Manzanar

Editor’s Note: The following was originally published in the June/July 2008 edition of Rice Paper the bi-monthly newsletter of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program. It is reprinted here with permission.


by Cory Shiozaki

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave way to the forced removal of some 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of whom were born as Americans and imprisoned into ten internment camps without a trial or due process of law.

As early as March 21, 1942, 10,000 of these people were taken to Manzanar. Manzanar was the first of camps located in the remote desert area of the Owens Valley just 220 miles north of Los Angeles. Some internees had as little as forty-eight hours to prepare for their evacuation to these camps, being able to bring only what they could carry. Many had tremendous losses such as their homes, businesses, cars and pets.

The weather at Manzanar was extreme from temperature readings of over 100 degrees during the late spring and summer to freezing cold temperatures in the winter. In many cases it was extremely hot, windy, dusty or cold, making many days unbearable.

The Manzanar National Historic Site, the Manzanar Committee, as well as the Manzanar Pilgrimage clearly are the idealism of Sue Kunitomi Embrey. As a young woman at the age of 19, Sueko (Sue) Kunitomi Embrey, her seven siblings and widowed mother were taken to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Inyo County under authorization of the 1942 Presidential Executive Order 9066. West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Sue describes her first night in the Owens Valley.

“We went through a large building, registered, got a cursory medical examination, a tetanus shot, and were sent out the door. We struggled through the dark and finally got to Block 20. When we walked in, it was a little room, 20×25 feet, with canvas army cots and mattresses filled with hay. My mother sat down on one of the cots and said, in Japanese, ‘Ma konnato ko ni?’ Loosely translated, ‘Mm, a place like this?’”

Embrey, while in camp, got a job weaving camouflage nets for the U.S. Army. She later was a reporter and then editor of the camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. She was in Manzanar for 17 months and 27 days before leaving camp.

Without her as the catalyst, her committee, legal counsel and support of the community, this entire process of Manzanar becoming a national park, educational center and lead in all the camps could never have come about. Several years passed where the idea was looked at as being unpopular and eventually rejected.

Her son, Bruce Embrey, described his mother’s experience.

“My mother worked tirelessly, not just to educate the community, but she did it in a way to bring together and to create an accurate understanding of the period, the tremendous injustice, and racist persecution of an entire community.”

In 1992, Sue Embrey and her committee successfully lobbied Congress to establish the Manzanar National Historic Site. Before that, she and others worked to get the camp’s designation as a State Historic Landmark in 1972 and as a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

Alisa Lynch, National Park Service Chief of Interpretation and Cultural Resources Management, worked closely with Embrey to help create Manzanar into the site it is today.

“The Japanese American community was very disturbed by the publicity,” Embrey noted about coverage of an early Manzanar Pilgrimage. She added, “Several people came up to me and in no uncertain terms said, ‘Don’t bring up the past and don’t talk about the camps.’”

As a Sansei (third generation born Japanese), I was never told about the “Internment” by my parents, who were incarcerated in two different camps. My mother was sent to Topaz, Utah and my father was sent to Minidoka, Idaho. I was 19 years old and in college when I first learned about internment. I was outraged by this discovery.

My first visit to Manzanar was in 1972 with a group of students from the Asian American Student Alliance while attending Cal State Long Beach. When I arrived there, it was hot, dry, windy, dusty and desolate. I immediately became overwhelmed with mixed feelings of sadness and anger. This experience shaped my future in becoming a filmmaker so I could make a statement to people that something like this should never happen again. My senior film project was about Manzanar, which included Sue Kunitomi Embrey. Currently, I am producing a documentary film of an untold story about internees incarcerated behind barbed wire, who took great risks to sneak out under the noses of armed military guards to go trout fishing in pursuit of brief moments of freedom.

Today, I am the historian for the Manzanar Committee and a docent at the Manzanar National Historic Site and Interpretive Center. I give lectures twice a year while assisting with the previous and this year’s 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage as a committee member. The AADAP staff and Therapeutic Community residents make a pilgrimage to Manzanar on an annual basis. Their journey to Manzanar holds immeasurable value and moves their Spirit each time their feet stand on the Owens Valley. We cannot forget the stories that were told.


Shiozaki is the historian for the Manzanar Committee. He also volunteers as a docent at the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Manzanar replica watchtower photo courtesy of Cory Shiozaki.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


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