A Dark Part In Our History

Our first outing in Idaho ended up being a visit to the Minidoka National Historic Site near Jerome, Idaho. This was a Japanese Internment camp during World War II. It is a relatively new park, having been created by President Clinton in 2001. The Visitor Center is still a temporary site (grand opening of the permanent one is sometime in 2019). The exhibits line a 1.6 mile trail starting at the original entrance and guard station to the camp. There are only a few buildings left because the government gave most of them away after the war (more on that, later). What can be seen is mostly building foundations and leftover debris such as coffee cans, buckets, and car radiators.

Minidoka was opened August 10, 1942. It was hastily built and hardly ready for the first internees. The buildings were tar paper shacks built with green wood. The site, being located in the high desert, saw temperatures below freezing in the winter (down to -30°), and summers above 100°. It was situated on 33,000 acres, but the main encampment was located in a 946 acre area. The rest was used as farmland so they could grow their own food. This, however, did not work out very well. Instead, many of the men and women were conscripted to work at existing farms, replacing men who were called to war. By March 1, 1943, there were 9,397 internees.

Make no bones about it, this was a rampant race issue. By war’s end, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were ‘relocated’ and stripped of their possessions. We were also at war with Germany and Italy, but only a few thousand Germans and Italians were incarcerated during the war in the United States. Before the war, racism against the Japanese was high. Japanese Americans were not allowed to own any land. Most places would not rent to them. The Japanese who were born in Japan, called the Issei, could not become citizens. Their American-born children, called Nisei, were citizens and could own land. For a time, the Issei would put land in their children’s names, but the States enacted laws that stopped this practice as well.

Once the war started, the government was divided about what should be done with Japanese Americans. Most did not want to relocate them, preferring instead to leave them in their homes and towns, and have them registered. The FBI and Department of Justice were leaning toward this as a solution, however, President Roosevelt went against his advisors and signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 allowing for the relocation of ‘enemy agents’.

Now, this was only about the Japanese living in the United States, right? Well believe it or not, the government pressured Latin American countries to deport their Japanese residents to the United States. As a result, 2,200 people were taken from their homes in South American countries. What was the rationale behind this thinking? Supposedly, the Japanese from South America would be used for prisoner exchanges between the United States and Japan. However, the best laid intentions do not always work out as planned. After uprooting South American Japanese and bringing them to the United States, most ended up staying here at the end of the war. About 1,400 were denied repatriation to the countries they were deported from.

Life in the camps was harsh. Guard towers and barbed wire were constant reminders that you were basically in a prison, not an internment camp. The people were determined to make Minidoka a home, and they did as much as they could to ease the pain of their confinement. They had schools, churches, theatres, swimming holes, gardening, and baseball. Baseball played a huge part in the lives of the internees. There were fourteen baseball fields in amongst the barracks buildings. They had teams and tournaments and even played against the local school teams from around Idaho. It really helped provide some normalcy to their lives.

As part of the war effort to determine if the Japanese Americans posed a threat, they were required to fill out a survey. Two of the questions were quite controversial. They were:

27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

Many thought that if they answered yes to both questions, they would be drafted immediately and lose their country. Many ended up answering no/no and thus were called the no-no boys. There is a novel called the “No-No Boy” by John Okada (Bev, being an English Lit major, has read and highly recommends it) about the aftermath of the war and being known as one of these ‘disloyal’ Nisei. In fact, over 1,000 internees at Minidoka volunteered to serve in the army during the war. Like most internment camps, there is an Honor Roll, posted near the entrance, listing all the names of those who served.

Honor Roll display at Minidoka National Historic Site
Honor Roll display at Minidoka National Historic Site

After the war, these camps were slowly closed down. Minidoka closed October 28, 1945. After the last Japanese internees left, the government set up a lottery and gave the lands away to returning veterans who became known as farmsteaders. The people who were incarcerated at Minidoka were not allowed to enter the lottery even though they were the ones who had successfully turned this arid area into productive farmland. Each farmsteader was given 2 barracks and a smaller building along with tools, blankets, and other surplus left at the camp. Each Japanese leaving the camp was provided $25 each and train fare. Each farmsteader was given help to get started and become established. The American Japanese faced additional problems trying to rebuild their lives.

Well, our travels have been both educational and thought provoking. We are not only seeing and learning about the natural wonders of the United States but also history we were never taught in our old school days. Besides that history being enlightening it is also filled with sad and dark parts. We’ve learned how numerous treaties were made with Native Americans only to be broken time and again, resulting in the Indian-American wars. How the Westward Expansion impacted Native American culture, life and their very survival as a people.  How fears lead to McCarthyism in the 50s, racism to the civil rights movement of the 60s, and even to today’s political FUBAR over immigration. One realizes we just can’t seem to stop doing hateful things to those whom we consider “other.” Well, we remain hopeful that someday people will realize that we are all of the same race. The human race. There really is no good reason to hate someone else because of how they look, how they live differently from our own expectations or where they come from.

2 thoughts on “A Dark Part In Our History”

  1. And FUBAR is putting it mildly. It’s always amazing to find out about all the things “our” government doesn’t want us to know or remember.😠

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