No sign on I-84 marks the road to Minidoka. Turn left where the arrow to scenic attractions points in the other direction. Follow the hay trucks east toward Eden then north and west with the flow of the North Side Canal. “Hunt” says the historical marker, using the name known to locals. Carefully worded, the marker avoids saying “internment.” Most scholars prefer “incarceration” or “confinement.” Even the word “relocation” implies something more benign than barbed-wired prison compounds. “They were concentration camps,” Harry Truman admitted. “We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do.”
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Cold wind bends Mormon poplars lining rectangular homesteads. Cheatgrass, silver in winter, patches a prairie once flattened by fissure volcanoes and strewn with Bonneville boulders from one of history’s most powerful floods. 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 towers 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.
Excerpt from the closing chapter of Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration, Edited by Russell M. Tremayne and Todd Shallat.
“There were definitely people who felt the [right] thing to do was to be patriotic,” said Gordon Hirabayashi, the legendary Supreme Court defendant, the Quaker-turned-crusader who spoke his conscience, refusing to comply with confinement. “I was working on being a ‘good American,’” Hirabayashi later insisted. “One way to show your patriotism is to join the Army 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.”
Relocation was well underway by the time the courts sent Hirabayashi to prison for breaking the Army’s curfew. Nearly 40 years would pass before the Supreme Court overturned the 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 policy of incarceration was, said Attorney General Francis Biddle, “dangerous and repugnant.” On June 1, 1944, the President’s Secretary of the Interior flatly stated that “continued exclusion of American citizens… is clearly unconstitutional.” Two weeks later B-52s from Saipan were bombing the Japanese homeland. The 442nd Nisei battalion had reached Italy and heroically leaped into battle. There were no stateside reports of Nikkei 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 December 17, three years and ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department announced that the West Coast exclusionary ban had been lifted. Soon the camps would be closed.
The news reverberated through Minidoka with mixed emotion. What would they do? Where would they go? “This is a town. You can’t close a town!” a young woman in the mess hall exclaimed, red with outrage. But by 1945, some 1,500 Minidokans had already been resettled to distant places like Chicago and Cincinnati. In fact, more people resettled from Minidoka than from any other camp. By April the trickle had swelled to a flood of 500 or more each month. Along the coast from Portland to Seattle most found their way back to what remained of their homes. A few found their farms well maintained by neighbors; others found disorder or deceit. A grocer from Tacoma, having left her business in haste, returned to find she’d been dispossessed by an unenforceable contract. Some had nowhere to go. One family encamped until late October and refused to budge until herded into a government car and forcibly placed on the last west-bound evacuee train. On October 28, 1945, the camp officially closed.
War’s end was not the story’s end. 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, lost professional reputations, fire sales, or emotional trauma—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 that 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 Nikkei reparations. Two years later survivors began to receive $20,000 redress payments.
Constitutionally, even so, the matter was far from settled. Minoru Yasui, a Nisei attorney remanded to jail for challenging incarceration, pressed his case throughout the redress movement of the 1980s, hoping that the Supreme Court would acknowledge that blanket incarceration without due process was unconstitutional. After Yasui’s death in 1986, his family and friends pursued all avenues of remedial appeal until the Supreme Court’s final refusal to hear the case in 1987. In 2012, in a pending challenge from the children of Fred Korematsu, plaintiffs allege that Congress in its war on terror has reopened the door to hold citizens under suspicion without due process of law.
On the lava steppe of Idaho’s Magic Valley, where Hunt Road crossed the rubble canal, the vacated acreage was subdivided and dispersed among returning WWII veterans (excluding American servicemen of Japanese descent). Eighty-nine homesteaders each received about 90 acres. Blankets, rubber boots, sewing machines and tools were scavenged for salvage. Tarpaper barracks, easy to move, became poultry coops, farm sheds, and habitations across the valley. Homesteaders John Herrmann and his wife Alfreida had a random stroke of good fortune when the U.S. Conservation Service, in 1952, selected their unimproved Hunt acreage for a farm demonstration project. The “Farm-in-a-Day” demonstration lured thousands of people to watch shiny new government tractors level, ditch and plow. Farm-in-a-Day was “bigger than a county fair,” said the Twin Falls newspaper, and bigger than any event at the Minidoka site from the camp’s 1945 closing until its listing, in 1979, as a national “historic place.”
On October 13, 1979, former captives and their families returned for speeches and a dedication. A bronze commemorative plaque was fixed to the basalt ruin of the guardhouse. “The years have passed,” said Senator Frank Church at the dedication, “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 Nikkei as rats.
On January 17, 2001, under Bill Clinton’s signature, a presidential proclamation established the Minidoka National Historic Monument. The National Park Service has since added 138 acres and restored the Honor Roll sign, entrance rock garden and a 1.6 mile interpretive trail, including fire station, mess hall, barrack and root cellar structures. Now a National Historic Site, the campsite waits for the funds to build an interpretive visitor’s center and replicated guard tower. Summer brings busloads of pilgrims for vigils and educational programs. Still windswept and isolated but no longer overlooked, it remains a landmark richly imbued with perseverance in the face of repression and the need never to forget.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.