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80-year anniversary of Minidoka incarceration camp opening

On February 19, 1942, ten weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt showed the status of anti-Asian sentiment, by signing Executive Order 9066.

JEROME COUNTY, Idaho — December 7, 1941 - a date that will live in infamy. The bombing of Pearl Harbor may be a day of infamy for a generation of Americans, but for Japanese-Americans of that era, there's another day that shoulders just as much shame. 

On February 19, 1942, ten weeks after that attack, President Franklin Roosevelt showed the status of anti-Asian sentiment, by signing Executive Order 9066

That order authorized the military to round up Japanese-Americans living along the west coast, remove them from their homes, force them to abandon their businesses, and leave behind everything, but what they could carry. Brutality based on their ethnicity.

"The justification for the incarceration orders was that Japanese-Americans were committing acts of espionage. The truth of the matter is that the military, through the help of the FCC, realized pretty quickly that none of that was true."

Still, beginning that March, the War Relocation Authority would send more than 120,000 people to 10 remote camps, scattered from California to Arkansas, including in Idaho. 

On August 10, 1942, the Minidoka incarceration camp opened, unfinished. The water systems were not ready until October, two months after construction. 

Today, the story of the camp shares the same status, as the impacts of that prejudicial imprisonment are still being felt generations later.

80 years ago today, the Minidoka internment camp opened. 

When the thousands of Japanese-Americans arrived, a lot of it was unfinished. With most of them coming from the lush coastal areas around the northwest, you can imagine the shock of showing up to this dry, dusty destination, and told this is where they would live for the duration of the war. 

So, they had to help build their own confinement, finish the barracks, the other buildings and figure out how to grow food.

80 years later, most of the 13,000 Japanese-Americans who spent time there, are no longer with us. However, their stories are being kept alive through the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee, a group that tries to make regular trips to what is now a national historic site in Hunt, operated by the National Park Service.

The committee made another one this summer and the 208 was fortunate enough to tag along, to try to grasp the full magnitude of this day in Idaho history.

The guard tower; is one of eight that watched over the property and is also the first thing you see at the west entrance, like those who arrived 80 years ago to what was then called the Minidoka Relocation Center. 

The lava rock guard house controlled who came in, and who was allowed to leave.

The perimeter, lined by a fence installed months after the camp opened, was wrapped in barbed wire. A pretty clear indication of why the "relocation center" was later renamed as an incarceration camp.

Kurt Ikeda is the Director of interpretation and Education at Minidoka. His job is to explain why Japanese-Americans were forced to live at the camp, and how they transformed 33,000 dusty and desolate acres into fertile farmland in the process. 

"120,000 of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War 2," Ikeda said. "Over 13,000 who were incarcerated here at Minidoka during the three years of operation; the majority being from the Pacific Northwest, Seattleites, Portlanders, 135 folks from Alaska."

With more than 640 packed buildings, 40 feet between each barrack, the community was almost a self-sustained city. Which would have been Idaho's seventh largest city in 1943.

"A 20 by 120 size barrack would have been where our families were incarcerated," Ikeda said.

Today, the national historical site has been reduced to just 73 acres, and only six original buildings.

Eugene Tagawa arrived at the site in 1943 with his parents and two older sisters.

"I was born in June of that year so I was three months old when I came here," Tagawa said, "my younger brother was born here."

Eugene was too young to remember much about his time 'at camp,' but it's why he continues to come back.

"Every time is a new experience because the people are different," Tagawa said.

He has been a part of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee since 2009; a group that was formed nearly 20 years ago as a way of bringing the friends and family of formerly incarcerated people to the barracks.

Before the pandemic, over 300 people would attend the pilgrimage to not only see the conditions their ancestors faced, but to also honor that generation. A generation that had their livelihoods, rights, and more taken from them.

Eugene has been back nearly a dozen times, but each time is still fresh.

"The first time I came on a pilgrimage, I met this man that I'd known in junior high school as a church leader," Tagawa said. "He looked at my name tag and he said, 'I know this name,' and I said, 'yeah, Howard, I went to Faith Bible Church when I was in junior high school.'

"He said, 'no I knew your father, I played baseball with your father in camp.' And then he told me some stories about my father that I never knew. I didn't know my father played baseball in camp, so that was my first pilgrimage, and I said, 'wow what a gift, right?' so I kept coming back."

That is also why Tagawa is so encouraged to see younger generations participate.

Erin Shigaki's family spent nearly 3.5 years at Minidoka. She said her grandfather's bitterness led them to be one of the last to leave.

"I guess I can feel the energy and I just think about my family and the things they endured," Shigaki said. "He was just so angry the whole time and he was just one of those guys, 'we'll leave when they kick us out.'"

That was who Shigaki wanted to commemorate when joining the pilgrimage committee almost 10 years ago.

"I also realized I didn't know a thing, there was like a paragraph in my 8th grade Washington state history book," Shigaki added.

"When we think about Minidoka, we think about dust, we think about lack of privacy," Ikeda said. "45 cents per person, per day in 1942, was the amount of money spent per person."

"I want them to learn the whole story about how a whole community and people were unconstitutionally incarcerated because of their race," Shigaki said, "and I want them to understand, to a certain degree, it's still happening now. I don't think as a country we've fully grappled with it, I know as a community we're not done grappling with it."

"When these truths can really become part of the American narrative we're going to be better for it. I really believe that, but we have to tell it all, you know?"

Telling the whole story includes what they did for distraction. There was music, dancing, stage shows, swimming holes, golf, basketball, and baseball.

"It was one of the only past times out here, one of the only distractions from their reality. It was just this desolate place with nothing around them," Jonnie Narita, a family member of one of the incarcerated people, said. "And they were just able to forget their situation just for a little bit."

Jonnie only knew about Minidoka through family stories.

"Growing up you always hear about camp, I guess at some point my family kind of gave me the rundown of what it was, what happened, the gravity of it all, and it never sunk in until I came out here," Narita said.

In 2016, Jonnie joined his grandpa George Nakagawa, a former player for the hunt team, for the dedication of the baseball field.

"This place has a certain power to it. It's like a place of great trauma and pain and it's also a place of healing," Narita said. "And so they honored my grandpa and the other baseball players and we like played catch for a bit and I think I ran around the bases. Yeah, I'm never going to forget that." 

George left his ball and glove at the Minidoka Museum, but one year later when George passed, he left something else for his grandson.

"It's our legacy, for better or for worse. It's a part of American history that we can't erase and we shouldn't try to erase it," Narita said.

That is what the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee is all about.

"Minidoka will always be a community-centered historic site," Ikeda said. 

Most of the buildings may be gone or falling apart, but to those that keep them from fading away in memory or the history books, it is more about staying connected.

"We are here together now and we get to reclaim this story," Narita said. "We get to reclaim this place and remember it for what it is which is a terrible place." 

"It's about remembering this," Tagawa said. "Not forgetting and just saying 'never again'."

There is one other thing you notice when entering the Minidoka historical site: a three-panel wooden sign with an eagle attached to the top.

That sign is called the "honor roll" and it lists the names of the young men and women who served in the military while their families remained incarcerated.

There are nearly 1,000 names on the honor roll; 418 when the sign was first erected in 1943 and in full view of the guards at the gate.

Minidoka had the highest percentage of prisoners serving in the military. When the war was over and the incarcerated people were allowed to go home, most of the 33,000 acres of the camp were offered to returning veterans for them to farm.

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