Every year, on the last Saturday of April, a multitude of Japanese-Americans make an annual pilgrimage to remember one of America’s darkest hours. In June, 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up and relocated all Japanese people, including those who were born American citizens, to internment camps. The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first of ten such camps where upwards of 11,000 people were detained until November, 1945.
Today, survivors, their families, and anyone interested hearing their stories and experiences gather at the Manzanar War Relocation Center this time of year to learn and remember what happened there. The annual pilgrimage began in 1969 and features numerous cultural events, such as poetry and musical performances, as well as interfaith services. Possibly one of the most important parts of the gathering is the intergenerational discussions, where younger attendees can speak with and learn from their elders who lived through the internment years at the camp.
The site of the camp is located in the shadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with Mount Williamson looming prominently in the background; however, despite the abundant natural beauty, living in Manzanar was not picturesque. In the winter, it gets very cold and the summers are stifling. Inside the barracks, families were only allowed one small kerosene heater and the thin walls did little, if anything, to keep the cold out. When we visited in late December, it seemed that the insides of the barracks were actually colder than outside during the morning hours. In the summer, temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. Needless to say, the barracks did not have air conditioning.
Barrack life created plenty of challenges for all detainees, most especially for anyone with special needs. Mothers with bottle-fed infants could get formula from the designated kitchens whenever they needed it, but their living quarters did not have a stove or running water, so there was no easy way to prepare it. Only communal showers were available, so privacy was nonexistent and many, if not all, felt humiliated and dehumanized through this process.
The 47th Annual Pilgrimage will be held on Saturday, April 30, 2016, at the back of the camp near the cemetery monument. Comfortable clothes are recommended, and although the weather is usually mild in springtime, it is best to bring a variety of clothing along for any unexpected spikes or drops in temperature. If you are unable to make it to the official pilgrimage, Manzanar is open year round and hosts a free museum. For up to date information about their hours and operations, visit nps.gov. For more information about the annual pilgrimage or a vast array of information about the history of the relocation camp, go to manzanarcommittee.org.
Manzanar is between Lone Pine and Independence, California, alongside US Highway 395. From Las Vegas, it’s about a four and a half hour to drive to Manzanar, with plenty of desert scenery and unique sights along the way. There are two ways to get there; taking the SR 160 through through Pahrump will take you past the Amargosa Opera House, or the alternate route via the 95 North to Beatty takes you past the ghost town of Rhyolite. Whichever way you take, you will get to drive across Death Valley National Park. There is a historic hotel in Lone Pine, the Dow Villa, if you’d like to stay overnight. Another resource is this page on the RoadTripAmerica.com site.