Mental Floss

Manzanar: America's Concentration Camp

Ransom Riggs
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After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government imprisoned more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in remote camps spread across the Western states, far from their homes, for more than three years. They were allowed to bring little with them. Shopkeepers had to shutter their businesses. Farmers either had to sell their land in great haste and at a great loss, or trust neighbors to work their land while they were gone; many returned to find their farms stolen. In the years since Japanese interment, it has been lamented by pundits and presidents as a "national mistake" (Gerald Ford), "unjust and motivated by racism" (a bipartisan congressional committee in 1980) and worthy of a formal apology from Bush I, who distributed reparations of more than $20,000 to each surviving detainee.

While many of the former prisoners live on, there is little left of the camps. One exception is Manzanar, in the arid Owens Valley 200 miles north of Los Angeles, where some 11,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned between 1942 and 1945. Efforts to protect it have resulted in it being declared a national historic site, and what remains there is maintained by the National Park Service. I'd heard about Manzanar for years but had never seen it; on a recent drive through remote parts of eastern California, I decided to stop and have a look for myself.

Pictured above: an historic vista of Manzanar during a dust storm, taken by legendary photographer Dorothea Lange. Dust was such a problem that prisoners often woke after a night's sleep covered head-to-toe in it; knotholes in the floors of their hastily-constructed pine barracks let in the dust, the cold, and all manner of rodents.

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After her imprisonment there, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote:

You could face away from the barracks, look past a tiny rapids toward the darkening mountains, and for a while not be a prisoner at all. You could hang suspended in some odd, almost-lovely land you could not escape from yet almost didn't want to leave.

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You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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