Uncle Jim doesn’t remember much about the place, except the long, dusty road leading to it. He would have been too young for school by the time it closed in 1945, and neither of my grandparents ever spoke about it much, save the story my dad used to tell about grandmother gathering money and taking notes on what to buy in town for Christmas.
Once the war ended, and the internees had been sent home to try to rebuild their lives, most of the nearly 600 buildings were given away, the land parceled out to returning (white) war veterans on a lottery-based system. Until recently, there was nothing left of the sprawling compound locals called Hunt Camp but a couple of shacks, a dilapidated root cellar and a modest, blue house marked “visitor’s center.”
What today is rolling farmland was once sagebrush covered ash soil and basalt. Like other sites, this was chosen carefully: public land, far enough from any large urban center to attract undue attention. Clearing the brush exposed the fine soil and silt to the wind. Row upon row of barracks were hastily built of green wood that shrunk as it dried, leaving cracks in the walls. There was no insulation and dust fell on everything inside and out. The high temperature the summer of 1942, when the internees started arriving, was 102. The following winter saw record lows of 21 below zero.
Minidoka back then was a town of fewer than 200. At its peak, Hunt Camp hosted 7,318. In all, more than 13,000 Japanese immigrants (Issei) and second-generation Americans (Nisei) at one point or another called it home. They developed the surrounding farmland. They built the canals and irrigation systems still in use today. They provided cheap labor to area farmers during the day, returning to their barracks at night. They sent their sons to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in US military history, whose members helped liberate one of the satellite labor camps at Dachau while their own families waited for them in American barbed wire-fenced compounds.
“You have to understand the sentiment of the time,” a woman in the audience explained at a presentation I attended last spring. “People were very nervous about the war.” Maybe. But war-time hysteria grossly oversimplifies the issue and sidesteps the hostility against Asians that had been building since Chinese workers were recruited by the mining and railroad industries the century before. Japanese and other east Asian workers followed.
By the time of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese movements had been active all along the west coast. Alarm over the attack stoked existing racism and fueled rumors and lies. Early news stories were of Japanese Americans in Honolulu staging elaborate acts of sabotage that somehow facilitated the attack when what they were actually doing was storming the blood bank center shortly after the bombing with offers to donate.
I first heard about the camp from my dad, who told me about my grandmother’s Christmas errands. That’s really the only insight any of us has into their time there, that and the friend Dad found in Hunt Camp survivor Ron Yakota while serving in the Army Reserves. Ron had introduced himself to Dad, recognizing his name as that of the baby born in 1944 to the camp’s chief of internal security and his wife. The two became friends and then later lost touch. Ron’s gift to my family of an ornately decorated bottle of sake remains unopened to this day.
Embarrassingly enough, I never thought much about the camps nor my grandparents’ experience until I was a young adult. Having recently read David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, I broached the topic with dad in an unfortunately bourbon-fueled conversation that was forever after (mistakenly) known as “That time Beth compared Granddad to a Nazi”* (which I most certainly did not, nor ever would**). Owing to the potentially explosive nature of the subject––given, I suppose, a youthful lack of diplomacy and a recently realized sense of righteous indignation on the topic––neither Dad nor I ever broached the topic with each other again.
Still, I remained curious about the camp and how my family came to be involved. Last year we happened to pass through a Japanese festival downtown, and I talked to a woman at the National Park Service about it. I interviewed the director of the Friends of Minidoka on my radio show and attended her presentation at my Rotary meeting.
I briefly considered signing us all up for the Minidoka Pilgrimage as well, a four-day retreat in Southern Idaho for survivors, their families and others who want to learn more about life in the camps. Recognizing what a feat it is to carve out even one day of family time with two employed teens, we decided instead to attend the dedication of a new Visitors Center and tour the site with the boys.
The Visitor’s Center was once Warehouse #5, the camp’s tire and motor repair shop. Today it houses displays and a bookshop, a ranger information desk, and auditorium. The entire historical site includes land that has been donated to the NPS and a few buildings, a dilapidated root cellar, a rebuilt guard tower and a long row of barbed wire fencing.
On the tour, our guide encouraged the survivors among us to share their stories. We gathered in a cramped, sweltering building that once housed four to six families, while one woman recounted winters of bitter cold in a building with neither insulation nor running water.
“Our mother bought a pot so we wouldn’t have to walk to the latrine in the middle of the night,” she said, then called out over her shoulder, “that’s how you were potty-trained, Eddie!”
“I’m still not!” her brother called back, and we all laughed with their family.
The mood was jovial all afternoon. Teenagers took the arms of elders as we walked, taking pictures and listening to stories.
In the mess hall, Atsushi “Ats” Kiuchi, an affable man with a floppy hat, talked about his life there as a teenager.
“Each block had their own mess hall,” he said, “but the kids knew which blocks had the best cooks, and we’d eat there instead.” His playful reference to the dismantling of the cherished Japanese family tradition of eating meals together elicited a smattering of laughter.
I walked with Ats later while he told me about the teens separating themselves into groups. There were the Country Boys who came from the rural areas, and the O.T.s (“that’s ‘odiferous turds’” he said, leaning in with a chuckle) like himself from the cities.
The groups formed baseball teams that regularly whooped teams of guards and farmers. The compound boasted thirteen baseball fields, a swimming hole (dug after a couple of drownings in the nearby canal), and a rough golf course. Our group passed one rebuilt field, and someone started tossing a ball. A few others ran bases, stirring up silt that hovered above the ground in the summer heat.
Along the perimeter of the camp the mood turned somber as we contemplated lengths of barbed wire fence. The original barrier was absent when the first internees arrived––where would they go, off into the desert? When it was later installed, incensed residents regularly cut through the wire until the contractor briefly electrified it (no word on whether anyone was hurt before this practice was halted).
A reconstructed guard tower stands at the entrance to the park. The original was said to have been erected as a fire watch, but armed guards faced inward, toward the cleared land of the camp.
Throughout the tour, I was struck by the grace with which the internees met such injustice. Some had been given days to prepare to abandon their homes, others mere hours. Many returned after the war to find little remaining of their lives. They who’d sent their sons off to fight for a country that then asked them to sign loyalty pledges, they’d posed for photos showing the nation a rosy portrait of life at the “camps” to which they’d been “evacuated” as though for their own safety.
I’d long wondered about my own family history here. Like the Issei, Granddad was notoriously tight-lipped about that time. His quote in the Minidoka Interlude, the camp’s commemorative yearbook, was “very satisfactory,” something he once told Uncle Jim was more fit to publish than his actual thoughts about the place.
It wasn’t until Uncle Jim reminded me of another story that I started to think of the context under which my grandfather might have accepted such a posting.
Prior to the war, Granddad was a Twin Falls police officer. In 1939, early one May morning he and his partner, Officer Craig Bracken, had stopped and were attempting to arrest two convicted felons who had robbed a gas station and stolen a car in which the owner had stashed a loaded .38. As they approached, Officer Bracken was shot and Granddad returned fire. Both of the suspects fled but were later captured and convicted of armed robbery, the one who fired the gun also convicted of murder. Officer Bracken left behind a wife and three children.
All of this happened before Uncle Jim was born. I imagine my grandmother, home with her first child, stridently insisting Granddad find another line of work. It wouldn’t have easy in the midst of the Depression, but less difficult than denying my feisty 4’11” tall grandmother. If she’d wanted Granddad to find another job, that’s precisely what he would have done.
Of course, all of this is conjecture. I was five when Granddad died, and much older before I’d begun to question the events surrounding one of the most shameful eras in US history to date, or the role any of my family might have played.
It’s been twelve years since Dad’s passing, and much as I’d like, I can’t remind him I never meant to call my Granddad a Nazi. But I can share this history with my own children at a time when it seems more important than ever we remember even a country that purports to hold freedom as its highest virtue is still capable of inflicting horrors of such magnitude.
Before leaving the rolling farmland bordered by
a wide canal and barbed wire, I stopped in the visitor’s center one last time
to drop off the keepsake bottle my mom had kept closed in its box for fifty
years. I’ve seen exhibits of gifts the internees made to townspeople and
farmers who’d done them small favors. Maybe they’ll include it with those.
* I did not, in fact, nor ever would compare my grandad to a Nazi. What I said was “how is it possible people could assume Japanese Americans were in league with the Japanese empire against the United States, but our family, of German heritage, didn’t have to worry about false association with Nazis?” My family’s German heritage is on my mother’s side, by the way.
** With God as my witness, I did not call my Granddad a Nazi.
Mom made sure we knew about the American concentration camps when we were in high school. She never shared this story.
Our kids learned about them in high school, but no one I’ve talked to in my generation remembers them as part of the formal history curriculum. The guy I talked to about being a teenager in the camp is part of a group that writes and speaks about his experience to honor the Issei.