The Unknown Knowns: First-Day Impressions of the Manzanar Concentration Camp

Now 84 years old, long-time community and political activist Wilbur Sato was twelve years old when he was unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar in April 1942.
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Photo: Geri Ferguson/Manzanar Committee

by Wilbur Sato

My first impressions of the Manzanar concentration camp came on April 2, 1942, when we were asked by the United States Government—our own government—to report to the Los Angeles train station so we could be “evacuated” or “relocated.”

At the station, we were met by officials and soldiers with sidearms and rifles with bayonets. We were given name tags with identification numbers to be attached to our clothing, and we were then escorted by the soldiers to the train cars, their windows covered with shields.

Soldiers were positioned at all exits on the train. We were perplexed by the shades because the interior of the cars was very dim. The shades were like symbolic jail cell bars in that the public could not see in, and we could not see out.

We arrived at the station in Lone Pine, California, around 3:00 PM, and transferred to buses to be driven to Manzanar. Once there, were assigned to a barrack room.

Our first impressions were the environment we felt, what we saw, the few items in our barrack room, the food we were served, our daily routine for meals, laundry, and bathroom, and our status as “residents.”

We remember being surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers manned by soldiers whose guns were pointed at us, searchlights, barrack rooms that were covered with dust, single-strand light bulbs, iron cots, straw-filled mattresses, and army blankets. We also recall mess halls, canned wieners, powdered eggs, and powdered milk. Then, there were the open, communal showers, open, communal toilets, the loss of mobility and dignity, and the loss of our freedom, our Constitutional rights, and our identity as Americans.

We should have been conscious of our status as soon as we were taken into custody at the train station and given identification numbers. We should have known our status as soon as we entered the barbed wire at Manzanar. We should have known we were in a concentration camp when we saw the guard towers and soldiers. We should have known we were prisoners and that we were thought of as the enemy.

We were the unconscious unknowns.

Wilbur Sato, 84, was twelve years old when he became one of the 11,070 Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II. Since then, he has been an ardent community and political activist, and has remained involved with Manzanar. He is currently active with Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, the Manzanar Committee, and other organizations and causes. He writes from Torrance, California.

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


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One Response to The Unknown Knowns: First-Day Impressions of the Manzanar Concentration Camp

  1. Robert Seward says:

    There will be a speech about Minidoka on April 26 @2pm at the 1912 Building in Moscow, Idaho if anyone is in the area.

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