Manzanar Changed My Life

The following is a personal reflection by Tom Leatherman, former Superintendent, Manzanar National Historic Site. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


When I came to Manzanar National Historic Site in 2005, I thought I was going to work at a site which preserved the history of a World War II Japanese American internment camp. It turned out to be so much more.

I was quickly introduced to the talented and dedicated staff and volunteers who worked at the site, unparalleled at any National Park Service site I had worked at previously. They inundated me with facts and stories too numerous to repeat but all so vivid in my mind. Their enthusiasm was infectious, but their message was unexpected.

“Though there were indeed shared experiences from this time in history,” they said, “it is the individual stories, and the personal connections that make it so powerful.”

I began meeting people in the local Owens Valley community and getting to know the lay of the land. I met people who had been children or young adults in Manzanar and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to walk with them on the site. I walked with them as they recounted their memories of life in camp, places they had played marbles, or fished, or ate terrible food or crawled under the barbed wire. At times we cried together and at other times we laughed. We uncovered buried parts of the camp in the gardens and were recognized for rebuilding replicas of painful memories in the guard tower. I was also privileged to meet some people who made it their life’s work to ensure this chapter in our history would not be forgotten. It was amazing.

I read from numerous accounts and perspectives of the internment experience, trying to gain perspective. Not just perspective about the camp, but also insight into the people who were so deeply affected by this dark part of our history. What I found, and am still finding as I continue my involvement with larger confinement sites issues, is that we are all affected. This story is not a story of Japanese Americans and how they were treated during the war, though this is indisputable. It is a story of Americans being discriminated against based on the way they looked and who their ancestors were; something all too common in our country’s history.

Whether we knew someone who was in camp, lived in a remote part of the West where the population grew almost overnight, or we simply walked freely down the street in a time of war, we are all part of this history. The lessons learned from Manzanar—and countless camps, detention centers and the like across the West and Midwest—are about civil rights, constitutional rights and our freedoms as citizens of this country. Everyone in this country shares that connection and everyone needs to be aware of just how quickly these freedoms can go away when prejudice and fear prevail.

Four years later, as my life has taken me away from daily operations at Manzanar, I find myself learning about the lives and stories of people who worked on the home front, many before they were sent to camp. At Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park I am learning about people who came back from camp to try to pick up where they left off—some successfully, but many not.

I am also learning about desegregation of the workforce, women joining the workforce and changes in health care and child care which profoundly changed our nation. All of these things happened during the war and are important if we are to understand our world today.

I am continuing to work with many groups to preserve their piece of this history, for it is this diversity that gives us the full picture of our history. Only by remembering and learning from these events can we help ensure that what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II does not happen to any citizen or group of citizens in America again.

I want to pass on my personal gratitude to the staff at Manzanar National Historic Site and to the Manzanar Committee for their tireless dedication and perseverance over so many years. Thank you for changing my life. I will see you at the Pilgrimage in April.

Photo: Leatherman addresses the crowd at the 39th Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 26, 2008.


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2 Responses to Manzanar Changed My Life

  1. Gann Matsuda says:

    Tom…thank you for your hard work at Manzanar. You weren’t there all THAT long, but you made one hell of an impact in a relatively short time. You’ll be missed, but we’re glad you’re still working on the confinement sites project (is “project” the right word for it?) for the National Park Service. It’s good to have you still involved with that.

    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: We have been so very, very fortunate to have so many incredible people working on the NPS staff at Manzanar and you certainly continued our streak of good luck. Thanks again!

  2. Kerry Cababa says:

    Dear Tom,
    This unexpected letter touched me, as it showed us all that Manzanar is still changing lives. Thank you for acknowledging the committee and those who established and continued it. Your staff indeed was amazing and we are sorry to see some of them going on to other places. I know that we appreciated all they did and hope that they, too, will hold the memories and lessons learned at Manzanar deep in their souls.

    We are enthusiastically planning the pilgrimage and look forward to seeing you in April. It’ll be a good one.

    Gann’s right, we’re very lucky to have had Ross, Frank, and you at the helm. Now we have Les. Need I say more? When we met him last month, Les said that he had previously been at at a site which preserves prehistory but now he’s at a site which can change the world! Let’s hope so.

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