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Pacific Northwest | August 15, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 15, home
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Minidoka Memories

"If we know the story, then we have got to share it," says Hero Shiosaki, a member of the 442nd Battalion, a U.S. Army division composed almost entirely of Japanese-American men during World War II. Shiosaki has traveled more than 10,000 miles at his own expense to share the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans, from the internment at Minidoka to the battlefields of Europe.
I was no different than others who grew up in southern Idaho in the 1960s and '70s. The most I knew of the Magic Valley was Evel Knievel's daredevil attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon.

I didn't know that 20 miles from Evel's stunt lay remnants of the Minidoka Relocation Center, where an estimated 9,375 Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

We didn't learn about Minidoka at school in my home town of Nampa. In big cities, there were schools that taught Japanese language, history and culture. But not in rural Idaho. What little I knew about my ethnic heritage, I learned from my parents. Yet they never told me about Minidoka. Neither did people I knew who had been interned there; no one said a word about it. That instruction was left to my journalism professor at Idaho State University in 1978.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 — the same year my parents graduated from Caldwell High School — President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Roosevelt's mandate confined 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans to 10 internment camps in the western and midwestern United States. Minidoka Relocation Center was one of them.

Those who lived in Washington, Oregon and Alaska went to Minidoka, a dry, desolate, sagebrush plain 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls, a two-hour drive from our home.
Part of the visitors waiting room remains on the Minidoka property. The fireplace, made of basalt boulders quarried from the area, may have been built by internees. Many internees worked for the federal government while living at the camp.
My mom and dad, Chiye Hamada and Warren Tamura, were the only Japanese Americans in their high-school class. Minidoka was virtually in their back yard. Both were second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei, who probably didn't want to revive old memories of internment camps, and no one in the immediate family was interned. The internment order applied only to Japanese and Japanese Americans living in coastal states.

More than 50 years after the war — in January 2001 — President Clinton designated 73 acres as Minidoka Internment National Monument. Three months later, I heard Bob Simms, an Idaho historian, speak about art made in Minidoka. Roger Shimomura spoke in Boise about his series of acrylic paintings based on a diary kept by his grandmother in Minidoka. The more stories I heard, the more my interest in the camp grew.

I wanted to learn more from the people who had lived through the ordeal. From Shimomura's depictions of camp life, I was inspired to capture some sense of place and life in photographs as he did in his paintings. I compiled a list of possible subjects.

Saki Shimizu, the mother of a close friend, was born in Minidoka. Shimizu was among the 7,000 people from the Seattle area to be interned in Idaho.

Born in Seattle, Roger Shimomura was 3 years old when he and his family were evacuated to Minidoka. Now an internationally known artist and retired art professor at the University of Kansas, Shimomura created a series of acrylic paintings depicting life in the camp based on the diaries of his grandmother, Toku Machida Shimomura, a picture bride from Japan who immigrated to America in 1912. This picture was taken at the Boise Art Museum in conjunction with Shimomura's exhibit, "An American Diary."
These chairs, designed for children, were built of scrap wood from the camp, then given away when it was closed. This set was donated to the Jerome County Historical Museum, which loaned them to the Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum in Jerome for display. Notes with the exhibit there explain that since the federal government supplied little furniture, residents built their own, using discarded scraps of wood, lumber filched from unguarded stockpiles and even sagebrush.
Tom Kubota served in the military while his parents were interned. When I lived in Seattle in the 1990s, I visited the Kubota Garden in the Rainier Valley. A picture of Fujitaro Kubota, Tom's father, used to greet me at the entrance, along with a brief biography about the creator of the 20-acre garden. He, too, was forced to leave his home and business for the duration of the war.

I wanted to document the artifacts, remnants and residents of the camp as a means of affirming the spirit and resilience of those who lived through it.

In my search for information, much of which was sketchy, I learned that even the name "Minidoka" is confusing. It appears on Idaho maps in several locations. There's a county named Minidoka, a town named Minidoka, a Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge, a Minidoka Dam.

I later learned the post office in the town of Minidoka encountered so many lost travelers asking for directions that the postal administrator kept a supply of photocopied maps handy.

Minidoka Relocation Center, also known as "Hunt Camp," named after the official post-office designation, occupied 33,000 acres of Bureau of Reclamation land around Jerome, 50 miles from the town of Minidoka. After the camp was closed in October 1945, the barracks were auctioned off or given to war veterans whose names were drawn in lotteries for parcels of land. The former camp has since become farmland for lottery winners.

My series of black-and-white images of Minidoka, some captured with infrared film, documents what remains of the internment camp. After experimenting with color and black-and-white film, I settled on infrared film to try to convey the sense of timelessness that I experienced there. Infrared film is highly sensitive, recording a higher spectrum of light waves than the human eye can see.

I was disappointed when I first saw the Minidoka Internment National Monument. So little remained. The surrounding farms were neat and orderly. It looked as though nothing else had ever happened there. Maybe the government wanted it that way.
In 1942, Morrison Knudsen Corp. of Boise was awarded a $3.5 million contract to build apartment barracks, administrative quarters and a hospital at the camp. The company also built a railroad spur and roads to the camp. Each barrack was 20 by 120 feet, divided into six apartments; 12 barracks made a block; there were 36 blocks. After the war, several of the barracks were moved to a labor camp in Jerome. In 1999, two of the barracks were relocated to the Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum, also in Jerome.
Plaques briefly explained the area's significance in history, but no one was around to point out the unique features still standing. Except for the sound of a camera shutter, the place was silent. I tried to imagine the lives of more than 9,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who lived there more than 60 years ago. What was it like to come to a place with only the items you could carry? How did it feel sharing a bathroom with hundreds of other people, all prisoners in the country they'd chosen to live in?
A storage cellar for root crops, such as potatoes, was built in 1943. The cellar, less than a mile from the visitors center, is now on property owned by the Herrmann family and the National Park Service. Built partly underground and insulated with tar paper and hay, the 30-by-200-foot cellar was partly restored in 2003. The park service is discussing a land trade with the Herrmann family to make the historic structure part of the national monument.
As I think now about the mass relocation and look at the "exclusion area boundary" on a map, part of me thinks it must have all made sense to the governing powers at the time. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor skewed all rational thought.

The National Park Service now manages the monument area. Anna Tamura (no relation), a landscape architect with the service, is coordinating a plan to rehabilitate, restore and reconstruct interpretive and educational centers on the grounds. "There is a lot on the site that is not easily discernible," says Tamura, whose mother was interned at Minidoka as a child. "Many people just conclude that there is nothing there, which is mainly because they don't know what to look for."

On one of my trips to the monument, I met Johnny Urrutia, the son of a Basque sheep rancher. His daughter, Macy, had just learned about the internment camp at school and wanted to see the place. They lived five miles from the site and just decided to drive there one afternoon. Already, Macy knew what took me years to discover: That this remote part of Idaho was much more than the site of a stunt by a man named Evel.

The Friends of Minidoka is a nonprofit organization that upholds the legacy of the internment experience, supports research and promotes alliances with organizations that have common objectives. Membership for an individual is $30, for a family, $50. Donations are welcome at Friends of Minidoka, P.O. Box 1085, Twin Falls, Idaho 83303-1085.
This metal doll was left behind after the internment camp closed. The doll was recovered from the camp and given, along with a box of dishes and glass jars, to the Jerome County Historical Museum. It is now against the law to remove any artifacts or natural objects from the Minidoka site.

Takashi Hori, 84, a second-generation (Nisei) Japanese American, owned the Panama Hotel in Seattle (background) when "evacuation" signs were posted around the city. Frantic friends and neighbors, unable to take all their possessions with them, asked to store things in the basement of the hotel. Hori gladly obliged. After the war, many items remained unclaimed. When Hori sold the hotel in 1985, he offered to clear out the basement for new owner Jan Johnson. She declined, recognizing the historical significance of the family possessions. Many of the items are preserved at the hotel.

A Japanese-style rock garden near the main entrance to Minidoka remains as it was designed 60 years ago. Neglected but undisturbed, the basalt boulder formation is the last remaining rock garden on the monument site. Research by Anna Tamura (no relation) confirms that the garden was part of a community park built under the supervision of Fujitaro Kubota. Kubota owned a nursery in the Seattle area and designed what is now Kubota Garden, an area landmark.

Left to right, Mildred Midori Tsutsumi, Sakiko Shimizu and Michiko Mary Harada are linked by the past: All three were born at Minidoka in 1943 while their families were interned there. Their parents were part of the mass "evacuation" from Seattle. When World War II ended, the families returned to Seattle, where each of the women continues to live. Old photo albums and family stories remind them of the Minidoka experience.

Matsuye Ishida met her husband, Tom Koto, while she was at Minidoka and he was on furlough from the Army. "Mats," as friends call her, was a transfer to "Hunt Camp," as locals referred to Minidoka, from the Tule Lake camp in Northern California. A year later, in January 1946, the couple married and put down roots in Twin Falls, about 20 miles from Minidoka. For more than 20 years they owned and operated Koto's Cafe while raising three children. Tom Koto, an Idaho native, died of Parkinson's disease in 2002. The American Legion presented an American flag to Mats in honor of her husband.

This dresser was made by Tomizo Takanaga, who found and used scrap lumber at the camp when he and his family were interned. The dresser is now used to store picnic supplies in the basement of the home his daughter, Taka, and her husband, Paul Kogita, share on Beacon Hill. Takanaga is now a mechanic in Seattle.

Yasusuke Kogita made this table from bitterbrush, a hardy shrub, while interned at Minidoka. The table now belongs to his son, Paul Kogita, of Seattle. Paul, who was 11 at the time, remembers venturing into the desert to search for special rocks and pieces of wood. His father created a Japanese rock garden next to the family's barrack in Block 5 and shipped many of the large, unusual lava rocks back to Seattle after the camp closed.

Taka Kogita's father, Tomizo Takanaga, crafted this trunk to ship their personal belongings from Minidoka. The family name and an Ontario, Ore., address are stenciled on the bottom of the trunk.

Teresa Tamura, a former Seattle Times staff photographer, teaches photojournalism at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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