Minidoka War Relocation Center
The Empire of Japan declared war on the United States by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Shortly thereafter, military advisors convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Japanese living in the U.S., including naturalized citizens, were security threats. On February 19, 1942 FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which gave the Secretary of War authority to create "military zones," from which citizens could be excluded.
Within two weeks entire familes of Japanese people, most of whom were U.S. citizens, were removed from their homes and initially sent to "assembly centers." These often were simply animal stables or storage facilities at fairgrounds or race tracks, which housed the detainees until camps could be constructed. Construction was hasty, utilizing green wood, which subsequently shrank as it dried and created air leaks. The buildings were simply clad with black tar paper. After a few building were built the government began to move people in where they were forced to complete construction of the camps. Ten such camps were built. Minidoka received people from Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
From the NPS website: "Minidoka was constructed on Bureau of Reclamation land which was designed to turn the high desert of Idaho into arable farmland. The entire camp extended over 33,000 acres, although only 900 acres were used as residential areas. The rest was used for administration and agricultural purposes. Minidoka had 36 residential blocks. Each block had 12 barracks, a mess hall, and a latrine. Each barrack was 120’x 20’, which was then divided into six units. Each unit would house a family or a group of individuals. Each unit had a single lightbulb and a coal burning stove. The walls dividing the units did not extend to the ceiling and the barracks had no insulation. There was little to no privacy for anyone.
"The latrines were in an “H” shaped building with men on one side and women on the other, separated by the laundry area. The bathrooms, however, were simply a row of toilets and a row of showers with no partitions. For women, privacy was a major issue. The lack of partitions led to health issues that continued until partitions were built in the women’s bathroom area."
Later, following Congressional investigation of the internments with findings that, "the exclusion and forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans by the US government was based on the false premise of military necessity," Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Minidoka is one of the few remaining internment camps. It stands as a reminder of how societies can over react to events and become xenophobic, using rationalization based on fear to violate the very principles upon which the country was founded. I remember as a boy being told that the camps were created to "protect" the Japanese people, and I perpetuated this myth well into adulthood. But these were Americans and the United States was their country. They were not part of Japanese aggression in Asia. Many of these Americans served in the war against Japan.
The internment faded from my consciousness until 9/11, at which time we once again were challenged to not over react and to not violate our basic values.
Unfortunately, recent years have seen the erosion of those and other values upon which our nation was founded. A visit to Minidoka, and a conversation with a very brave, kind and compassionate woman reminded me of the importance of maintaining our high standards and ideals. It also reminded me that among the greatest of human characteristics is kindness and mercy toward others.