Dust plasters the sweaty arms and legs of an army of volunteers, dressed mostly in pants and big floppy hats for the desert heat.
About four dozen volunteer excavators have descended upon the Manzanar National Historic Site, west of Death Valley, for a few days in July. The desolate site was the forced home of about 10,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
Volunteers have spent several days braving triple-digit temperatures and dusty winds, trying to unearth history from a dark period in America’s past.
One man stands in a 5-foot-deep trench, shoveling the walls and floor into buckets.
“(In) this dig, we’re excavating a couple basement barracks,” explains Manzanar archaeologist Jeff Burton. “So there’s a variety of ways people could make their life better in Manzanar. And so one way is, like, building Japanese gardens. A lot of people built Japanese gardens. And then a lot of people built basements. And we’re hoping to learn more what is left in the basement.”
The barracks above those basements, except for two replicas, are long gone — removed, razed and burned after people left the camp. But the volunteers hope to find clues to life here during the war.
“When they first came, it was pretty miserable. This was dry, this was dusty. It was hot when they showed up. The Army didn’t really know how to deal with families,” Burton said. “They had communal bathrooms with no stalls between the toilets because that’s how a military camp would be. A lot of women were shocked at the conditions they would have to use the restrooms in. ”
Burton helps organize these volunteer excavations of different parts of the park at least a couple of times a year. Most of the stops on the park’s driving tour are there only because they were unearthed and restored by volunteers, who are drawn to the park for different reasons.
“How often when you’re an adult do you get to play in the dirt?” asked Cathy Erickson, who comes from the Portland area every year to help out, along with her adult daughter. “That brings me back — the marbles, the nails, the toys. One year, we found a baby shoe. We found a fancy comb set another year. So it’s just the thrill of discovery, of opening up new areas.”
The diggers on this day find a few surprises: a couple of buttons, fishbones and even labeled sake bottles. They also find a bit of an old comic book, which could have belonged to the 13-year-old boy who originally dug this basement.
More than 70 years later, his son is here, helping with the dig. Mitch Higa’s dad created the cellar under his family’s barracks so he and his friends could escape the extreme summer heat and play cards.
“I think it really shaped how he perceived the government,” Higa said. “He was a U.S. citizen, yet he was in this concentration camp.”
“As I’m digging … and sifting and sorting through the basement,” Higa said, “my mind starts to think about what it was like to live here as a 13-year-old boy and hang out in that basement that he dug.”
Higa said his dad really did not talk much about living in Manzanar, and Higa didn’t even know about the basement until someone from the National Park Service asked his dad about it.
“In a way, it’s kind of moving that so many different people have such an interest in this. I’m not finding out a lot about my father,” Higa said. “But it’s still learning about my father in terms of how he lived in camp, (his) lifestyle. It puts me more in context and gives me more a sense of it.”
Higa’s dad, who is now in his 80s, could not make the trip to the dig.
Tony Salome of Los Osos has been coming to Manzanar since before it officially became a park in 1992. He first came to the area to scout locations for the movie, “Tremors.” The place was deserted.
“When I came in, I remember very distinctly, I drove up to the gate and then I just kind of walked in through the property and, you know, you could sense this energy that something important happened here,” Salome said.
That’s when he went home to find out what exactly happened here and learned it was a World War II relocation center. Salome and his wife, Randon Pool, returned to the park and eventually started volunteering for excavations like these.
“You can feel that something happened here. It’s like you go to Gettysburg and you can feel something, you know?” Pool said. “It’s beautiful here, and it just kind of breaks my heart that this is what it was, that this was an internment camp.”
Pool said one of the best parts of volunteering to dig and find out more about Manzanar is the interaction with people who have roots here.
“The Japanese people we’ve met through coming here and the people that were actually interned here, there’s no anger in them. There’s no visible anger. And that fascinates me,” Pool said, as she talked about excavating Japanese gardens during a previous outing.
“And they just did beautiful things under horrible conditions. I think that says a lot about the human spirit. I just think it’s important to preserve as much of it as we can.”
In the heat of July, Salome uses a shovel to heave dirt from the trench into buckets, which a volunteer grabs and dumps into sifters, one of which is manned by Pool. After finding a lot of nails and broken glass shards, they finally find two totally intact mugs.
“Whenever you find things, that’s the best part because, you know, for the most part, we’re just digging holes and throwing dirt and that is very laborious,” Salome said. “But when you find something, and then you find an artifact that’s actually intact, that is just amazing!”
Salome said it’s fascinating to learn what might have been and to uncover potential answers for the next generation.
“It’s a part of history that should be remembered,” Salome said. “And I think, like everybody else that comes, we’re contributing to making sure that that memory doesn’t die because there’s so many people that really have no idea, even today, what Manzanar is or what it was.”
Ranger Jeff Burton hopes with time — and volunteer manpower — that will change.
“Maybe it’ll stop us from creating the same mistakes. Like after 9/11, they wanted to intern Arab-Americans, but the Japanese-American community kind of stood up and said, ‘No, it’s not going to happen because it happened to us,’ ” Burton said. “The same story happens over and over, (but) hopefully we can learn from it.”