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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Manzanar: Sharing Showers at America’s Concentration Camp

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | May 4th, 2007 | Comments No Comments

A large, grainy, black-and-white photo of 4 side-by-side toilets adorns the US National Park Service’s women’s bathroom at the Manzanar Historical Site ( Located near mockingly named Independence, California, the concentration camp held 10,046 American Japanese during WWII.

The 1944 photo of the Men’s Latrine at Block 40 is an embarrassing reminder of the humiliating conditions Japanese Americans endured during the weeks, months and years following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The following February, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order #9066, requiring all Americans of Japanese ancestry to be “evacuated” from newly created “exclusion zones” along the West coast. His Administration referred to the places they would be evacuated to as concentration camps.

It took the US military just 6 weeks to slap together 504 barracks at the barren foot of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in mainland America, creating one of the lowest points in America’s history.

Built of boards and black tarpaper, without running water or heat, each of the 504 100’ x 20’ barracks were divided into 4 “apartments” with 8 side-by-side Army cots, straw mattresses and 3 thin Army blankets each, enough to house more than 16,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Known for its gusty, dusty, brutal winters and gusty, dusty, brutal summers after the Owens Valley was wrung dry when Los Angeles siphoned its water, the desolate land became one of 10 “Jap camps” in America.

“It was embarrassing at first,” said Carol Hironaka, who was interned at Manzanar when she was 17, describing the lack of privacy when using the non-partitioned toilets in the camp’s communal bathroom. “But, it was a necessity. You just had to get over it.

“Taking a shower was the worst part. The whole 3 years I was at the camp, it was like that,“ she said, pointing to the 11’ by 9’ concrete slab, indicating the single room with multiple sprays that served as many as 150 women who would shower without privacy.

National Park Service docent Dick Mansfield describes women who would go to the toilet carrying large pieces of cardboard to shield them, or who would wait until the middle of the night to shower in semi-privacy.

Most of Manzanar’s internees were shipped from LA and unused to the relentless dust. So much dust filtered into the flimsy barracks, internees talk of waking in the morning with a white spot on their pillows where their heads rested, brown dust coating the remainder, according to Mansfield.

“Goggles and masks became commonplace,” said NPS ranger Richard Potashin. “There were respiratory problems from the dust, dysentery was an issue with so many people living so closely together. Sometimes people would hold in their bodily functions and suffer the medical consequences.” No X-rays, no pharmacy, no laboratory was available to the internees who provide health care. 143 internees died at Manzanar in its 3½ years of operation.

The American government relocated more than 120,000 Americans into 10 War Relocation Camps, 17 Assembly Centers, and 24 Army facilities, federal prisons, “Citizen Isolation Camps” and Department of Justice detention centers, including, ironically, Ellis Island.

Following in America’s footsteps just 7 days after the US relocation announcement, Canada embarked on relocating 20,881 Japanese of Canadian descent, and 16 Latin American countries deported 3,000 Japanese descendants and interned 8,500 German, Italian and Japanese descendants.

“People were here and kept here, solely on the basis they [were of] Japanese descent,” said docent Dick Mansfield. “That’s not the way Americans like to do things. There was talk of doing this again after 9/11, talk of corralling Muslims. The National Park Service maintains this [historical site] hoping it’s a lesson that will never be forgotten.”

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Category: , Manzanar, California
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