Ned Morioka and his cousin, Harry, give their two friends a ride in front of the infirmary at the temporary Death Valley camp. (Courtesy of the Ralph Merritt Collection, Eastern California Museum)
Uncovering a little-known chapter in the region’s history leads to the discovery of an even greater American narrative.
By David Woodruff, Contributor
Death Valley National Park, well known for offering one of the most scenic desert landscapes on the planet, has been a destination for travelers and visitors the world over for nearly a hundred years.
The park’s human history is as rich and deep as its natural wonders. Native Americans inhabited the area for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. The spellbinding story of the Argonauts, who nearly lost their lives while attempting a shortcut to the California goldfields, is a subject that has been studied in California grade schools for more than a hundred years. And what 20th century washperson couldn’t repeat the story of how their favorite laundry detergent was brought to them from the brink of hell thanks to the efforts of the Twenty Mule Team?
But there is a little-known chapter in Death Valley’s history that is part of a greater narrative of an American tragedy that occurred in the United States during World War II.
At 2 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 10, 1942, T. R. Goodwin, superintendent of Death Valley National Monument, and his wife, Neva, were woken from a sound sleep by a sharp knocking on the door of their residence at Monument headquarters. At their entry stood Robert Brown, an assistant to Ralph Merritt, director of the Manzanar WRA Center, located 110 miles away.
Brown told Goodwin that there had been a riot at Manzanar, and the military police there had shot some of the internees. Brown stated that Merritt had sent him to see if Goodwin would be able to provide temporary housing for a large group of internees that needed to be evacuated from Manzanar for their own safety.
Prior to WWII, Death Valley had been home to as many as 600 young men who were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The CCC boys left Death Valley at the outbreak of the war, and the housing for them was now vacant. Goodwin told Brown he and his limited staff would get the former CCC camp in shape so that Merritt could bring the group of internees to Death Valley later that day.
As soon as Brown left, Goodwin rounded up his staff, and they immediately went to work cleaning up the CCC barracks and mess hall.
Brown returned to Manzanar and told Merritt the good news — living space for the threatened evacuees was available in Death Valley. That afternoon, a military convoy of Jeeps, a weapons carrier and automobiles left for Death Valley.
The group included 10 staff members, 12 soldiers and 65 Japanese internees. They brought a few personal belongings, hay, furniture and food. The group included men, women, children and single people. The few motorists they encountered along their route were stunned by the surprising sight.
It was a long and slow trip, with the group not arriving in Death Valley until 9:30 p.m. Once fed, women and children were housed in one area of the 16 buildings at the camp, and men were housed in another section. Death Valley had one of its coldest evenings that night, and blankets for warmth were in popular demand.
The next morning, everyone pitched in to improve living conditions. The ticking was filled with hay, walls and floors were washed and a mess hall was set up and equipped. One of the better-equipped buildings at the camp actually had toilets, showers and running water. This became the infirmary, managed by Josephine Hawes, a registered nurse from the Manzanar Hospital. Hawes was not only the nurse but also the health officer and doctor to the group. Her first order of business was to care for the men who were badly beaten during the riots at Manzanar.
Over the next few days as everyone settled in, barracks space was assigned to families, bachelor quarters were set up and kitchen K.P. and other work groups were designated as well.
Why was it necessary to remove the 65 internees from Manzanar? Some of the internees there had taken a “pro-American” stance, even petitioning President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow Japanese American men to enlist in the military. Many other internees were strongly opposed.
Quarrels and arguing turned into physical violence. On Dec. 6, a group moved toward the police station/jail, demanding the release of a suspect charged with a murderous attack on a leader of the pro-American group. A demonstrator started an unoccupied truck rolling downhill toward the soldiers. Several shots were fired, and when the crowd broke up, two internees were dead and 11 more injured.
During the night, gangs armed with knives and weapons roamed the camp looking for individuals on a publicized death list. All of their intended victims were gathered together by the camp administrators and military police and placed in protective custody. Three days later, the group was moved to Death Valley.
Superintendent Goodwin and his staff worked hard to make conditions as livable and comfortable as possible for the relocated internees. Goodwin had dinner with the group on their second night in Death Valley. He even shared with them that park naturalists would like to show them slides and enlighten them on Death Valley’s natural history. Goodwin’s outreach apparently worked.
Tad Uyeno, a prewar columnist for the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News and now an internee, wrote in a postwar press article, “Superintendent Goodwin’s talk to us impressed us. He created in our minds a very favorable impression. He was, we believed, a man we could trust and depend on for help.”
Away from the stress and difficulties of confining 10,000 people at Manzanar, relationships between the soldiers and the internees were greatly improved. Friendships lasting over the years were formed between the guards and the guarded at Death Valley.
Shortly after their arrival, many internees from the group presented themselves to Superintendent Goodwin and his staff, and they assisted them with any work needed in Death Valley. Experiencing a severe lack of manpower created by the war, Goodwin and his staff readily accepted their offer. Over the next few weeks, springs were cleaned out, ditches dug, cement poured, radio antennas erected and other odd jobs were accomplished by the hard-working internees.
When the soldiers would make trips to Beatty, Nev., or Death Valley Junction to pick up mail or get supplies, they often took a group of internees with them. One day, soldiers with two U.S. Army trucks took the women to Dante’s View for a sightseeing trip. A Christmas Eve party was also held, which included all of the internees, staff, soldiers, local Native Americans, as well as park personnel.
Immediately following the internees’ removal from Manzanar, the government commenced efforts to find homes and jobs outside the Western Defense Command area for them. As openings and opportunities became available, departing internees were escorted east to Las Vegas for travel to the East and Midwest.
The American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) also played a major role in helping the internees find jobs and homes in other parts of the country. Within two and a half months of their arrival in Death Valley, the last of the 65 internees had moved on to a life outside of the military camp.
At least some of the Japanese Americans who lived at Death Valley remember it in a positive note.
Togo Tanaka wrote in 1986, “What Ralph Merritt did, with speed and dispatch, in getting his friend, Superintendent Goodwin, to respond after the violence and bloodshed at Manzanar showed us the light at the end of the tunnel. Merritt saved lives and sent us on our way to rebuild our faith in our native land. What greater legacy could any American leave? I think those of us who tried to lead exemplary lives as good citizens have felt, in our own way, an obligation to repay the trust freely bestowed by Ralph Merritt.”
David Woodruff has lived in Eastern California for 24 years, working as a local journalist and community service volunteer. He has also written several books on the history of Death Valley. This article appears courtesy of Woodruff and the Inyo Valley Register (Sept. 30).