In 1942 the United States Government leased 6,000 acres of land from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build the World War II Manzanar Japanese Relocation Center. When National Park Service Ranger Mark Hachtmann told my tour group the Manzanar barracks that housed its 10,000 internees were built in a 500-acre housing section, I was appalled. How could that many people live in such a small area?
Blocks of Barracks
The 504 barracks were divided into 36 blocks, and each block held 300 or more occupants. A barracks block consisted of:
1. Fourteen identical, drab barracks, built side-by-side, with no running water.
2. A mess hall where meals were served three times a day. No cooking was allowed in the barracks, and the internees spent many hours lined up outside the mess hall, no matter the weather. Having a quiet, family meal together was impossible.
3. A separate Men and Women’s toilet and shower block. No partitions were provided for these facilities, and the women in particular were uncomfortable using them.
4. A laundry room with a cement floor and large sinks in which the women washed their clothes. After the clothes dried they could be ironed there.
Before their incarceration ended, thirty of the blocks had created a beautiful, small park with rock and pond gardens near their mess halls. Many of the ponds also included artistically designed waterfalls. The fast-flowing Shepherd Creek that ran through the camp provided the water for the parks. The fact that over 40% of the Manzanar population were either landscaper architects or landscapers who owned nurseries enabled the parks to be places of peaceful beauty. In the park the internees could escape the heat and loss of privacy so prevalent in the barracks rooms.
A barrack was 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, and divided into four 20-by-25 foot rooms. In order to house 10,000 internees, it was necessary that up to eight people make their home in one room, so each barrack could house up to 32 people. A family of eight could live together. But if a family had less than eight members, any combination of eight people could be assigned to a room. No room dividers were provided, but eventually family groups were separated by floor-to-ceiling curtains the internees added themselves.
Contents of a Barracks Room
Each barracks room was provided with an oil stove, a single-hanging light bulb (no shade), eight cots, and blankets. At first the internees were required to fill their own mattresses with straw. These furnishings did not provide relief from summer temperatures of over 100°F and below freezing in the winter. At first strong winds consistently blanketed the Center in layers of dust and sand. Worst of all, the dust and sand blew through the floorboards until linoleum was installed in the barracks at the end of 1942.
Being as each internee was allowed to bring personal items to Manzanar that they could carry themselves, no doubt suitcases and bags substituted for chest-of-drawers and cupboards.
Guard Towers and Barbed-wire Fences
In June of 1942 work started on four guard towers outside the barbed-wire fence surrounding Manzanar. By December all eight towers were completed. The powerful searchlights filled the sky at night, making it difficult to sleep. By the summer of 1943 the towers weren’t manned all the time, and by December 1943 the guard tower lights were turned off for good. Manzanar closed its doors in November,1945, three months after the war.
Photographer Dorothea Lange took picture of Manzanar for the United States Government. Her black and white photos are in public domain, and, in my links, so clearly reveal the look and feel of living in the Manzanar barracks.