Behind the Barbed Wired of Manzanar: Guayule and the Search for Natural Rubber 

Reclaimed rubber from scrap tires being processed for reuse during the war production effort. Library of Congress, LC-USE6-D-003785.

The Manzanar group also passed technical milestones in the extraction and purification of rubber. They began by using a small milkshake blender that yielded latex one pint at a time, eventually designing larger and more effective mills (able to handle about five gallons at a time) with parts salvaged from washing machines and automobiles. They developed a new energy-efficient method of milling and purifying guayule that yielded a low-fiber, low-resin rubber extract. Tests suggested that Manzanar guayule rubber was about 36% stronger than that produced by the Salinas guayule group, and perhaps as strong as any natural rubber. 

Credit Where Credit’s Due

Rather than celebrate this success, the public response was ambivalent. Most of those associated with the ERP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture considered the Japanese Americans’ research an unnecessary duplication of the better-funded research at Salinas. One of the nation’s leading na­tural-rubber experts, David Spence, described the Manzanar scientists’ methodologies as “exceedingly interesting,” yet he did not want to get “mixed up” in anything that aided the “cause of those Japs.” When researchers demonstrated the new extraction process for rubber-industry officials in Southern California, they were told to call it the “Emerson process” and avoid any mention of the Japanese Americans’ engineering skills. Others urged Emerson to take out a patent on the process developed by the internees.

Some did put aside such prejudices. In 1943 Caltech’s president, Nobel Prize laureate Robert Millikan, insisted that the interned scientists deserved funding and support. The Kirkhill Rubber Company of Los Angeles offered a few hundred dollars to help fund the extraction research. Prominent scientists from Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Los Angeles traveled to Manzanar to discuss plant genetics and physiology with the internees; Kenzie Nozaki, the recent recipient of a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford, also delivered a scientific lecture while he was under the watchtowers. By summer 1943 the ERP’s interim director, Paul Roberts, told fellow bureaucrats that the organization must fund a portion of the Manzanar research and that it would be “indefensible” not to. After all, Manzanar’s skilled scientists earned only $16 per month.

Roberts and Manzanar’s director, Ralph Merritt, worked hard to keep the research team together. “The facts are that the methods of rubber extraction evolved at Manzanar by our group of Japanese horticulturists, chemists, and engineers are the answer to the maiden’s prayer,” Merritt said. Eventually, the U.S. Forest Service allowed the research plots to claim a few more acres and provided enough money to cover basic research expenses for the fiscal year 1944.

Sympathy for the Japanese American internees was on the rise. In late 1943 photographer Ansel Adams visited Manzanar. Like Dorothea Lange, Adams viewed the rubber research as a symbol of internees’ efforts to build a normal community. Unlike Lange, however, Adams had his photographs published in Born Free and Equal, a 1944 work that suggested the government’s willingness to atone, at least in part, for the internment embarrassment. Under the simple caption “Here is a Rubber Chemist,” Adams captured an image of a proud and determined Frank Hirosawa (pictured on p. 1), who was once considered unreliable because he had been educated in Japanese-occupied Korea.

As the tide of war turned in the Allies’ favor, the Manzanar rubber project gradually faded into obscurity. Several researchers dispersed to other camps or found other work opportunities. Emerson returned to his own research at Caltech. By December 1944 the West Coast Exclusion Order had been lifted, and many of the internees began to rebuild their lives and careers. But the saga of guayule rubber and the internees does not quite end here.

A Dream of Postwar Guayule

Hugh Anderson, Emerson’s colleague, took up the proj­ect’s reins and made it his crusade for another 40 years. Like Emerson, guayule’s new champion was a Pasadena Quaker and critic of capitalism. Anderson’s philanthropic dream was to take advantage of the internees’ successes and to use guayule to help them begin new lives as the relocation centers closed down. Despite Anderson’s limited mobility (he had been crippled by polio and was reliant on crutches), he drafted plans for a guayule-centered community of about 100 families in Mojave County, an arid and remote corner of western Arizona. Members of this cooperative, rather than engage in a capitalistic venture, would use their horticultural talents to raise and sell cut flowers for urban markets to sustain themselves while acres of guayule grew to maturity.