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New historic site stirs memories of America’s darker instincts

"I keep telling my students, ‘Do you think it can't happen again?’ You're wrong."

The Amache internment camp during World War II.
The Amache internment camp during World War II. (Densho Digital Archive)

GRANADA, Colo. — Concrete slabs, iron rods and sheds are about all that remains of the incarceration camp here that held ­­more than 7,000 people of Japanese descent from 1942 to 1945.

There is also a water tower, a guard tower and a barracks. But those are replicas of structures from the original compound, one of 10 camps the U.S. government ran during World War II across seven states.

The replicas are in place partly because of the efforts of teacher John Hopper, the primary caretaker of the site since the early 1990s. “I fall into stuff, I guess,” Hopper said of his work at Amache. “I can’t win the dang lottery, but I fall into stuff, and I fell into a lot of this.”

At a time when authoritarianism and violence against Asian Americans are on the rise — providing echoes of the era Hopper spent decades memorializing — President Joe Biden signed legislation into law in March to establish Amache as a National Park Service site, a long-held goal of people of Japanese descent, both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, who were confined at the camp.

It will take “approximately two years” to acquire land from Granada, the adjacent town that owns the site, the Park Service said. Until the land is acquired, the Amache Preservation Society, the nonprofit Hopper runs with his students, will manage it.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the FBI in 1939 to spy on Germans, Italians and Japanese in Hawaii and Western states, home to the largest Japanese communities in the country, he signed executive orders that led to the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. About two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

Arkansas, Arizona and California each had two such camps, while Colorado had one — Amache — as did Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. The Park Service runs the Manzanar and Tule Lake sites in California and Minidoka in Idaho.

“This one is probably the most pristine of all 10,” Hopper said. “About 88, 89 percent of all the foundations are still there.”

The population at Amache, a roughly 2-square-mile area in southeast Colorado, peaked at 7,597 in October 1942. Detainees were forced by train from California, drawing equally from urban and rural parts of the state.

Foundations

In October 1945, the military tore down the camp — which, from above, resembled a checkerboard of buildings — and sold off almost everything, said Bonnie Clark, a University of Denver archeologist who is surveying and cataloging the site with students and volunteers.

“They start almost immediately dismantling it,” Clark said. “Some of them were dismantled for parts, and some of them were just destroyed, including all the guard towers,” Clark said of the Amache camp’s buildings.

Yet, because many of the foundations remain, visitors can get a sense of what life was like inside, Clark said. “People can experience walking through that same doorway where they lived as a child or where their grandparents were.”

Calvin Hada, who had family members at Amache, including his father, James, said he wants whatever emerges at Amache to focus on learning without losing the calm of the camp today.

“The first time I was there, I described it to my dad like it was a Zen experience,” Hada said. “The wind blowing through the sagebrush. It was almost spiritual.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. — who with Reps. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Joe Neguse, D-Colo., led the legislation — said that what Amache will resemble as a Park Service site should be up to survivors and descendants.

“Our history is a story of humanity’s highest ideals on the one hand and humanity’s worst instincts on the other hand, and you see it in the context of Amache,” Bennet said. “We’re fighting a war against tyranny, we’re fighting against the Nazis, and yet we’re interning people in our own country, dispossessing them of any pretense of a constitutional right.”

A February ceremony at Amache marking the 80th anniversary of the order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishing the internment camps was attended by, from left, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse. (Beth Schneider Photography)

Survivors, many of whom were farmers from lush California farmland, described the camp as squalid and overly crowded. They endured scorching summers, gusty winds and frigid winters.

“Amache is not in the best area,” said Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, who was 3 years old when her family was forced to the camp from Los Angeles. Volunteering on digs with Clark unearthed memories of her time as a detainee, she said.

“I remember going to preschool,” Tinker said. “And that was the barrack that we most recently excavated around.” Her dad would bundle her when they went outside. “He would hoist me up on his shoulders and put a scarf over my face to protect my face from getting pitted by the blowing sand.”

If it had been a town, Amache, which had schools, gardens, a post office, sports fields and medical facilities, would have been the seventh-largest town in Colorado when it was running.

Mike Honda, who represented California in the House, was forced to Amache with his family when he was 1. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., was born in the Poston camp in Arizona in 1944. Her late husband, Robert, who represented Sacramento from 1979 to 2005 in the House, was sent to Tule Lake when he was 6 months old.

A bill Matsui sponsored would authorize funding for the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program, which helps preserve the network of internment camps.

Legislation by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., whose parents were held at such a camp, would ban the “imprisonment or detainment” of U.S. citizens based on a series of eight characteristics, including national origin.

Former Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., was held with his family at Heart Mountain in Wyoming and later joined with former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., to elevate the issue of Japanese incarceration.

The two met as kids when Simpson’s Scout troop visited the camp.

‘Imprisoned?’

The confinement of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II is not broadly known, according to Hada and other descendants of survivors, including Shirley Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a nonprofit preserving the remains of Heart Mountain camp in that state.

Hada said he’s surprised how few people know the story. “They ask me, ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean the Japanese were imprisoned?’”

Higuchi, whose parents met as children at Heart Mountain and then again at college in California, recalled a talk she gave when a listener walked out crying. She said they hadn’t known the U.S. had put citizens behind wire fences based on their ethnic background.

John Hopper with students at the Amache site in February. (Beth Schneider Photography)

“They were stunned and aghast that America could do this to their own citizens,” Higuchi said.

Amache’s official arrival as a dot on the Park Service map comes at a harsh time for Asian Americans, who have been wrongly and often violently blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former President Donald Trump called the COVID-19 pandemic “kung flu,” and hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 339 percent nationwide in 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“The Asian community is in a really challenging space right now,” Higuchi said. “That’s why it’s really important for our country to understand Asian American history as a part of American history.”

Asian-Jewish links

Jeremy Shaver, senior associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said Asians and Jews have been blamed for spreading diseases throughout U.S. history, a motif that reappeared during the pandemic. “We are seeing both Asian Americans and Jews being blamed for COVID,” said Shaver.

Links between Japanese Americans and Jews, as well as other often marginalized communities, run deeper.

Second-generation Japanese Americans, including some from Amache, led the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team in combat in World War II, eventually liberating the prisoners of Dachau, the longest-operating Nazi concentration camp.

“They call it the Purple Heart battalion,” Shaver said, invoking a name due to the unit’s high casualty rate. “Those men really have an amazing story about their bravery.”

The late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, was in the 442nd, the most decorated unit in American military history for its size and length of service. Though he was eventually able to enlist, the military declared him and other “nisei” — children born in the U.S. to Japanese immigrants — unfit to serve.

“Here I was, though I was a citizen of the United States, I was declared to be an enemy alien and as a result not fit to put on the uniform of the United States,” Inouye told Roll Call in 1999.

The late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, seen in 2007 with a photo from his service in France during World War II, where he lost an arm in combat. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Nine hundred and fifty-three Amache men and women served in U.S. forces in some capacity, nearly 10 percent of Amacheans and the highest percentage of all 10 incarceration camps, according to the Amache Preservation Society.

Vicki Shigekuni Wong said her father, Thomas Nobuyuki Shigekuni, who died in 2019 at 90 years old, was thankful for the 442nd soldiers. But that they would join up perplexed him, she said.

“We’re prisoners. How can you be leaving camp?” she said he would ask enlistees. “How can you expect us to fight for you and die?”

Amache visitors find a story of complex and seemingly contradictory conditions, said Clark.

“There’s a really tough part about the loss of civil liberties and freedom and just the terror of not knowing if or when they’re going to get to go home,” Clark said. “But then there’s this other story about resilience. They didn’t give up,” she said of the detainees. “They planted trees. They built a sumo pit. They supported their kids. They built playgrounds and sidewalks. They turned this prison into a town.”

Clark added, “That legacy of resilience and dignity and humanity in the face of inhumane treatment is really inspiring.”

The history of Amache is a modern-day warning, Hopper said.

“I keep telling my students, ‘Do you think it can’t happen again?’ You’re wrong,” he said.

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