Ralph Merritt

Name Ralph Merritt
Born February 26 1883
Died April 3 1963
Birth Location Rio Visto, California

Businessman and educator; director of the Manzanar concentration camp from November 1942 until its closing three years later.

Born in Rio Vista, California, but mostly raised in Oakland, Merritt (1883–1963) had a long and varied career in California in business and in education prior to coming to Manzanar. After graduating from a public high school in Oakland, he entered the University of California in 1902 graduating in 1907, having taken a year off to work as a ranch hand and to travel. Elected student body president, he got to know school President Benjamin Wheeler, who hired him as his personal secretary. After a stint with Miller-Lux, the large landholding company that his father worked for, he returned to the university as its comptroller in 1912, where he oversaw university business and donations. During World War I, he took a leave of absence, serving at the food administrator for the State of California. He left the university in 1920 to become a property management consultant, though he later served on the university's board of regents from 1924 to 1930.

Having met Herbert Hoover during his food administration stint, he ended up managing Hoover's 1920 presidential campaign in California. His food background also helped land him a position as head of the California Rice Growers' Association in 1921, where he successfully opened up markets in Japan for surplus rice. His success in that role led to his reputation as a "trouble-shooter" and the presidency of Sun Maid Raisins in 1923, an organization in crisis due to severe overproduction and a collapse in raisin prices after the boom years of World War I. Though he again expanded markets in Asia—a trip to Japan led him, he claimed, to "an interest in the Japanese people"—his Sun Maid stint ended unsuccessfully, with his forced resignation in 1928, "broken in health, in spirit, and eventually financially." By the eve of the war, he had reestablished himself in the mining field while living in the Owens Valley near the future site of Manzanar. He was married to Varina Morrow Merritt, whom he had literally grown up next door to since age five, and the couple had three children born between 1911 and 1917. [1]

As a prominent local citizen, Merritt first became involved with Manzanar as chairman of the Inyo County Citizens committee when Manzanar was first established as a " reception center " under administration by the Wartime Civil Control Administration . After Manzanar was transferred to the War Relocation Authority (WRA), it went through two interim directors after the turbulent administration of Roy Nash. At the suggestion of WRA Assistant Director Robert Cozzens, WRA Director Dillon Myer tapped the fifty-nine-year-old Merritt for the head job. He arrived at Manzanar on November 24, 1942, and remained as director there until the camp's closure in November 1945. [2]

He inherited a volatile situation. Two weeks into his tenure, tensions exploded into what different chroniclers have dubbed a riot or uprising that culminated in a shooting that left two Manzanar inmates dead. In managing the conflict, Merritt made the decision to bring in military police to quell the unrest. In her study of individual camp administrations, historian Rita Takahashi Cates writes that "Merritt used coercive means to control evacuees. He wanted nothing but complete cooperation and peace at Manzanar." She also points out that Merritt sent more inmates to the WRA prison at Leupp that any other camp director. After the unrest, Merritt made major changes to his top level staff, replacing community services head Thomas Temple and assistant director Ned Campbell. [3]

After the unrest and segregation—Manzanar sent 2,165 inmates to Tule Lake , the most from any WRA camp—Merritt presided over a relatively compliant inmate population despite—or maybe because of—his paternalistic attitude towards the inmates. According to Solon T. Kimball , his immediate predecessor as director at Manzanar, Merritt told him that, "The only relationship that Japanese understand is that of father and child" and that Merritt "has to become the father of Manzanar." Merritt seemed to like this idea of being the "father" to the inmate population, quoting the head of the block manger group as referring to him as having "been like a father to us" multiple times in his own project director's reports. He no doubt also enjoyed that inmates named "the most famous and elaborate" of the gardens at Manzanar after him, whether meant sardonically or not. For his labors, Merritt was paid a $6,500 per year annual salary, raised to $6,700 in July 1945. [4]

After the war, Merritt worked for the War Assets Administration, which among other things, sold off the remaining assets at Manzanar to local buyers. He later served as the general manager and later executive director of the Metropolitan Transit Agency in the 1950s. He also served as a president to the local Japan America Society. In his last years, he brokered an agreement between the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and UCLA that led to the Japanese American Research Project eventually being housed at the latter, for which he was honored by the former just prior to his passing. [5]

He died in Los Angeles on April 3, 1963 at the age of 80.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Cates, Rita Takahashi. "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.

Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Merritt, Ralph Palmer. After me cometh a builder: the recollections of Ralph Palmer Merritt . Interview of Ralph Merritt by Corinne L. Glib and Walton Bean, 1956. Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/cabeuroh_000028 .

Siegel, Shizue. In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment . San Mateo, Calif.: AACP, Inc., 2006.


  1. Biographical information from Merritt's 1956 oral history, After me cometh a builder: the recollections of Ralph Palmer Merritt , interview of Ralph Merritt by Corinne L. Glib and Walton Bean, 1956 (Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley), accessed on July 19, 2015 at the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/cabeuroh_000028 ; quotes from pages 122, 132, and 134–35. See also his obituary in the Pacific Citizen , Apr. 12, 1963, 1 and The Oregon Grower , July 1923, 15, accessed on July 19, 2015 at https://books.google.com/books?id=HclNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA323&lpg=PA323&dq=herbert+hoover+Ralph+Merritt&source=bl&ots=E3kE79soH8&sig=MB0H9KdiQy-5ncA5qs9Km6Yg550&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CEIQ6AEwCWoVChMI0tSw8PLSxgIVxTaICh2bOgUI#v=onepage&q=herbert%20hoover%20Ralph%20Merritt&f=false .
  2. Manzanar Free Press , Jan. 1, 1943, 1; Robert Cozzens oral history by Rosemary Levenson, November 16, 1970 and April 14 and May 21, 1971, Japanese-American Relocation Reviewed, Volume II: The Internment , The Earl Warren Oral History Project (Berkeley: Regional Oral History Office, University of California, 1976), 10, accessed on July 19, 2015 at http://www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft1290031s&brand=calisphere&doc.view=entire_text ; California Death Index on FamilySearch.com, accessed on Aug. 17, 2020 at https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VP4C-ZZY .
  3. Rita Takahashi Cates, "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980), 235–38, quote from 237; Frank Miyamoto, interview with Ralph Smeltzer, April 21, 1944, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder T1.8403, accessed on Aug. 17, 2020 at http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/28722/24/bk0013c5024/files/bk0013c5024-FID1.pdf ; Harlan Unrau, The Evacuation and Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry During World War II: A Historical Study of the Manzanar War Relocation Center (Historic Resource Study/Special History Study, 2 Volumes, [Washington, DC]: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996), accessed on Aug. 17, 2020 at https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/manz/hrs12a.htm .
  4. The Evacuated People: A Quantitative Description (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, [1946]), 115–23; Richard Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 48; [Ralph Merritt], Project Director's Weekly Reports for Weeks Ending Nov. 27 and Dec. 18 1943, Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation Records (JAERR), Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder O1.10:1, accessed on Aug. 17, 2020 at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6q246ff/?brand=oac4 ; Connie Y. Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 170–71; [Ralph P. Merritt], Project Director's Weekly Report For Week June 24 to 30, 1945, JAERR BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder O1.10:3, accessed on Aug. 17, 2020 at https://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/k6fn1dc8/?brand=oac4 .
  5. Merritt oral history; Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 209; Robert L. Brown oral history by Arthur A. Hansen, Dec. 13, 1973 and Feb. 20, 1974 in Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley , edited by Jesse A. Garrett, and Ronald C. Larson (Fullerton: California State University, Fullerton, Japanese American Oral History Project, 1977), 37; Henry Mori, "Los Angeles Newsletter," Pacific Citizen , Jan. 22, 1954, 7, accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-26-4/ ; Pacific Citizen , Feb. 8, 1963, 4.

Last updated Dec. 28, 2020, 5:53 p.m..