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Several days ago, I attended the 45th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and spent all day into the evening on the grounds where, from 1942 to 1945, thousands of people of Japanese descent were held as World War II ignited the planet.
Japan's attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, brought America into the war. At the time, America had thousands of Japanese-American citizens. Within a few months, after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, they would be taken to relocation camps strewn all over the country, where they would be held for years for nothing more than being of a certain ethnicity during wartime.
I remember this being covered very quickly in my American history class, basically a footnote in the overall wide shot of WWII history.
When I moved to California in 1981, I heard a song by the great Southern California band CH3 called “Manzanar.” Up to that point, I had never heard the word before. This is when I started to learn about California's rich Asian culture and a bit of the backstory.
As a guy growing up on the roads of America, I became fascinated with our country's history as viewed from the street level – which, as I temporarily occupied the hard spots of cities, was often the only vantage point afforded. In the Southern states, I got an understanding of the ravages of the Civil War and how this conflict was not completely resolved but merely put on a back burner. I learned that almost every city had a rough part and they were all similar. America became, despite its incredible hugeness, a very small neighborhood, linked by thousands of miles of highway, punctuated by liquor stores, fast food outlets and police stations.
Many years ago, in an effort to understand where America is, I sought to understand where it was. I came upon the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President John Adams. I will always think that Adams favored the Sedition Act because it allowed him to strike back against the constant ass-ripping he endured in the press, by journalists frisky with their First Amendment protections. The Naturalization Act and the Alien Friends Act were perhaps a young country establishing its place in the world, an early flexing of the muscles.
Jefferson quickly took these laws out of service in his first term. However, the Alien Enemies Act remains on the books. It basically says that if America is at war, it has quite a bit of reach to detain those it thinks endanger the country at that time.
In the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, every person of Japanese descent in America was under suspicion.
As I looked out the car window on the way to Lone Pine, near where Manzanar is located, the city quickly fell away. We spent hours driving through a massive Ansel Adams postcard. I tried to imagine thousands of people in vehicles, clutching their one suitcase allowed, as everything they knew was suddenly torn away and their completely uncertain future was to be realized in such alien surroundings. It must have been terrifying, confusing, humiliating and infuriating all at once.
We drove for hours. Lone Pine, as beautiful as it is – and it is, really – is nowhere. If you wanted to incarcerate and surround 10,000 people with barbed wire and have it go largely unnoticed, this would be the perfect place.
Manzanar was one of the 10 camps where altogether more than 100,000 people were incarcerated. From what I've read, there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in America at the time, and although there was some pushback, it wasn't all that significant.
On April 26, I was on the Manzanar grounds with time to walk around on my own between camera setups. It's bigger than I thought it was going to be. The geographic isolation and the size of the place make the intent and bristling aggression all but inescapable.
What were once countless rows of barracks-style buildings, which held thousands of people, are largely gone now. The structures were pulled down and the desert quickly reclaimed the territory, erasing this chapter of American history almost completely.
I walked alone over hard ground and looked down at rusted nails, bits of old glass, weathered buttons, the back half of a black arrowhead, perhaps from a Paiute Indian, hunting his next meal who knows how many years ago, the artifacts mixing like two history books thrown into a blender.
Tour buses showed up, school groups poured out and the visitor center and surrounding area started to fill. I wandered around among families, some with an elderly relative who had been incarcerated there. The people I met were friendly, and quite willing to talk about their experiences at Manzanar.
The thing I noticed running through all the conversations was the hurt these people still felt all these years later. After the war was over, and not a single person was found to be aiding Japan in undermining American security, the incarcerated were turned loose, basically with bus fare. Thousands of these people were tax-paying business and property owners who lost everything they had.
How do you go on from that? How do you believe in your American identity when it was so completely wrenched away from you and then, years later, with little or no explanation, tossed back at your feet like an inconvenient afterthought? What do you tell your kids? I tried, over and over again, to put myself in the place of these people, and I simply could not.
After all the people had left, I was still there. The sunset over the Sierras was incredible. Being forced to watch it for years must have felt like a hard punch in the guts.