Manzanar’s Block 14: A Groundbreaking

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With shovels in hand, from left, Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku; Lillian Kawasaki of Friends of Manzanar chair; Hank Umemoto, former inmate; Bruce Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Advisory Commission; and Erick Ammon, a member of the Hopa tribe break ground at the future site of the reconstructed barracks. The barracks 1 and 8 of Block 14 will be built as an educational tool to demonstrate what conditions were like faced by former prisioners of the concentration camp. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
RAFU CONTRIBUTOR

A groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of the reconstruction phase of Barracks 1 and 8 of Block 14 at the Manzanar National Historic Site occurred on Feb. 13.

“This is a wonderful milestone,” said Rose Ochi, a former Rohwer inmate who became involved with Manzanar back in 1972 when the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey asked Ochi to incorporate the Manzanar Committee.“This is something that Sue had dreamed about and to see it come to fruition is a joy.”

For more than three decades, the Manzanar Committee, chaired by Kunitomi Embrey with pro bono legal advice from Ochi, successfully fought to have the former World War II camp site preserved.

Hank Umemoto gives a vivid account of his time in Manzanar , superintendent Les Inafuku listens to Umemoto in the back ground. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Hank Umemoto, a former Manzanar inmate who lived in Block 30, said the drafts of the two structures look very close to the original barracks.

“The Park Service had to follow certain building codes, but considering that, the barracks look pretty close to what I remember,” said Umemoto. “Some of the differences are that the foundations had to be raised up with more concrete and the glass in the windows are stationary. Ours used to slide. I guess they’ll have air conditioning so they don’t have sliding windows.

“Barrack One looks like the place when we first came here. It was bare. And Barrack Eight looks more like months later, when they plastered the walls and put in linoleum.” Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku credited Drisko Studio Architects for coming up with the architectural drawings.

“They were able to really research what these barracks should really look like,” said Inafuku. “The problem we faced is that Manzanar was the first of the relocation centers constructed, and for whatever reason, no matter how many hours our staff put into searching for blue prints, we have not been able to locate blue prints. However, blue prints are available for the other internment camps, so one of the architects, Bob Knight, led the effort to produce the schematic designs that will help the contractors.”

Erick Ammon, Inc., a Native American-owned firm, will construct the barracks.

“Personally, when I started, I was ignorant about Manzanar,” said Erick Ammon, who belongs to the Hopa tribe. “Since then, I’ve learned a lot. I’m proud and humbled to be a part of this project.”

“This is going to bring a whole different experience to the visitors,” said Alisa Lynch, Manzanar’s chief of interpretation. “The first phase had people coming here and doing the auto tour. Then we had the Interpretive Center exhibits. And now these barracks are actually going to be out on the site where people can walk into. Of course, these barracks aren’t going to be the same as the originals because if we built them to that code, you couldn’t have people in them today because they have to be earthquake proof, fire proof, etc., but our goal is to have them look as close as they can to the originals.”

The two barracks, according to Lynch, will show different periods of Manzanar so visitors could experience how the camp evolved.

“The idea is to show the changes over time because Manzanar was not a static camp. There were a whole lot of experiences that people were going through against a constantly changing backdrop. And like we try to emphasize in the Interpretive Center — one camp, 10,000 lives; one camp, 10,000 stories.”

Lynch added that because they could not find blue prints for the Manzanar barracks, the restoration designs were done based on photographs.

The ceremony program also had an unusual but welcoming twist. Inafuku not only shared about the National Park Service’s plans but also recognized the various volunteer organizations and individuals that have helped the Park Service bring the plans into fruition. These included: Sen. Diane Feinstein, Friends of Manzanar, Friends of the Eastern California Museum, Manzanar Committee, the Manzanar History Association and individual Inyo County residents.

Inafuku was especially thankful to the Friends of Manzanar, an organization formed in 2004 that have raised funds to build the guard tower, restore the landscaping at the West entrance of the historic auditorium and will now help support the barrack reconstruction project.

Lillian Kawasaki, Friends of Manzanar chair whose mother had been incarcerated at Manzanar, made a pitch for more financial support towards the barracks project.

“Time is short,” said Kawasaki, who recognized the passing of Manzanar water color artist Henry Fukuhara on Jan. 31.  “There are so few survivors. Please join us to make sure the barracks at Block 14 is completed.”

Kawasaki said it was her personal dream that her mother would be able to witness the completed Manzanar barracks.

Kawasaki also recognized Senators Feinstein and Daniel Inouye. “They’ve been really good champions, making sure that even in these bad budget times, that there is funding,” said Kawasaki.

Bill Michael, former head of the Eastern California Museum who had supported Manzanar’s establishment for more than 20 years, reconnected with Manzanar by joining the Friends of Manzanar board.

“I moved away and got another job, but I really missed this,” said Michael, who had become interested in Manzanar when he met Shiro and Mary Kageyama Nomura back in 1985. At that time, the late Shiro Nomura had been collecting Manzanar artifacts and partnering with the Eastern California Museum to display the items.

In the past, Michael has been instrumental in getting Inyo County residents to support Manzanar. Back in the 1980s, there had been widespread misperception in Inyo County that Manzanar had been a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and local residents, particularly World War II veterans, voiced vocal and hostile opposition to preserving Manzanar.

Michael admitted that there were times when even he thought about pulling his support from Manzanar. “Certainly there were times,” said Michael. “When you have people writing letters to the governor, trying to get me fired, it makes you think. I’ve got kids. I have to provide for my family. Of course, I didn’t work for the state or the governor, but there was a point when one county supervisor called me and said, ‘Why are you guys saying this stuff? I don’t think that’s right.’ So sure, I’ve had concerns about my job.”

But despite the threats, Michael stayed involved and continues to be involved. “At Mono County, I’m working with a literacy program, which is rewarding, but it doesn’t pull at my heart like Manzanar. I feel personally connected to Manzanar, and that feeling stayed with me even when I left so I look forward to working with these people again through the Friends of Manzanar.”

Bruce Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Advisory Commission, praised the National Park Service staff for doing an incredible job. While the federally-funded Manzanar Adivsory Commission dissolved, former commissioners and supporters have agreed to continue meeting voluntarily.

Embrey, the son of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, remembers being dragged to Manzanar as a teenager in 1971. “My mother had come up to Manzanar in 1969 with a group of students from UCLA, and after that, for two years, all I heard was Manzanar this and Manzanar that. And there were meetings and people coming over and talking very passionately about this. And then we drove up. We got out of the car—and remember I’m just a teenager—all I saw was one cemetery monument. And this building (restored historic auditorium) was a DWP (Department of Water and Power) warehouse, sitting way off in the distance. There was nothing but sand and memories. So I think the reconstruction of these barracks are essential in keeping history alive.”

Ochi, former Manzanar Advisory Commission chair, said she and the other former commissioners are committed to staying involved with Manzanar.

Guest and participants were treated to light refreshments prior to joining former internees in the Interpretive Center where they shared personal experiences of the time they were incarcerated at Manzanar. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“While we are not advisory commissioners now that the park has officially been completed, there are so many more projects that we’re undertaking that we all want to continue serving in our usual capacity to make certain that the perspectives and the knowledge of former internees are included,” said Ochi.
And even while ground was being broken for the barracks, Inafuku was already thinking ahead. He had recently put in a request for additional funding to come up with a new General Management Plan that would authorize the building of 13 new buildings to complete Block 14.

Whether or not the request will be approved remains to be seen but Inafuku was hopeful. If approved, Inafuku said their plans include reconstructing the exterior of the barracks but adapting the interior to fit their needs such as creating a curatorial facility, an oral history interview studio, additional library and office space and even a housing facility for students and visiting guests.

To support the barrack reconstruction project, please write a check to and send to the Friends of Manzanar, PO Box 357, Independence, CA 93526.

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1 Comment

  1. Having been an advocate for humane awareness about the history of Japanese-Americans, I am pleased to know that there is a growing support for preserving and remembering history. In 2002 I actually had a chance to visit Manzanar and plan to again! There was something very eerie about standing in the desert being surrounded by a two chains of mountains. It was humbling. I’m glad to see that perseverance is paying its dues.

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