The only sound here is the whistle of the hot desert wind. The only things standing are two guardhouses, a tombstone inscribed in Japanese and a recently erected commemorative plaque describing Manzanar as a "concentration camp."
Where 10,000 Japanese Americans were confined behind barbed wire 40 years ago, there is only a ruin, a ghost town of rubble and dust four hours by car from Los Angeles, in the Mojave Desert at the foot of Mount Whitney.
But for 68-year-old Lillian Yuri Tateishi and others who lived here, the Manzanar Relocation Center is still very much alive. Walking slowly through what little remains of the camp after four decades, she located "our palace," where her family lived during World War II, by a circle of stones that once formed a pond.
She recognized an arrangement of gnarled poplars as the remains of someone's Japanese garden. And she found holes dug four feet into the ground through which internees crawled beneath their barracks to escape the scorching desert heat.
"Those awful sandstorms," Tateishi recalled. "The sand would blow right through the floor. Several times every night we had to get up and wash off. Sometimes we had to wear goggles. . . . Some people just cried."
Dr. James M. Goto remembered his Manzanar residence as "nothing but a 20-by-25-foot barrack, sides of pine wood and covered with thin tar paper only. No attic. No insulation.
"I lived in one of the barracks with three other married couples. We were separated by sheets hanging from the wires, hanging across the room," he recently told the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Goto was one of hundreds of witnesses who have testified during the last two years before that commission, which is expected soon to recommend payment of monetary reparations to those interned.
"Privacy?" Goto said. "None. Sleeping on the bed, snoring, muffled conversation barely audible. No running hot or cold water. We all had to go to common latrines outside in the cold or hot weather, day or night.
"For the first few months, our diet consisted of brined liver, salted liver. Huge liver. Brown and bluish in color weighing up to 20 pounds. It would bounce if dropped. In other barrels were nothing but brined parts of cattle. They were huge. The Japanese cook did everything to desalt the liver and heart, camouflage and tempura."
Controversy greeted establishment of Manzanar, the first of 10 internment camps in which Japanese Americans were confined during World War II, because of its proximity to Los Angeles' water supply, Lake Owens. People feared the internees would somehow poison it.
Nine other camps housed 90,000 more Japanese Americans for an average of 900 days each during the war years: Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Granada in Colorado, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas, Minidoka in Idaho and Tule Lake in California.
Internees were sometimes given "leave" by camp authorities to work for local farmers. Or they were allowed to go to the Midwest or East if they could find work there. Few could. They were forbidden to return to their homes on the West Coast until the war had almost ended.
If not "concentration camps" such as those in Europe, the internment camps were the nearest thing America has had.
Barbed wire and armed sentries surrounded them. As described by wartime relocation commission testimony, the camps were laid out in blocks of 12 to 14 tar paper and pine barracks. Each barracks was about 20 feet by 100 feet, divided into four to six one-room apartments. Each apartment was about 16 by 20 feet and housed at least one family.
Each block had a mess hall, gang showers and toilets, a laundry and a recreation room. White administrative staff members lived in another section of the camp in houses with indoor toilets, baths and cooling systems.
There were lines for everything: to get the muslin bags that internees filled with straw for mattresses, to use showers and toilets, to obtain formula for infants.
Lillian Tateishi remembered the day her children, Bob, John, Bill and Toshi, her parents and grandfather left for Manzanar. Measles was prevalent, and her 2-year-old son, John, had broken out with spots.
"A nurse came up and said, 'Can I look at your baby?' I started crying. He was only 2, and he was asleep. I thought of them taking him away and his waking up with strange people in a hospital," Tateishi said.
He was taken away, and it was three weeks before he rejoined the family. Now 43, John Tateishi remembers being in the hospital without his mother. He also recalls his mother later showing him armed guards at the camp and "telling me not to go near the fence."
It was sound advice. A report to the War Relocation Authority, which administered the camps, noted that guards at Manzanar had "been instructed to shoot anyone who attempts to leave the center without a permit and who refuses to halt when ordered to do so." Several people wandering outside the perimeter were reported to have been wounded.
Manzanar was bleak and bare at first. But, Lillian Tateishi said, "People gradually fixed up their apartments. We bought curtains from Sears catalogues. We made furniture from discarded crates. We planted gardens in front of apartments. Later on, people would find clumps of trees and make beautiful tables from them with carved birds and animals. They made the time go by that way, too."
Grace Shinoda Nakamura told the wartime relocation commission how people ran dangerously past military police into areas closed to Japanese Americans, to gather scraps of wood to build furniture and makeshift screens to provide some privacy.
"My young brother risked his life to salvage two toilet crate boxes, from which he removed the nails and redesigned into an arm chair with a reclining back," she said. "A rock was his hammer. This chair became the object of marvel to our camp neighbors, and a prototype for others."
Perhaps the most frequent complaint about the camps in recent commission testimony was about lack of privacy and its impact on family unity and parental authority, cherished values in Japanese tradition. Families that had always eaten together now ate in a large group, with adolescent children deserting their parents to sit with friends. Parents could no longer control their childrens' environments.
"They used cheap pine wood" for walls, Mary Tsukamoto said. "The knots would fall off so we could see into a neighbor's room, and we could hear the shocking sounds of voices, complaining, arguing bitterly. We weren't used to this. Our family was a gentle family. I was deeply upset because our daughter was listening, and I couldn't shut it out."
Lillian Tateishi recalled that women had few leisure daytime hours in the camp. "You had to clean all day because of the sand," she said. "The kids were always changing clothes." She did find time to attend classes in the Japanese art of flower arranging.
Those who worked were paid a maximum of $19 a month. Thus, while a Japanese American schoolteacher received $19 a month, a white schoolteacher brought in by the War Relocation Authority was paid $160 a month.
For a time, workers at Manzanar helped manufacture camouflage for the Army. Others cleaned latrines or prepared food in the mess hall for $12 a month. Lillian Tateishi said her father-in-law's job "was to go out and watch the water in Georges Creek, watch the dam to see that it didn't get too full. It never did, so he fished."
Schools opened in Manzanar about four months after the camp was organized. "We sat on the wooden floors enveloped in the dust and sand, which blew up through the wide cracks of the floors and through the holes in the tar paper walls," Grace Nakamura told the commission.
Manzanar, like other camps, was also seething with intrigue and laced with government informers. Lillian Tateishi's husband, an elected block leader in the camp, was a special target of surveillance. He was reported by one informant spying on a block meeting as being in favor of speaking in Japanese, according to an FBI report filed under the heading "Internal Security, Sedition."
He and 15 other camp leaders eventually were imprisoned in California jails after a riot at Manzanar Dec. 6, 1942. It began as a protest against the arrest of a Japanese American for alleged involvement in the beating of a Manzanar official of the Japanese Americans Citizens League, an organization trying to act as liaison with the government. It left two dead and many injured.
Dr. Goto testified that the troops "had the bayonets fixed and stood ready for battle . . . . Some of these nisei boys would come up and bare their chest and dare them to stick them in the chest. They placed a bandanna or handkerchief around the head and did . . . dances as it was getting quite cold, clapping their hands, going around in circles in front of the young MPs. It is my opinion that some of these young MPs thought they were doing a savage war dance.
"Accidentally or not, tear gas went off over the heads of the rioters and the gas came toward the rioters, who in turn ran blindly into the soldiers, who in turn fired the riot guns point-blank into the abdomen of many of the young men. Others were shot from behind as they were running away from the soldiers.
"I ran to the emergency room. I was able to pick out three who were dead on arrival, with holes in their abdomens that you could put both fists in."
On the other side, a pro-Japan underground group called the "Black Dragons" also flourished in the camp, committing acts of violence against the "inu," a Japanese word for dogs and used to describe informers.
For years, many who lived in Manzanar and the other camps refused to talk about their experiences. Many would not even talk about them with their children.
The internees are just beginning to rediscover and revisit these vanished cities. At Manzanar, they have carved their names in the guardhouses from which they were watched: "Jenny Yamamoto, 1982." "D. Fukimoto, 1981." "Watanabe, Block 34. Barrack 14. Apartment 5." NEXT: How it happened
Staff researcher Carin Pratt contributed to this series.