Roaming Charges: Super Tuesday at Manzanar

Watchtower, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

My plan to spend Super Tuesday scaling the eastern flank of Mt. Whitney until my knees or lungs gave out was foiled by the closure of the Whitney Portal Road, which was buried under a late, but welcome, snowstorm. I had no interest in returning to the motel to watch the Democratic Party self-destruct again, so I headed through the fractured boulders of the Alabama Hills north about 8 miles to visit the ruins of Manzanar, the desert concentration camp named after an apple orchard.

I entered Manzanar from the south, drove past the two stone guard houses and stopped at the marker for the foundation of the first building. The sign read: “Internal Police.” Next to it were the cornerstones for the “Manzanar Free Press,” the camp paper run by detainees under the censorious eye of guards. The proximity of the two buildings seemed symbolic of our current predicament.

There are ghost towns, abandoned ranches and mining camps all over the Owens Valley. But Manzanar was wiped clean after the prison closed. The tarpaper barracks were chopped up and sold as cheap housing to returning GIs. The watchtowers were torn down, the spotlights and machine guns returned to Army bases in California and Nevada. They didn’t even leave the hospital, which could have served the local residents of Lone Pine and Independence and the few Owens Valley Paiute who hadn’t been uprooted by the government and relocated to Fresno, LA and San Francisco. It’s as if they wanted to wipe the memory of what happened here off the surface of the desert.

Perimeter fence, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

And Manzanar is a desert, averaging about 5 inches of rain year. Though, 110 years ago, it was a relatively lush one thanks to the meandering Owens River, which using the old ditch irrigation system first developed by the Paiutes enabled the valley to grow fruit trees, melons, beans, potatoes and alfalfa. That all ended in 1913 when the city of Los Angeles covertly acquired most of the land and all of the water rights in the valley and diverted the water into the Los Angeles aqueduct. Even today, the aqueduct remains locked behind gates and barbed wire fences, as if the water itself were a prisoner.

LA Power & Water owned the 6,000 acres of land that became Manzanar Concentration Camp, which it leased to the US Army in 1942. Many of the construction workers who built the camp formerly lived in the area until they lost their water to LA, including some members of the Paiute tribe. Sixty years earlier, the US Army had been dispatched to the Owens Valley to forcibly relocate more than 1000 Paiutes to Fort Tejan in order to clear the Manzanar area for white farmers, ranchers and miners.

Today the winds are fierce coming down off the Sierra, snow is flaring off the summit of Mt. Williamson and dust devils are dancing across the grounds of Manzanar. I park near the Internal Police site and walk into the heart of the concentration camp. Manzanar is laid out in a grid pattern of 68 “blocks”, which often contained 16 tarpaper barracks. All of them were removed shortly after then end of the war. In an attempt to make Manzanar a tourist destination, the Park Service has recreated several structures in Block 14: a mess hall, a barrack, and a women’s latrine, which includes toilets and showers. I got the impression that they included the showers to suggest that the US Army’s concentration camps weren’t like the Nazis’ camps. After all, they didn’t make replicas of the stockade, the forced labor sweatshops or military police buildings. These showers only poured out water, water that had been, like the prisoners themselves, illegally detained, relocated and impounded, but water none-the-less.

Women’s showers, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I search for the stone foundations, the water pipes, and rock gardens made by the detainees themselves as the real evidence of what happened here. You can’t help being disoriented by the dissonance of this place. There is no more beautiful landscape on the continent than the Owens Valley in late winter with the snow-capped granite ramparts of the Sierra to the west and the dark swell of the Inyo Range to the east. Yet this is a crime scene. And I, somewhat shamefully, can’t stop taking photos of the place.

I’m reminded of the Japanese-American photographer Toyo Miyatake. Miyatake was born in Japan in 1896 and immigrated with his parents to Los Angeles in 1909. In his 20s, Miyatake started working as a photographer and opened his own studio in Little Tokyo, where he eventually became friends with the young Edward Weston. Miyatake gave Weston his first gallery show. In 1942, Miyatake and his wife and four children were swept up by immigration police and sent to Manzanar. He smuggled a camera lens into the camp and later had a camera body manufactured from wood. A friend supplied Miyatake with film. He hid the camera in a hole in the barracks and rose early in the morning to secretly photograph the conditions of life in the camp. In a camp crawling with spies and undercover agents, Miyatake was soon discovered and his camera seized. He appealed to camp superintendent Ralph Merritt, pleading with Merritt to name him official camp photographer, so he could at least photograph weddings and birthdays. Merritt eventually agreed, but stipulated that while Miyatake could frame the shot and focus the lens the actual shutter release had to be done by a camp guard. After a few weeks, this bizarre condition was eventually lifted, after the guards complained about having follow Miyatake around all day. Miyatake’s photographs, which were published along with his friend Ansel Adams’ portraits of the camp in the exhibition and book, Two Views of Manzanar, are some of the most intimate images ever made of life inside of a concentration camp.

Barracks, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I meandered west through the camp toward the gleaming pyramid of Mt. Williamson, the second tallest peak in the Sierra. The mountain is named after Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who conducted the surveys for the rail system that would eventually haul Japanese-Americans to the concentration camp. I stopped at a small rock garden in Block 22, which had been designed and constructed by a detainee named Harry Ueno. Ueno was born in the Hawaiian village of Pa’auilo in 1907. His parents were field laborers from Hiroshima, who came to Hawaii to work on the pineapple plantations. Ueno was what was known as a Kibei, a Japanese-American who had been educated in Japanese schools. This made him a marked man for the US government after Pearl Harbor. By 1930, Ueno was living in LA, with his Japanese-born wife, Yaso, working at a fruit stand. He and Yaso, and their three sons, were sent to Manzanar in 1942, along with 10,000 other inmates, mostly from Los Angeles. At Manzanar, Ueno cut sagebrush for a few weeks, then went to work as the cook’s assistant in the mess hall on Block 22. He built the rock garden and pond as a meditation spot for the internees as they waited in line to get their meals. It wasn’t long before Ueno discovered that food supplies, especially sugar, were going missing. Ueno put together a workers committee to investigate and soon fingered the culprit as the camp’s assistant director, Ned Campbell, who had been sneaking 100-pound sugar sacks out of the camp for sale on the black market.

Japanese-American cemetery, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In response to the wretched working conditions at Manzanar, Ueno formed the Mess Hall Workers Union, which was a provocative violation of camp rules. But Ueno had many of the internees on his side. Of the 4,000 workers at Manzanar more than 1,500 worked in the kitchens, many of them, like Ueno, were Kibei. Ueno’s formation of the union eventually led to what became known as the Manzanar Riots, after Ueno and two other union members were arrested for beating up a suspected undercover FBI informant in the camp. Ueno was probably not involved in the beating, at least directly, and his arrest prompted 4,000 internees to rush the jail, demanding his release. The camp superintendent called in the military police and ordered them to fire tear gas to disperse the crowd. But several of the police began shooting into the crowd with rifle fire instead, killing two people, including a 13-year old Nisei boy, and wounding 8 others. Ueno was quickly spirited out of Manzanar and into the detention prisons for suspected Japanese-American radicals: Moab Isolation Center, the Leupp Isolation Center and, finally, the ultimate prison within a prison facility, the Tule Lake Segregation Center in the lava beds of northern California, where Ueno spent the last bleak years of the war.

But Ueno’s rock garden, not even considered worthy of destruction by the merciless managers of Manzanar, survived as the rest of the camp was leveled, chopped up, and carted off–beautiful stones of resistance, intruding through the dust, as immutable as the Sierra themselves. Only the water, once more back in the grip of Los Angeles Water and Power, is missing.

Stone garden, Manzanar. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment
Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Days of Hollywood
Sam Wesson

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

I Think I’m Good
Kassa Overall

Here Be Dragons
Oded Tzur

That’s What I Heard
Robert Cray Band

We Dreamed of Apple Blossoms…


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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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