Minidoka Camp Educator Works to Prevent a Repeat of E.O. 9066

Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: This anniversary is not a nice round figure like the 75th or the 80th. But that doesn’t matter, because what happened on Feb. 19, 1942, must never be forgotten, and, more importantly, never repeated. On that day 78 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the incarceration, solely on the basis of race, of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans residing in the United States.

Tomorrow, Feb. 22, Hawai‘i will honor the memory of those from Hawai‘i who were imprisoned in American-style concentration camps during World War II with a “Day of Remembrance” program themed “Revitalize and Reflect.” The program is sponsored by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i and the Honolulu chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and is open free of charge to the public. It will be held in the Manoa Grand Ballroom of the JCCH from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

Hawai‘i’s Day of Remembrance program will give the audience a broad overview of our internment story — both here in the Islands and on the continental U.S. The presentation will include the lesser-known story of the 1,500 Hawai‘i Japanese, who, although not incarcerated, were evacuated from their homes in 23 geographic areas throughout the territory of Hawai‘i.

Those attending the program will also have an opportunity to fold a paper tsuru — a crane — for the “Tsuru for Solidarity” program to honor the nearly 4,500 internees and evacuees from Hawai‘i and to draw attention to current public policy that stigmatizes immigrant communities. The cranes will be sent to Washington, D.C., to represent Hawai‘i at the “National Pilgrimage to Close the Camps” in June.

Day of Remembrance events are held annually across the nation to remember FDR’s signing of Executive Order 9066, just over two months after the Pearl Harbor attack. With the E.O. 9066 anniversary in mind, contributing writer Alan Suemori spoke with Hanako Wakatsuki, chief of interpretation and education at the Minidoka War Relocation Center, about the lessons she shares with visitors to the historic Idaho site.

The Minidoka War Relocation Center opened on Aug. 10, 1942, in the wake of the signing of Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s surrender to the wave of fear and paranoia that washed over the country after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was one of 10 hastily constructed incarceration centers built within the interior of the country.

The Minidoka War Relocation Center in the 1940s. (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)
The Minidoka War Relocation Center in the 1940s. (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

Minidoka covered over 33,000 acres, or 50 square miles, in south central Idaho on the 4,000-foot, high-desert plain north of the Snake River. A 900-acre section of the parcel was reserved to house the thousands of Nikkei incarcerees who had been forced to leave their homes in Oregon, Washington and Alaska and sent under armed guard to a land so despairing and desolate in nature that its very selection underscored the hysteria that confronted them everywhere they turned.

Of the 110,000 Issei, Nisei and very young Sansei forcibly removed from the West Coast, most had been given less than a week to gather up their possessions and liquidate their assets at rock-bottom prices, or simply leave them behind before being bussed to prearranged assembly centers where they were herded into various local racetracks, livestock pens and fairgrounds before being condemned into an unfathomable future. Two-thirds of the incarcerees were American citizens, and of that number, three-fourths were women, children or elderly. What awaited them was beyond their imagination.

“They were in prison,” said Hanako Wakatsuki, chief of interpretation and education at the Minidoka National Historic Site. Earlier this month, Wakatsuki wrapped up a three-month stint as acting site manager for the Honouliuli National Historic Site. “They lost their freedom, their privacy and control over their lives,” she added.

As one of the guardians of the former prison camp’s legacy, it is Wakatsuki’s job to explain Minidoka’s history to a diverse audience that often knows nothing about what occurred or why it happened.

“My job is to teach what led to the incarceration, what happened to the incarcerees in the camp, and what happened to the Issei and Nisei afterwards,” said Wakatsuki, whose grandaunt, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and her husband, James Houston, wrote one of the first published memoirs about the impact the incarceration experience had on her family. Their 1973 book, told through the eyes of a child, was titled “Farewell to Manzanar.” It was also made into a television movie.

“My job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” — Hanako Wakatsuki. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
“My job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” — Hanako Wakatsuki. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

“We would love to get people to sympathize, but the highest level of understanding that we strive for is empathy: What would they do if this had happened to them?”

Born in the Bay Area and raised in Idaho, Wakatsuki is used to the silence and the deep abiding spaces of the land. It is unsentimental country filled with a hard, spare beauty that is at once heartbreaking, yet unforgettable. When she first started, she was a force of one, often speaking at schools, churches and libraries around the state, telling Minidoka’s story to anyone who would listen. Her manner is direct and unadorned, yet she laughs easily and is filled with a quiet dignity that easily fills any room.

“My job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she states.

Minidoka was divided into 36 residential “blocks” with each block containing 12 barracks, a mess hall and a latrine. Over time, Minidoka numbered more than 600 buildings and was ranked the seventh largest town in the state of Idaho. Each barrack measured 120 feet by 20 feet and was divided into six separate family units. Each section offered its inhabitants only a single light bulb and a coal-burning stove. The walls that divided each unit did not reach the ceiling, allowing private conversations, family arguments and the clatter of every day life to float freely overhead from morning till night.

Built from greenwood, the shelters’ wooden planks shrank soon after being constructed, inviting the harsh desert wind to blow unabated throughout the buildings. Clouds of fine silt, basalt rock and ash hovered everywhere in the cramped quarters during Minidoka’s frequent dust storms. The overall lack of insulation throughout the camp proved nightmarish in a climate that often hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and well below zero in winter.

Minidoka was only partly finished when the first incarcerees arrived, so the Issei and Nisei were immediately put to work completing the compound that would be their home for the next three years.

“I’m always learning something new, every day, and over time, you begin to understand the depth of the story,” said Wakatsuki.

“You can’t just start with Pearl Harbor, because there were so many other events that allowed this to happen. A big part of my job is putting everything into historical context because there is so much misinformation out there fueled by emotion.”

Using data harvested from government documents and hard academic research, Wakatsuki avoids sensationalizing or oversimplifying her talks. She sticks to the facts and lets the official historical record of the camp tell the story.

“There is a trauma within our community that we haven’t really healed from,” she said. “Japanese Americans were Americans by birth and yet they were imprisoned without any charges, evidence or trials. Our government knew they were no threat and yet it perpetuated what was going on till the very end,” said Wakatsuki.

The Minidoka camp initially lacked a sewage system and even basic plumbing. Primitive latrines with unpartitioned rows of toilets and showers, providing little personal hygiene and even less privacy, were eventually added. At its peak, the camp housed 9,397 incarcerees with over 13,000 prisoners in total passing through its gates.

Despite its bleak beginnings, the residents built a life for themselves that mimicked the outside world that they had lost. The mess hall doubled as their dining facility and their social center, where they organized big band dances, holiday celebrations and yearly graduations. Eventually, Minidoka residents erected four schools, two dry cleaners, four general stores, a beauty shop, a gymnasium and a skating rink out of little but their imagination and grit. Sports became the bridge that brought people together: 14 baseball fields were carved out of the desert and were in use constantly. Because the Nikkei had brought with them only what they could carry, they began to decorate their barracks with scrap lumber, sagebrush, cactus, wooden crates, and purchases from the catalogues of Sears and Montgomery Ward to beautify their makeshift accommodations.

The cover of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 book, “Farewell to Manzanar,” written with her husband, James Houston. The Wakatsuki family is pictured on the book’s cover along with the author.
The cover of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s 1973 book, “Farewell to Manzanar,” written with her husband, James Houston. The Wakatsuki family is pictured on the book’s cover along with the author.

Despite government efforts to depict Minidoka as a model community, there existed an undercurrent of anger and resentment that never truly disappeared. It rose to the surface when electrified barbed wire fences were added to the residential perimeter and when the camp administration favored the Nisei over the Issei in the compound’s fragile social hierarchy. Tensions only increased when incarcerees from other camps were transferred to Minidoka and ultimately peaked when the government distributed a crude survey as a precursor to drafting the Nisei into the U.S. Army. After having lost their civil rights and everything they owned, many in Minidoka were outraged. Others, however, saw military service as an opportunity to prove their mettle to a country that saw them only as the enemy. Although the camp population was composed of merely 7 percent of the total Nisei eligible for the draft, Minidoka comprised 25 percent of the soldiers who volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Nearly 1,000 Minidoka incarcerees served in the military, representing the highest number of veterans to come out of the 10 incarceration camps during the war.

On Oct. 28, 1945, Minidoka closed its gates forever and released the last of its prisoners to return to the streets of a chaotic postwar America. Discharged with $25 and a bus ticket to anywhere they wanted to go, some Issei and Nisei headed to the Midwest and the East Coast to escape the memories of their uprooting and imprisonment and for a total fresh start. Others returned to the West Coast to try to reclaim their old lives. At the camp, buildings were removed and replanted in small towns all across Idaho. The land was subdivided and redistributed by lottery to returning white war veterans.

Today, there is little left to remind the casual observer of what transpired in this lonely corner of the world, except for a modest visitor center and a single barrack.

“As Americans, we need to know our history in order to understand where we have been and where we want to go, and education is the key,” concluded Wakatsuki. “Even now, there are people who claim the incarceration was justified and should be used as a precedent to imprison others. What gives me hope is that our country recognized it did wrong, apologized for its mistakes and tried to achieve some level of reconciliation.

“Our history is not perfect, but as a nation we must have the courage to face our past honestly and not turn away from the truth of what we did, or we will surely be making the same mistakes again in the future.”

In 1979, the Minidoka War Relocation Center was included in the National Register of Historic Places. It was designated a national monument in 2001 and became part of the National Park Service.

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.


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