One Woman’s Story of Survival in an American Concentration Camp

Imagine this scenario.

Recent events have made the government suspicious and afraid of you and those like you. You and your family have become despised so much by everyone around you that you’re afraid for your safety. You reluctantly accept the protection offered by a move to a hastily built internment facility.

You cope with living in crowded, cramped quarters. You stand in line for awful food and for inadequate bathrooms. There’s no privacy. Some in your family are separated from you and relocated to several states away to do forced labor.

Think it couldn’t happen here? Americans wouldn’t stand for it? Would you believe it has already happened?

This week’s DestinySurvival Pick is a book that tells one woman’s story of life in an American concentration camp. It’s Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. First published in 1973, it offers hope for coping under the adverse conditions of forced detention.

The internment of thousands of Japanese in this country during World War II is a little known and mostly overlooked part of our history. Perhaps it can be argued that our camps were more humane than those of the Germans, since we didn’t kill those we confined. Nuns and other volunteers provided religious instruction and ran the school at the Manzanar camp Houston wrote about.

Nonetheless, it was still an internment camp in the California desert with barbed wire fences, armed guards and searchlights.

Houston and her family were there about three and a half years. She was seven in 1942 when their ordeal began.

Though most of the family was able to stay together, their relationships were disrupted and marred, and would never be the same again. The father was away in North Dakota for several months and drank heavily upon his return. Being accused of disloyalty by Americans and his fellow Japanese Americans weighed him down.

Men and boys were coerced into signing loyalty statements and forced into military service. This was cause for considerable tension in the Wakatsuki family.

In the midst of it all, these Japanese Americans found ways to make life as normal as possible. Some engaged in hobbies like painting or gardening. Children and young people became involved in school activities, such as plays and talent contests. There was even a swing band. Life became like that of a small town.

This is a commendable survival strategy because they didn’t allow themselves to be defeated.

It may seem strange, but Jeanne’s father made their family stay until the camp was closed down, rather than leave at an early opportunity. He said the government put them there, so let the government move them out. Liberation also meant facing hatred and an uncertain future.

Houston describes how it was for a time when her family rebuilt their lives after they left the camp. In school she faced the shame of being a “foreigner.”. She struggled for acceptance. Her reflections aren’t lengthy, but she doesn’t skirt the significant issues she and her family faced.

Houston concludes the book with a description of a trip she took to the remnants of the camp in 1972 with her husband and children. She recalls the scene as her family left the camp in 1945, riding in a blue Nash her father bought as an act of spirited defiance, rather than leave by bus.

Perhaps we didn’t see Muslims and Arabs rounded up after 9/11 for fear of repeating this World War II chapter in our history. Or maybe there were other reasons. Does that mean we’ll never see internment camps in America? Some say they aren’t needed because the whole country is enslaved.

Whatever the case, I can’t help but think of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s comparison between herself and her father. His internment ended his life, though he actually lived several years past their release. But it was a beginning for her. Of course, she was a young girl with nearly all of her life ahead of her when her family’s ordeal began, so perhaps this is only logical. Still, she didn’t despair.

What choices will you and I make if faced with similar conditions? Houston made the choice to survive many times, though life handed her injustice, humiliation and prejudice. Thus, it’s only fitting that she close her book with the recollection of her father’s kind of defiant spirit.

Farewell to Manzanar is fairly short and easy to read. Get a copy for yourself by clicking on its title wherever you see it linked in this post. You’ll be taken to the page where it’s featured, and you can place your order there.

I recommend adding Farewell to Manzanar to your survival library. Share it with your children or grandchildren. No, it won’t teach you how to light a fire or build a shelter in the wilderness, but what you discover will add to your inner tools for building a survival mindset.


Author: John Wesley Smith

John Wesley Smith writes and podcasts from his home in Central Missouri. His goal is to help preppers as he continues along his own preparedness journey.