Ghosts of Manzanar

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten internment camps built to confine Japanese Americans during World War II. Of the 110,000 people interned nationwide, more than 10,000 were imprisoned here at this desolate place in eastern California’s Owens Valley from 1942 to 1945. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not learn about the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in school. I don’t remember much diversity in the curriculum when attending history classes in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. There was no Black History Month, no International Women’s Day, no LGBT Pride Month, no Hispanic Heritage, and certainly no Asian American and Pacific Islander Month. Confederate generals were still exonerated in my state history classes. Despite my fair complexion and blond hair, some of my classmates still referred to me as “damn Yankee” since I had a Northeastern accent and my father taught at the local black college. I can’t imagine what they would have called me if I had a last name like Gonzalez or Yamashita.

Much changed when I moved from Virginia to southern California to finish high school in 1977. Now I had classmates of every conceivable cultural and religious background. Among my closest friends in class were several Japanese Americans. As I got to know them, I realized that they were as American as everyone else, as were their parents. One was a fellow 4.0 scholar who joined the Key Club with me. Another was a popular cheerleader and ASB officer who went on a date with me once to Disneyland and sat near me in AP U.S. History class. But even that class taught me nothing about what happened to the Japanese Americans in World War II.

I scored a 5 on the AP U.S. History Exam and could have opted out of freshman history at UC Santa Cruz, but as a potential history major, I decided to enroll in the year-long survey course anyway. The first quarter covered the colonial period and the Constitution, the second the Civil War and westward expansion, and the third the 20th century from the Progressive Era to Vietnam. It was here that I first heard the word Manzanar. Yet even in this university level core course, the internment camps did not get more than a few minutes coverage in the professor’s lecture on America in World War II.

But then our instructor recommended that we all attend a presentation on campus by local writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of the memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973) and spouse of James Houston, an award-winning novelist who taught writing part-time in the UCSC English Department. Her book had been published for less than ten years at that time, but was already an international bestseller and a staple textbook in high school and college classes across the country. She was an engaging speaker who moved us with her tale of courageous resiliency in the midst of terrible struggle and privation.

I was appalled to learn for the first time about the devastating effects of Executive Order 9066 on her family and thousands of other Japanese Americans. Many lost their businesses, homes, and jobs, and were forced to resettle elsewhere after the war. I found the callousness of local government officials at the time incredulous. That the United States government could sanction what amounted to concentration camps for its own citizens while decrying fascist dictators for doing the same thing to their minorities seemed beyond belief.

When I learned that much of the reasoning behind the camps was rooted in deep racial prejudice and economic rivalry in the communities of the western United States, I was outraged. The historic treatment of Asian immigrants in California seemed little better than the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the northeast, the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans, discrimination against Mexican Americans in the southwest, or the hateful Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. The fact that as little as one sixteenth (only one great-great-grandparent) Japanese ancestry could land someone in the camps was particularly absurd.

The real turning point for me, however, was when I learned about the bravery and sacrifice of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of nisei (second-generation, i.e., American citizens born of Japanese immigrant parents) soldiers under the command of white officers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hesitated to allow young men of Japanese descent to volunteer for military service, but finally relented in 1943. This special army unit, recruited both from the nisei of Hawai’i (who were not interned, due to their disproportionate numbers in the island population) and the young “relocation center” internees, was sent to train in Wisconsin and then segregated Mississippi before being shipped to fight the Nazis in Italy and France.

What they did there was remarkable. For their numbers, they sustained the highest proportion of casualties and received the greatest number of awards of any single military unit in United States history. Their dramatic and costly rescue of the surrounded Texan “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France in October of 1944 is in itself worthy of a major feature film. President Harry Truman awarded the 442 several Presidential unit citations, and many historians agree that their valor and sacrifice helped to inspire him to issue Executive Order 9981 in 1948, which desegregated the armed forces and the federal government and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

I was so inspired by the ironic and compelling details of this story that I decided to make it the focus of my senior project in American Studies. I contacted a nisei veteran named Chet Tanaka who had just published a history of the 442 entitled Go For Broke. He referred me to several of his old comrades in arms, who were at that time in their 60s and living across the country, and secured me an invitation to a 40th reunion of the unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Several months of exhaustive research led to a first draft which I wrote in the style of a multidimensional historical novel along the lines of John Dos Passos’s classic 1930s U.S.A. trilogy.

My final revised version was more a narrative history and garnered me thesis honors on my diploma. It also attracted the interest of Dr. Irving Bartlett, head of the American Civilization graduate program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, himself a veteran of World War II and a noted author. UMass/Boston was one of five graduate programs in American Studies to which I applied in the fall of 1982, and Dr. Bartlett told me that my work on the nisei soldiers was one of the reasons he decided to offer me a full tuition waiver and paid research assistantship.

Before I left for Boston, I decided to visit Manzanar during my spring break in 1983. I was returning to California from a backpacking trip with three college friends to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. One of those friends was from the small Owens Valley town of Bishop and wanted to see his parents on his way back to school. He and the others agreed to stop at the Manzanar site, since it was on the way. We drove through Las Vegas and spent some time in Death Valley before heading over to U.S. 395 by way of highway 190 through the stark Panamint Mountains.

Nestled on the western side of the highway between Lone Pine and Independence, Manzanar was easy to miss. In fact, we reached Independence before I realized we had driven past it and needed to turn back. When we finally arrived at the site, my eyes beheld an arid, desolate, windswept landscape of sagebrush and a scattering of April wildflowers. The massive granite wall of the Sierra Nevada, immortalized in the haunting Ansel Adams photographs from 1943, formed a forbidding backdrop. All that remained of the internment camp was a small monument and a few stone buildings and foundations. An historical marker held a plaque with a brief history of what happened there. It was a sad, lonely place. I walked the grounds for a few minutes, took some photographs, and left.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 memoir recounts her experiences as a young internee in Manzanar during World War II. In the years since I visited the site, a visitor center and museum has hosted tens of thousands of students and tourists and commemorative events have attracted camp survivors and their descendants. Photos Copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

I did not return for twenty years. By that time I was a history teacher in Bakersfield, California, within easy access of the Owens Valley via highway 178 from the south. Manzanar in 2003 looked much the way it had appeared in 1983 (see above photos), but plans were by then underway to renovate the site after President George H. W. Bush awarded National Historic Site designation in 1992. In the years since these photographs were taken, building efforts have created an informative visitor center, a reconstructed barracks, a period guard tower, and much more. Annual reunions and educational events are regularly held there. More than a million people have visited the site, which has become a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in learning about the Japanese American internment camps of World War II.

In early 2007 I helped to design an interdisciplinary project on the camps for a special Digital Arts and Humanities program. While my colleague in the English department had the students read Farewell to Manzanar, I covered the story of the internment in my World War II unit, and my technology department colleague helped the kids create an animated story of a fictitious young internee using software and digital imagery. One student created a digital “Peacemaker Mural” on a campus wall (see image below). For seven years, we finished the unit with a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum.

Photoshop mural created by one of my Digital Arts and Humanities students on Japanese American scholar and activist Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066 in court and spent a year in federal prison rather than submit to wartime internment.

The museum itself is an outstanding collection of exhibits located in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. We took the train as a group from our location in Orange County to historic Union Station and walked the several blocks to the museum, where we were guided through the exhibitions by a surviving internee who shared personal stories of the war. The reconstructed barracks and adjacent pile of vintage suitcases were particularly memorable, as were the fine collection of medals and uniforms from veterans of the 442 and the large diorama model of the Manzanar camp. Afterwards, we walked outside to the “Go For Broke” memorial to the 100/442 and all-nisei Military Intelligence Service (who interrogated Japanese prisoners and translated captured enemy documents in the Pacific), and met living veterans of those famous units (see photo below).

During my twenty years in the classroom as a history teacher, I did my best to correct the error of my own teachers in earlier decades. I tried to create a U.S. history curriculum that included the story of all the cultural, religious, and ethnic groups that helped build this great nation. The story of the Japanese Americans and their experiences in World War II formed an extensive section of my unit on America in the Second World War. Most of the nisei veterans and many of the internees are gone now, but their legacy lives on in the efforts of their descendants, as well as committed educators and scholars, to preserve their stories for future generations.

Survivors of the internment like Star Trek actor and activist George Takei, who recently published the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, are helping to make the story of the Japanese Americans in World War II more accessible to contemporary audiences. As students of history, our duty is to add our own voices to this effort, whether or not we have Japanese ancestry. The targeting of Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds since 9-11 and the mistreatment of immigrants from Latin America are grim reminders that racial prejudice is an ever present danger, particularly in times of international tension. We can never take our democracy for granted. “Liberty and justice for all” is only possible through the determined efforts of dedicated citizens who are committed to defending those ideals.

Standing with a Nisei veteran of World War II at the Go For Broke Monument near the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles during our Digital Arts and Humanities class field trip in 2007. The monument was dedicated in 1999 and bears the names of more than 16,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at