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Martha Shoaf arrived at Manzanar in February 1943 as a 4th-grade teacher for Japanese-American students. Like the internees, she lived in a tarpaper-covered barracks. Shoaf is shown holding a poster that advertised a presentation she delivered in 2009. / Liz Babcock Photo

Remembering Martha Shoaf who taught at Manzanar during WWII era

By Cholla Sizemore News Review Contributor–

After graduating from UCLA in 1942, Martha Shoaf quickly returned to school to get her teaching credential so she could teach at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.  She arrived in Manzanar in February 1943 sick with the flu but embarking on an adventure.

Martha Shoaf standing in knee-deep snow outside what appears to be a WWII-era Manzanar barracks.

Life at Manzanar was a challenge.  The barracks were not finished. She slept on a cot with a thin mattress, and a nail on the wall served as a closet.  Shoaf had once said, “It was sort of like camping out with a roof over your head.”

She taught in a classroom with no decorations and no books.  Her fourth-grade students sat in wooden chairs with no desks or school supplies.  Shoaf bought a supply of crayons, in addition to penny pencils, and a 5-cent writing tablet for each child.  There was a blackboard in the room that she described as “a plywood board that they’d painted over, and you had soft chalk.  You had to wash it to erase it.”  Instead of using the blackboard, she bought butcher paper from a store in Lone Pine and wrote her own stories on the paper.  She used these stories to teach reading, English, and spelling.

Every morning, the class said the Pledge of Allegiance to an empty corner, which was later changed when they received a supply of art paper and crayons.  One of the students suggested that they each draw an American flag and select one to put in the corner so they could salute it, which they did.

Ansel Adams made several trips to Manzanar in 1943 and 1944 to take photographs and Shoaf  saw him.  She bought several of his pictures and said, “He was selling them for a nickel, a dime, 15 cents, and a quarter.”  She donated the pictures to Manzanar.

A Japanese-American boys choir performed music using recorders in the Manzanar relocation camp during WWII.

Shoaf left Manzanar in late 1944 after almost two years.  With the war winding down, she had been advised to start looking for another position.  She was out hitchhiking when the superintendent of the Trona School District gave her a ride.  During the drive, he secretly interviewed her and before she knew it, she had signed a contract to work in Trona.  She had not meant to leave Manzanar so soon.  It just happened that way.

She taught in Trona for four years but then, at age 29, decided to teach overseas.  In an interview for the Maturango Museum, she laughingly said that she had become engaged to two different men in Trona, so she thought she had better “bailout” of there.  She ended up teaching in Paris, Austria, Japan, and Germany before returning to Trona to teach full-time until her retirement in 1984.

She had not intended to become a teacher.  As a child, she was interested in history and aspired to be a poet.  But when World War II started, she was upset about what was happening and she had to do something.  She felt that her time at Manzanar was her contribution to the war effort.

Shoaf died on June 3, 2012, but she is not forgotten.  A lot of us have memories of her interviews, lectures, volunteering, or even in the classroom.  Whatever our memories, Shoaf  is hard to forget.