During a tour group visit to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, our National Park Service ranger Mark Hachtmann asked us if we would like to visit the Manzanar cemetery. We all said yes. The cemetery was located in an old peach orchard on the west side of the camp’s North Firebreak, near where Guard Tower 4 stood, just beyond the barbed-wire fence that circled the camp.
Manzanar Cemetery Obelisk Monument
We were all amazed at the large obelisk monument that stands in the center of the cemetery and dominates the landscape. The snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains made an outstanding frame for the white monument. Ranger Mark explained that the monument was built with funds raised by the Manzanar internees themselves-a 15-cent donation from each family to purchase the needed cement.
The Designers and Builders of the Cemetery Monument
Master stonemason Ryozo Kado (a Catholic), and Buddhist minister Shibjo Nagatomi designed the unusual monument as a tribute to Manzanar’s dead. Kado then supervised the construction of the monument, which was done by Block 9 residents and member of Buddhist Young People’s Organization. Nagatomi carefully inscribed the monument’s Japanese Kenji characters, which say “Soul Consoling Tower” on the front and “Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943” on the back.
Who Was Interred in the Manzanar Cemetery
On May 16, 1942, 62-year old Matsunosuke Murakmi became the first of 150 people to die at the camp. A total of fifteen people were buried in the Manzanar cemetery. Six graves, marked with rocks and mounds, remain in the cemetery today. Relatives removed the other nine after the war. Most of those who died at Manzanar were cremated and their ashes held at the camp by the families until Manzanar closed. According to statistics, the death of 150 people in 3 ½ years at the camp was a normal amount for a community of 10,000 people.
Offerings Left at the Manzanar Cemetery Monument
Visitors today often leave offerings on the monument or the fence around it. They are often given in memory of a relative they never met who was interned at Manzanar. The former Manzanar high school building has been converted to a Manzanar Virtual Museum Exhibit. The Museum displays a collection of items that have been left in the cemetery as offerings that include a gold watch, a painted teapot, and jewelry.
My Response to Manzanar
But the most important thing I took away from my tour was how resilent and strong the inhabitants of Manzanar were. They made the best of an unjust incarceration and remained proud to be Americans throughout their ordeal.