Lone Pine and Manzanar

Published: May 5th 2017
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Where in the heck is Lone Pine, CA? In the Owens Valley, near the Alabama Hills, not far from the Manzanar War Relocation Center (just north of Lone Pine). Can you imagine living here for almost four years? This area is called, for lack of a better term, "the "frontier"!!! In 1872, an earthquake almost destroyed the town, and killed 27 residents.

Coming from Los Angeles and other communities in California and Washington, Manzanar’s internees were unaccustomed to the harsh desert environment. Summer temperatures soared as high as 110ºF. In winter, temperatures frequently plunged below freezing. The elevation is 4000 feet above sea level.

Throughout the year strong winds swept through the valley, often blanketing the camp with dust and sand. Internees covered knotholes in the floors with tin can lids and scrap paper, but dust continued to blow in between the floorboards until linoleum was installed in late 1942. Yes, it was harsh, coming from places like the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

Though my parents were at Gila River, AZ, conditions were not much better there. I am glad I decided to do this, by myself, with my own thoughts. Manzanar is the best preserved Center of these ten camps, and is operated by the U.S. National Park Service.

Before I tell you more about this area, specifically Manzanar, it is important to note nobody lived here before or after the War Relocation Centers held its prisoners. As the crow flies, Manzanar is only 80 miles east of Fresno, but no road exists for direct access. You can ask Terry Hillblom and David Berg (two of my dear friends) about this. I have been through this area only once before, to ski at Mammoth.

The first people in Lone Pine were the Paiutes from prehistoric times. They established trading posts and routes to the central coast of California. A post office opened in 1870. In 1864, Mount Whitney was discovered, and named for the team leader, Josiah Whitney, not Whitney Houston, as many were led to believe!

By 1873, John Muir ascended Whitney, the mountain as well. During the 1870s, Lone Pine was an important supply town for the surrounding mining communities and sawmills. The railroad, the Carson and Colorado Railway came in 1883. Starting in 1920, many Hollywood movies were filmed here, changing the town forever. Some of the stars who were filmed here include: Steve McQueen, Spencer Tracy, Clint Eastwood, Bill Shatner, Johnny Depp, Bob Mitchum, Greg Peck, Tom Mix, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, William Boyd, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn. I visited the Western Film Museum yesterday, fairly interesting for $5.

When Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Manzanar War Relocation Center was built only 7 miles north of Lone Pine. Manzanar is set on 6000 acres, and once held 36 blocks of wood and tar paper barracks. The Manzanar location was the only camp with an orphanage, once housing 101 children.

From the NPS website: In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort. Without due process, the government gave everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast only days to decide what to do with their houses, farms, businesses, and other possessions. Most families sold their belongings at a significant loss. Some rented their properties to neighbors. Others left possessions with friends or religious groups. Some abandoned their property. They did not know where they were going or for how long. Each family was assigned an identification number and loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains, taking only what they could carry. Japanese Americans were transported under military guard to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks, fairgrounds, and similar facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Then they were moved to one of 10 hastily built relocation centers. By November, 1942, the relocation was complete.

The climate is high desert, hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Snowfall is only 5 inches annually. The last census had only about 2000 people in Lone Pine, including seventeen people of Asian descent. The Lone Pine Indian Reservation is on the south side of town, and is home to both Paiute and Shoshone members of the Federally recognized tribe, the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Lone Pine Community of the Lone Pine Reservation.

Tourism is their major business here, with Lone Pine serving as a gateway to Mt Whitney, Mammoth Ski Resort, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. There is a small airport here as well as a high school. I ate at the Merry Go Round, a Chinese and Mexican cuisine place on the main 395 road, and almost next door to my hotel, the Dow Villa Motel. The older man and his Chinese wife have been running the place for 4 years. But the town seems to be dying, the corner drugstore looked rather sad, as did the market.

Speaking of Whitney, it is the highest summit in the contiguous U.S, at 14,505. Denali in Alaska is now the highest summit in the U.S. Not far away is Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in the U.S., located 282 feet below sea level. Two of my friends, Jen and Jim climbed Whitney last spring. But I also lost another family friend many years ago when she summited Whitney.

So, you can tell from all of this descriptive information, that Manzanar was not "the place to be". Manzanar was known as "one camp, ten thousand lives, ten thousand stories." It is still described as a "military style" camp by the National Park Service. Much of the visual documentation in the form of photos were done by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Chiura Obata, Clem Albers, and Francis Stewart.

Manzanar has an 8000 square foot visitor center, showing the award winning 22 minute film, Remembering Manzanar every half hour. It also houses extensive exhibits from 1885 to present, as well as the names of all 10,000 people incarcerated here. I found my Aunt's family from LA on their wall of remembrance, as well as in the War Relocation Register.

The Camp closed on November 21, 1945, a little under a year from when I was born. It was a bittersweet visit. My Aunt was only in the Third grade. I saw a replica of her classroom, no doubt a little better than what she experienced.

From the NPS website: The 500-acre housing section was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers with searchlights and patrolled by military police. Outside the fence, military police housing, a reservoir, a sewage treatment plant, and agricultural fields occupied the remaining 5,500 acres. By September 1942 more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks. There was little or no privacy in the barracks—and not much outside. The 200 to 400 people living in each block, consisting of 14 barracks each divided into four rooms, shared men’s and women’s toilets and showers, a laundry room, and a mess hall. Any combination of eight individuals was allotted a 20-by-25-foot room. An oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw were the only furnishings provided.

Some other significant information:

1869 First known Japanese immigrants to U.S. settle near Sacramento.

1913 Alien Land Law prohibits Japanese aliens from owning land in California and imposes a three-year limit on leasing of land.

1924 Immigration Exclusion Act halts Japanese immigration to U.S.

When my grandfather bought his first farm, it was placed in the name of my Father, who was born here. When my Mom's parents bought their first farm, they had it placed in the name of very good family friends, the Matsumuras.

Further information:

1944 Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of evacuation based solely on national ancestry while separately ruling that loyal citizens cannot be held against their will.

1945 World War II ends with Japan’s surrender Aug. 14. Manzanar War Relocation Center closes Nov. 21.

1952 Walter-McCarran Immigration and Naturalization Act allows Japanese aliens to become naturalized citizens. 1972Manzanar designated a California Registered Historical Landmark.

1988 U.S. Civil Liberties Act grants a $20,000 payment and an apology to 82,000 former internees.

I recall both American and California history, and heard or read nothing about the War Relocation. I only heard vague comments form my parents about "camp" and relocation. And I never heard my grandparents utter the word a single time! Do you think today's history books mention this, or the Vietnam War?

If this interests you at all, it is a sobering visit. Many of my friends have been here. It is a 5 hour drive from my home in Clovis, and about an hour south of Bishop. Other than a ski trip or trek up to Whitney, you probably will never pass through this barren land. Those who had to stay here against their will for up to 3 years wish they never heard of nor seen this place.


6th May 2017

awesome blog
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6th May 2017

"one camp, ten thousand lives, ten thousand stories"
I think it is important that you tell some of these stories Gerry...especially poignant for your family...Lest We Forget.

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