of “civilizing” the indigenous population. That many of the founders were enslavers was kept under wraps. We were taught that George Washington never told a lie and Lincoln walked miles to return a library book. Slavery and the civil rights movement were barely discussed and the near extinction of the American Bison was never mentioned. I didn’t know about robber barons, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans or the three-fifths clause until I was in college.

Since my school days, the teaching of history began to incorporate more truth and less legend. An inconvenient light was being cast into the darker reaches of the closet of America’s story.

This kind of revelation of a shadier past history doesn’t sit well with those who refuse to accept the notion that Ronald Reagan’s “shining city” is tarnished in spots. The deniers of a checkered past would prefer to bury slavery, injustice, racism, genocide and incidents of foreign intervention that were less than noble.

The response from the American right has been to push for a return to what that recent president liked to call ‘patriotic education.’ To that end, that president created a grant to develop a “pro-American curriculum.” He termed the teaching of systemic racism, “a form of child abuse.”

That president’s rhetoric and actions poured gasoline on the flames of ignorance. School boards and state and local governments across the nation have moved to ban books and either roll back or forbid the teaching of slavery and the mistreatment of indigenous people. In addition it has become illegal to teach about gender and LGBTQ issues. The teaching of The 1619 Project has been forbidden in schools around the country and many schools have returned to promoting many of the tired old myths from the past, such as the fable that the Civil War was started over state’s rights.

In Ron DeSantis’ fascist state of Florida the educational vision is based on a combination of censorship, denial, mythology and a large dose of intimidation of teachers. Pull out a prohibited book about race or gender issues and you could find yourself with a new career as a barista. You know things are bad when a school principal was given his walking paper after parents complained about a lesson in which sixth graders were exposed to Michelangelo’s David. A penis — horrors!

If students are treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed shit, then  sad chapters of American history, like Manzanar, will be written again and again.

At its peak, the population of Manzanar reached 10,046 in September of 1942.

Shrine at the Manzanar Cemetery


Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile : the Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.

Stories From Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp.

National Park Service: One Camp, Ten Thousand Lives; One Camp, Ten Thousand Stories.

Manzanar Committee:

At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps:

Seventy Years After Manzanar, the Stories of Incarceration Live On:

PBS: Untold Stories | Manzanar: “Never Again”:


15 thoughts on “The U.S. 395 Chronicles: Manzanar

  1. So horrific. I can only imagine the horror of being rounded up like that.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Tina,
      The museum at Manzanar is full of stories of families who were uprooted, forced to give up nearly everything and then imprisoned. Some were lucky enough to reclaim some of their possessions. Most had to start over.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. mistermuse says:

    I knew of the interment of Japanese Americans during WWII only in a general way, and appreciate this detailed example of such a shameful practice. Excellent post.

    1. Paul says:

      The interment got lost in the larger story of WWII. Now it’s going to get further lost in the current trend towards rendering history down to BS and mythology.

  3. Toonsarah says:

    Although I haven’t been to Manzanar I have visited similar places such as Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh and Tarrafel in Cape Verde, so I know exactly what you mean about the feelings they induce. I think it’s important not only to visit but also to share those visits, as you have done, to widen awareness. I knew vaguely that the US must have interred its Japanese citizens, just as Britain did its German and Italian – my husband’s grandmother had to give up her Italian citizenship in order to avoid being sent to a camp. But I wasn’t aware of the harsh conditions nor the fact that on release they were given no support to return to a ‘normal’ way of life.
    Your reflections on the inability to learn from the past and the recent backwards steps are even more sobering. People tend to believe what they were taught as a child so this is sowing the seeds for more heartache and violence in the future, I fear.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      In 1988, over 40 years after the concentration camps were established, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act which paid each survivor $20,000 dollars and offered an official apology. Ronald Reagan signed it and from what I know of that miserable old goat, Ronnie Rayguns probably had a couple of good stiff drinks before putting pen to paper.

      The backward steps here are beyond sobering, they are terrifying. The right wing likes to call subject matter such as The 1619 Project, indoctrination, and many states have passed laws forbidding its introduction. The idea is to replace it all with “patriotic education.” What do we call it when government officials dictate what should be taught in schools? Even if one disagrees with The 1619 Project the idea that it can’t be introduced eliminates the opportunity for debate over its merits. We are quashing thought in America. I have visions of an American version of Hitler Youth if the current trend continues.

      Thank you for reading and commenting,

      1. Toonsarah says:

        I had to look up The 1619 Project as it’s not really an issue over here (although similar debates on revising the teaching of history do of course happen, e.g. acknowledging the part the slave trade played in the development of our economy, empire and significant individuals). What we don’t have here, thankfully, is any serious backlash on the scale you describe. People may debate the details, such as whether statues of those who built their wealth on the back of slavery should be allowed to remain, but if anyone is challenging the notion that we need to reconsider and reframe the teaching of some aspects of our history, they are in the minority and on the right-wing margins, without any real influence on the curriculum.

  4. Paul, you may know that we are currently in Vietnam. We are going next to Cambodia and will be visiting the terrible histories of the Khmer Rouge regime. We’ve been to Auschwitz, a former KGB prison, and the museums of Soviet displacement in the Baltic states. These histories are appalling commentaries on humanity, and it goes (almost) without saying that enshrining parallel bigotry into modern day law is beyond abhorrent. However, if we are ever going to learn, then these histories should be taught…but taught with context. Teaching the story of atrocities without giving context from the appropriate time is NOT going to teach people to not have prejudice. Surely we need to teach WHY conduct was what it was, in order to learn what would have been – and more importantly, what would be NOW – a better way. Bigotry takes many forms. It starts with being partisan. Judging the past by contemporary values is partisan. Surely.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree that context is paramount when teaching/discussing history. Introducing context is what inspires discussion and debate about events. Shortly after returning from the trip that took me to Manzanar I had a discussion with someone who tried to rationalize the internment of Japanese citizens, because the Imperial Navy had carried out a sneak attack. I disagreed then and I do now. The discussion was cordial but I don’t think that minds were changed.

      The current trend in America’s red states, not only avoids context, it takes an event and either avoids it, marginalizes its importance or misinforms about it. You can’t discuss the context of an event that hasn’t been introduced. Even when a controversial subject can be introduced, guidelines sometimes discourage context or opposing ideas.

      There’s some irony and hypocrisy going on in America. The right wing categorizes the teaching of America’s darker history as indoctrination. At the same time, that same faction is pushing for what it likes to call “patriotic education.” Isn’t “patriotic education,” just another way of saying indoctrination? I see the push for laws promoting “patriotic education” paving the way for America’s own version of Hitler Youth.


  5. Paul,
    Thank you for expounding on the not so democratic history of the US. And for expanding on the internment camp at Manzanar to include the more recent injustices to those who “look different”. That heritage site is already on our itinerary for the 2024 Road Trip north on Rte 395!

    If you and your readers will bear with me, I can supplement the experience you and Cora had. My wife, Toni, and I were married “in the care of the Society of a Friends Quaker meeting”. One of the ways they care is to provide each couple who think they want to marry with a “clearness committee” to be sure that the couple’s intent is clear and well directed. Our clearness committee included two Japanese Americans, transplants from the West Coast, who were interred during World War II. Mamie and Lafayette Noda met while there and they talked about the lack of privacy, the flimsy curtains and the crowding. However, this did not squash the budding romance that led to their marriage. He was a college professor and they both were resident citizens of the US.

    Some of your readers may be travelers and if they include the national parks, they are learning about the awareness of Park Rangers and the discussion which addresses the diverse history of our country. As they travel, they might be interested in some of the following destinations – not all are national parks. As you noted, if the injustice isn’t remembered it could easily be repeated.
    Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument -Crow Agency, MT –native American slaughter
    Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site – Tuskegee, AL – fighting fascism abroad and racism at home
    San Antonio Missions – National Park Service – San Antonio, TX – cultural loss of Texas natives
    Whitney Plantation – Wallace, LA – A plantation featuring history of its black residents
    Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration – Montgomery, AL
    National Memorial for Peace and Justice – Montgomery, AL – Lynching history in the US

    A fan from the East Coast – Stewart

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stewart,
      Your story about the Nodas is similar to the many stories that I read about at Manzanar and later while doing research for this post. It’s a testament to the spirit of people that they persevere in the face of injustice and difficult conditions.

      I’ve been to Whitney Plantation. The docents and guides are not apologists for what took place there. That’s in contrast to the estates of Jefferson, Washington, Jackson and Madison which we also visited, where the guides say something along the lines of, “Yes, he was an enslaver but he was a benign enslaver.”

      On the way from the Black Hills to Red Lodge, Montana we had the option of going through Crow Agency or Sheridan. I chose Sheridan. I didn’t have the stomach to see any paeans to Custer.

      Let me know when you will be in the area of 395 in California. Perhaps we can take a short trip out there and meet up if you would be up for it.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  6. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the history lesson about Manzanar. Unfortunately, we don’t need to scratch too deeply to find atrocities in our own backyards, do we? Canada has its share, even if its colonizers like to perpetuate the myth that we’re a multi-cultural, accepting society. Our treatment of Indigenous, Asian, and Black people revealed the systemic racism that was always there but hidden or forgotten. Covid circumstances brought it to the fore.

    What was sobering about your blog was how long humans have been indiscriminately brutalizing other humans. For those leaders/regimes who inflict such devastation, their memories must be short and selective and self-serving.

    It would seem that past events, no matter how horrific, offer little ‘learning opportunity’ if they go against the dominant thought of a particular person/party/country. How else can we explain why the same patterns keep repeating—all over the world. There’s an obvious disconnect in our humanity, so … life goes on. Humans continue to suck.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Eden,
      I figured that this post would strike a nerve and I’m sorry that humanity, or the lack of, would cause a story like this to provoke such a reaction.

      “What was sobering about your blog was how long humans have been indiscriminately brutalizing other humans.” How long? Since the beginning. Since the time when clubs were the modern weapons of choice. In America, each new group was victimized by prejudice or scapegoated as the cause of the social calamity du jour. It was the Germans, the Italians, the Jews, the Irish, Mexicans, Asians. Anything from a tight job market to something as simple as two people speaking in a different language is cause enough for some people to cast blame for the collapse of their own perfect society.

      When hysteria overrules reason someone has to pay the price. Right? After Pearl Harbor, it was incarcerate everyone who’s Japanese or of Japanese descent. Harass anyone who might appear to be Japanese. After 9/11, anyone who looked remotely Arab was fair game. Wear a hijab – get harassed. I remember the frenzy over Sharia law, driven mostly by those who were working to make America a Christian theocracy.

      “It would seem that past events, no matter how horrific, offer little ‘learning opportunity’ if they go against the dominant thought of a particular person/party/country.” History is the best opportunity for both learning and discussion/debate. In America, the right wing wants to erase the inconvenient truths. The result is suppression of learning, discussion and progress. History in America is the lost opportunity for both learning and discussion/debate.


    2. I agree Edan,
      The dominant thought is often fixed irreversibly in the mindset until there is some personal experience to the contrary which effects a change. Of course, there needs to be a crack in that armor to open a door which creates the opportunity for that change of mind – or heart.
      The personal experience could be a friendship, a neighbor or a random act of kindness associated with (an LGBTQ, Asian or Black person) which seems to be more common in the under 30’s demographic. Perhaps there is hope for yet for a country of empowered youth and increasing diversity as long as we can hold to our democracy.
      After open sessions in the state legislature Vermont came to be the first state to have same sex civil unions (a precursor to same sex marriage after a 9 year controversy and court battle (there was NO court mandate but there was a court invitation for the state to alter its statutes). Adoption and inheritance laws along with some good old “common sense” played a role.
      As we have traveled in Canada, we have seen situations similar to that in the U. S. One showed up along Route 1A in Banff Provincial Park where WWI work camps interred “enemy aliens” (victims of Canada’s “War Measures Act” who were previously invited to immigrate from Europe and the Mideast to build roads, RRs, etc.). Another was revealed by a carved stone plaque displayed near Fan Tan Alley in Victoria. As it states: the Chinese endured discrimination from legislation in BC during the 20th century. At least there was an apology made (belatedly) by the legislature of BC which is publicly displayed and written in stone.
      As long as there is conversation there is hope for a change of minds. Stewart

  7. stacey says:

    I know some don’t want to hear about what was done in the past, thinking it’s the past, but unfortunately since the same mindsets persist today which keep the same oppressive behaviors and structures in place, it’s not over and, in fact, is alive and well. But at least the truth is emerging. Glacially, in some case…but still emerging. 🙂

Would love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: