My friend, a burly, ex-Ivy League defensive back, shuffled out of the bright sunlight and headed straight through the dimly lit museum portal. These last few steps provided a sharp contrast between the windswept beauty of the mountain-rimmed valley outside and the subdued light of the Manzanar museum. The cluttered interior offered up a somber, monochrome reminder of a World War II tragedy.
Nestled in the shadow of California’s High Sierras, this former Japanese relocation camp now houses relics of American national security paranoia run amok. With majestic Mount Whitney towering to the south, we also got a big taste of American exceptionalism gone terribly sour.
We read about how Pfc. Sadao S. Munemori threw himself onto an enemy grenade in Italy to save his comrades from deadly mayhem. He took this heroic action while his parents were locked in this concentration camp in the desert. They were forcibly required to sell all of their property and belongings. Then they were ordered to report to this remote site circled with barbwire and watched over by several guard towers outfitted with machine guns and searchlights.
Pfc. Munemori was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave commitment to the American cause. His parents were further rewarded by being stripped of their freedom and dignity here in the Owens River Valley. The U.S. had brutalized innocent people here before. In the 1860s, more than 1,000 peaceful Paiute Indians were forcibly removed by the U.S. Army because miners and ranchers wanted control of the idyllic real estate with its reliable water supply.
We moved slowly through the dimly lit museum with stark exhibits portraying daily camp life in the early 1940s. My chin suddenly sank as my head drooped in shame. I was deeply embarrassed to be a round-eyed American. My friend, the D-back, was overcome, and he dabbed at his eyes as he drank in the pathos of loyal Americans betrayed by their own government.
We saw aging photographs of young Japanese-American soldiers in GI uniforms visiting their interned parents in the clapboard barracks of Manzanar. The irony of these poignant visits drove home the glaring fact that America often has a real problem discerning the identity of her true patriots.
Japanese-American captives produced camouflaged netting for the U.S. war machine in a workshop at the corner of D and Manzanar streets. Three Buddhist temples and a Catholic church helped the prisoners keep up their faith in the face of government barbarism.
Legendary landscape lensman Ansel Adams shot extensively here. His chilling volume of 1940s photographs threatened to give the world an honest glimpse of the sordid treatment of these loyal Japanese-Americans. Federal officials ignored Adams’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and shredded most of the copies of his graphic exposé.
Eventually, government officials relaxed their ban on images depicting camp life. Professional photographer Toyo Miyatake lived in Camp Block 20. He initially smuggled camera equipment into the compound to shoot on the sly. Later, he was allowed to advance to the position of official photographer of Manzanar. His intimate shots depicting Americans in captivity on their home soil regularly bring tears to the eyes of visitors to the museum.
As the afternoon wound down, I stood with my two writer friends at the white stone monument marking the compound’s cemetery. Brilliant winter sunlight and sharp wind whistling out of the High Sierras dispelled a modicum of the lingering dark mood of this place. I busied myself shooting photos while half expecting some lurking federal official to leap out and smash my Nikon. My friend Young Dave Daniel fired off a staccato burst of shots with his tiny pocket camera.
Then the unexpected happened. Two familiar faces spontaneously danced across the memory screen of my roiling mind. Both were famous Americans who were separated by several generations and vastly divergent political beliefs. But both were perfectly willing to toss the U.S. Constitution into the toilet in the name of exaggerated national security.
The visages careering in my head were FDR and Donald Trump. Suddenly, the mountain wind seemed much colder. And, alas, I was again hanging my head in shame.
William C. Crawford is a photographer and writer in Winston-Salem. He was a grunt and later a combat photojournalist in Vietnam.