More and Bigger is Better for Minidoka National Historic Site

Block 23 residents, Minidoka Relocation Camp, 1943. NPS photo.


Minidoka National Historic Site
, the former Minidoka Internment National Monument, has acquired vital new acreage and a satellite site that will tell the park’s story in a richer, more complete way. Preserving and interpreting a World War II concentration camp for Japanese Americans helps teach an important lessons about racial prejudice, injustice, and the loss of civil liberties.

The December 7, 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor opened the door for what has come to be recognized as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history. Already leaning heavily to anti-Asian attitudes, and now gripped by war hysteria (including fears that the Japanese would soon mount attacks on America’s West Coast), many people throughout the country believed that ethnic Japanese residing in America would be disloyal and commit acts of sabotage to help Japan win the war. Not surprisingly, there was no appreciable public objection when military commanders and government officials, operating by authority of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, rounded up people of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) residing in designated “exclusion zones” along the Pacific Coast (all of California, plus much of western Oregon, Washington, and Alaska) and put them in what might be called concentration camps. In Hawaii, where people of Japanese ancestry accounted for roughly a third of the population, a small fraction (under 2%) was also interned.

In short order, over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interned for the duration of the war in what were officially dubbed relocation camps and also known as internment camps. Some of those interned were legal resident aliens, but most were American citizens. (Some thousands of German Americans and Italian Americans were also sent to internment camps. However, they were not interned in the relocation centers established for people of Japanese ancestry.)

The civilian agency in charge of the relocation and detention program, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) established ten Relocation Centers in the coterminous U.S. These were major facilities, designed to house thousands of internees for indefinite periods. Also involved in the program were 18 or so Civilian Assembly Centers (temporary camps to which people removed from their communities were initially sent), eight Detention Camps (which housed ethnic Japanese considered disruptive or of special interest), and various other special purpose facilities (including some that detained criminals or German and Italian POWs as well as internees).

While four of the WRA Relocation Centers were located in remote areas of the exclusion zone, including one at what is now California’s Manzanar National Historic Site, the remaining six camps were established in isolated locations far from the Pacific Coast. Two of the camps were in Arkansas, and there was one each in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

The relocation center in Idaho was officially called the Minidoka Relocation Center. This camp occupied 950 acres of a 33,000-acre relocation reserve situated about 15 miles east of Jerome in the Snake River Plain of south-central Idaho. This particular relocation center was (and still is) known locally as the Hunt Camp. It acquired that name partly to avoid confusion, there being a Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas as well as an Idaho town named Minidoka about 50 miles away. Hunt was the name of the unincorporated area of Jerome County in which the camp was located and also the official Post Office designation for the place where internee mail was delivered. Surviving internees and heirs refer to the camp as Minidoka, and that’s what we’ll call it here.

Minidoka, which would eventually become the biggest of all the relocation centers, became operational in August 1942. Arrivals soon poured in by the thousands. During August and September 1942 alone, trains delivered about 7,150 internees from “Camp Harmony” in Puyallup, Washington. Nearly 2,000 additional internees soon arrived from the Portland Assembly Center. The peak internee population was probably between 7,300 and 9,500, but at least 13,000 men, women, and children were housed in the camp at one time or another. Nearly all came from Oregon, Washington, or Alaska

An event that took place early in 1943 figured importantly in the camp’s history. Several hundred residents of Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington who had been interned at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California (under the authority of the first Civilian Exclusion Order) were transferred to Minidoka at their own request. They had asked for the transfer because they were not getting along well with some of their fellow internees at Manzanar (people from Terminal Island in Los Angeles) and also because they wanted to be closer to home.

At Minidoka, as at the other camps, the housing and ancillary structures were hastily and cheaply constructed. Internees were housed in military-style barracks, each 120 feet long and 20 feet wide. Needless to say, the barracks were not designed with the needs of families in mind. There were 35 residential blocks, each of which had 12 barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, and a central building with bathrooms, showers, and a laundry.

Among the more than 600 structures on the camp premises were dozens of support services buildings (headquarters, warehouses, motor pool, hospital, military police, etc.). Serving the residential areas were several general stores and dry-goods stores, barber shops, a beauty shop, a civic center, a high school, two elementary schools, a landfill, and miscellaneous other facilities (such as watch repair shops and radio repair shops) that would typically be found in a small town of that era.

What the government didn’t provide, the internees often built for themselves. These internee-built features eventually included an irrigation canal, hundreds of acres of croplands, and a hog and chicken farm as well as a gym, numerous baseball diamonds, two swimming pools, a landscaped park and picnic grounds, and various other amenities.

Though not demonstrably inhumane, living conditions at Minidoka were spartan. The camp’s desolate surroundings, five miles of barbed wire fences, eight guard towers, and various strict regulations left no doubt that the camp’s fundamental purpose was to isolate and confine the people sent there. The camps were intended to be as nearly self-sustaining as practicable. Nearly all of the food for the Minidoka internees was produced on nearby farmland, which was functionally a part of the relocation camp operation.

If you’d like to know more about the infrastructure, living conditions, and other aspects of Minidoka’s operation, there are a number of excellent sources. For historical information, visit this site. The official website of the Friends of Minidoka is also highly recommended.

The “military necessity “rationale for excluding and interning ethnic Japanese in America evaporated long before the end of the war. Moreover, the highest court of the land took a dim view of the concentration camps. In December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that detaining loyal, law-abiding American citizens was unconstitutional, even though the exclusion process per se was not unconstitutional. (Translation: The court said that the exclusion process could be condoned as a military necessity, but the government had to have legitimate reasons for excluding specific individuals.)

Finally, on January 2, 1945, the exclusion order was rescinded entirely and the internees were free to leave. Each was to be given $25 and a train ticket. Some internees left the camps right away and returned home. Because many internees were not ready to make the move back right away, having suffered the loss of their homes, businesses, or vital community ties, the camps remained open for months. One of the relocation camps even continued functioning until January 1946. At Minidoka, the last of the internees departed for home on 28 October 1945, nearly two months after Japan’s formal surrender and the end of World War II.

Attention now turned from operating the relocation camps to getting rid of them. The huge relocation reserve and the various structures comprising the Minidoka camp became surplus property. The property on which the camp was situated ended up being divided into small farms. In 1947, 43 of the farm plats were deeded to war veterans whose names were drawn in a lottery. Two years later, another 46 “homesteads” were allotted. Each lottery-winning veteran received two barracks with his farm acreage. Other barracks were donated to NGOs in the camp vicinity and removed from the premises. Most barracks and some other buildings were recycled. (You can spot them if you know what you’re looking for, although most have been extensively remodeled.)

In short order, most of the central area of the camp was plowed under and given over to the cultivation of alfalfa, potatoes, and other crops. Most buildings in the way of farming operations were obliterated, and the concrete rubble of their foundations was pushed to the field perimeters.
.
What about preserving the site of the camp, or at least some its relics? Enthusiasm for this idea was notably deficient until several decades after the war. In 1979, the Minidoka internment camp site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The idea of establishing a national park at the site was given a strong boost in 1992 when Manzanar National Historic Site was established to preserve the site of a relocation camp in eastern California. Finally, Minidoka Internment Camp National Monument was established on January 17, 2001. Congress subsequently redesignated the park from Minidoka Internment Camp National Monument to Minidoka National Historic Site.

By whatever designation, the new park at the Minidoka camp site has had tough slogging. By the time the park was established, the barracks and almost all of the hundreds of other camp buildings in the central area of the camp were either gone or had been rendered nearly unrecognizable. The new park had no visitor center or other visitor facilities except for a small parking area, paths, an ornamental rock garden, and some interpretative/commemorative signs at the remains of the stone guard station and waiting room. There is a Minidoka display at the visitor center of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, which administers Minidoka National Historic Site.

Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation with important implications for Minidoka. The Wild Sky Wilderness Act, a massive public lands bill signed into law by President Bush on May 8, added important new acreage, expanding the park’s original boundaries (bringing it to a total of 292 cares) and adding an important satellite site. At the Minidoka camp site, the expansion has added the adjacent Herrmann Family Farm and a parcel of government-owned land next to the Minidoka canal. The new land includes several historical elements (including the fire station, which still stands on the Hermann farm, and some warehouses) and various other artifacts important to the park’s interpretation.

The satellite site is the eight-acre Nidoto Nai Yoni (Let It Not Happen Again) Memorial on Bainbridge Island, Washington. This additional site, which focuses on the historic Eagledale Ferry Dock, is where more than 200 Japanese Americans became the first group of internees to be forcibly removed from their homes. The addition of the Bainbridge Island site enables the park to tell its story in a much richer and nearly complete way.

The 2006 General Management Plan for Minidoka, combined with the expressed wishes of surviving internees and the Friends of Minidoka , constitute an ambitious agenda for the park’s development. Among the projects and goals are:

Construct a visitor center at the park. A visitor center with exhibition, educational and administrative facilities is a priority need.
Document the whereabouts of the original barracks. The NPS wants to learn what happened to the barracks that were given away. This is a mighty tall order. Most were dismantled and relocated. For ease of transport, the new owners cut the barrack buildings into segments. Many of these “partials” became homes, sheds, workshops, barns, and various outbuildings in locations scattered throughout the Twin Falls area and beyond.
Recover some of the original barracks. Having actual barracks on the park premises will greatly enhance the park’s ability to interpret and educate visitors about the internment experience and local history. The NPS hopes that some owners of remaining barracks will cooperate in returning up to twelve of them to Minidoka National Historic Site. (As explained above, only a few of the barracks are known to exist in their original 120-foot by 20-foot configuration.)
Restore a block of barracks. The recent expansion added property on which some internee housing (Block 22) was situated. There are plans to install a block of authentic barracks on this site. There is no doubt that a barracks restoration complex would provide visitors with a capstone experience and make it easier for them to understand the human dimensions of the Minidoka story.
Install a replacement Minidoka Honor Roll at its original site. Located across the street from the Guard Station, the Minidoka Honor Roll listed the names of all former Minidoka internees serving in the U.S. military. No one knows where the original Honor Roll is, or even whether it still exists. The Friends of Minidoka organization is currently seeking clear photos of the original Honor Roll. Many of the names listed on the two side panels are not legible in extant photos of the original.

Post script: Over 1,000 internees from Minidoka enlisted in the military. This was the highest number from any of the internment camps. The young men from Minidoka served with the legendary 100th/442nd regimental Combat Team, which saw fierce combat in Italy and France and became the single most decorated unit of its size in American military history. Seventy-three of the Minidoka men lost their lives in service to their country. During World War II, incidents of sabotage traceable to Japanese Americans, whether interned or not, were virtually nil. In 1988, forty three years after the war ended, the U.S. government admitted that the internment of Japanese Americans was wrongful, issued an official apology, and authorized the payment of about $1.6 billion in reparations to surviving internees and heirs.