Todd Shallat’s Terra Idaho history column: Stillness at Minidoka

Minidoka Relocation Center, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were forced to stay during WWII, is seen here as it appeared when occupied.
Minidoka Relocation Center, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were forced to stay during WWII, is seen here as it appeared when occupied. Historical photo

No sign on I-84 marks the road to World War II Camp Minidoka. Turn north at the Taco Time where the arrow to scenic attractions points in the other direction. Follow the hay trucks east toward Eden Township, then north and west with the flow of the North Side Canal.

“Hunt,” reads the roadside historical marker, using a location name known only to locals. Here during the war, in the arid flatness of Idaho’s Jerome County, more than 10,000 captives from West Coast cities labored in mass confinement.

Japanese American Internment has been the term most commonly used for the wartime evacuation. Historians mostly prefer to say “imprisonment” or “incarceration.” Even “relocation,” the Army’s word, implies something more benign than searchlights and sniper towers.

“They were concentration camps,” President Harry Truman admitted. “We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do.”

Cold wind bends Mormon poplars lining rectangular homesteads. Cheatgrass, silver in winter, dots a lava prairie flattened by fissure volcanoes.

Once potato and sugar beet acreage, now mostly hay for livestock, these croplands torn from the sagebrush are steeped in historical meaning. Gone are the sandbags and searchlights.

A chimney of chiseled basalt flanks a curve in the rubble canal where teenagers swam in summer. Concrete slabs from crumbled foundations sprawl as if suspended between 1942 and the present, between the wartime need for patriotic compliance and the striving for individual rights.

“There were definitely people who felt the thing to do was to be patriotic,” said Gordon Hirabayashi, a dissenter who strained to explain why his family and so many others so passively complied.

In all, from 1942 to 1945, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans had been confined behind barbed wire at Minidoka and nine other large army compounds.

Two thirds were citizens. Most were American born.

Hirabayashi had been a college senior in Seattle when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Ten weeks later, by presidential proclamation, the Army had ordered “all persons of Japanese ancestry” to abandon their homes and report to deportation centers. Hirabayashi refused. Tried and convicted, he was sentenced to federal prison near Tucson, Ariz. No one came to collect him so he hitchhiked from Spokane to Arizona, determined to serve his time.

“I was working on being a ‘good American,’ ” said Hirabayashi. “One way to show your patriotism is to join the Army and go up to the front lines. Another way is to fight for more justice, fighting for the Bill of Rights … [Patriotism] is a line you have to defend yourself.”

Mass incarceration was well underway by the time Hirabayashi reached Arizona. Nearly 40 years would pass before the federal courts overturned his conviction, and another 30 before Hirabayashi received, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his principled stand.

But already in 1943 it was obvious to FDR’s Justice Department that the race-based quarantine was, said Attorney General Francis Biddle, “dangerous and repugnant.”

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes went further. Continuing to detain innocent people would be, Ickes insisted, “a blot upon the history of this country” and “clearly unconstitutional.”

Two weeks later, on June 15, 1944, American B-29s were bombing the Japanese homeland. U.S. Marines had conquered Saipan; American-born “Nisei” infantrymen had leaped into battle against German panzer divisions.

Legendary for valor, the Nisei troops earned 9,486 purple hearts and 18,000 bravery citations while their families were incarcerated.

More than 700, including 71 young heroes from Minidoka, paid the war’s ultimate price. Stateside, meanwhile, there emerged not a single report of Japanese American treason, no enemy threat from within.

Still, the president found it politic to wait until after the November elections before allowing citizens to return to their homes.

On Sunday, Dec. 17, 1944, three years and 10 days since Pearl Harbor, the War Department announced that the West Coast “exclusion zone” had been lifted. Internees by the thousands packed into trains for Portland and Seattle.

Shizue Iwatsuki, Japanese-born and a berry farmer, tightly gripped her daughter’s hand as the train approached Hood River, Ore.

Four years had passed. “My husband,” she wrote, “calls my name but lapses into silence. His heart, too, is filled.”

Some returned to find shops and farms well maintained by neighbors. Some returned to deceit. A grocer from Tacoma, having left her business in haste, was dispossessed by an unenforceable contract. Some had nowhere to go. One family, refusing to budge, stayed encamped until late October. Herded into a government car, they were forcibly placed on a west-bound evacuee train.

On Oct. 28, 1945, the camp officially closed.

War’s end hardly ended the trauma. Legacies and litigation live on. In 1948, Congress admitted no wrongdoing but permitted claims for property loss up to $2,500.

No claims could be filed for lost wages, lost clients or lost reputations — only for tangible property losses of the sort that could be precisely documented with the kind of documentation that few people had.

In 1952, under the McCarran-Walter Act, Congress granted Japanese residents the long-denied right to apply for naturalized citizenship. In 1955, Idaho repealed discriminatory legislation that had barred Asians from purchasing land.

Not until 1982, in a candid report entitled “Personal Justice Denied,” did Congress at last concede that incarceration was a “grave injustice.”

And not until 1988 did Congress approve and the president sign a formal apology and with it an authorization for $1.25 billion in relocation reparations. Two years later, survivors began to receive $20,000 redress payments.

Constitutionally, the matter was far from settled. In 2012, in a pending challenge from the children of Fred Korematsu, plaintiffs alleged that Congress, in its war on terror, has reopened the door to hold citizens under suspicion without due process of law.

Meanwhile, at the state’s largest instant ghost town, Minidoka had been subdivided and dispersed to returning veterans. Japanese Americans were excluded.

Eighty-nine Caucasian homesteaders each received about 90 acres. Blankets, rubber boots, sewing machines and tools were scavenged for salvage. Barracks, easy to move, became poultry coops and farm sheds.

“The years have passed,” boomed Idaho Sen. Frank Church, solemn at Minidoka in 1979 when remnants of the vacant compound became a federally listed landmark. “And although the disgrace of these relocation camps should never be erased from our memory, we all rejoice in a country strong enough to recognize its mistakes.”

Muted in that dedication was the senator’s personal stake in making amends. Church’s father-in-law had been the same Idaho governor, Chase Clark, who so cruelly enflamed the 1942 security hoax by denouncing the captives as “rats.”

Still bleak but less isolated, Camp Minidoka, today, is Idaho’s only official National Historic Site.

Summers bring busloads of pilgrims for vigilant veneration. A June civil rights symposium offers college credit. A plywood eagle sits on the honor roll of internee soldiers and sailors who bore arms to defend a nation committed, on paper, to liberty and equal justice for all.

Phantoms still haunt that stillness. Lawrence Matsuda, born at Minidoka, now a retired teacher from Seattle, returned after 65 years to crumbling foundations and ghosts.

A vision of Matsuda’s late father rocked in a chair over the ruin of the Block 33 canteen one cold Idaho morning. Chucking potatoes, the phantom knocked soot from a potbellied stove. Matsuda’s late mother, nearby among the clotheslines, scrubbed diapers on a metal washboard.

Remembrance wore other faces. Lawson Fusao Inada, of Fresno, Calif., and the son of a Nisei dentist, had just turned 3 when first he was tagged like luggage and shuffled about to war relocation centers. Fifty years later, his stark recollections won the American Book Award.

“There was no poetry in camp,” Inada remembered. No poetry “unless you can say mud is poetry, unless you can say dust is poetry, unless you can say blood is poetry, unless you can say cruelty is poetry.”

Kindness, in camp, was also poetry. So was the birthday gift made of scraps and offered to a loved one. So was family. So, too, was the bond of shared experience.

“There was no poetry in camp,” Inada repeated, “but the people made it so. With hands, vision, hearts, the people made it so.”

Todd Shallat, Ph.D., directs the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University. Shallat and Russell M. Tremayne are the editors of the 2013 book, “Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” ($29.95), which is part of the Boise State University Metropolitan Research Series. Link to order the book:

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