Minidoka: A US Concentration Camp

For those that don’t know, Minidoka is a National Historical Site and is one of the ten relocation centers used to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.

Jen and I visited Manzanar out in the middle of the California desert a few years back, but Minidoka had a more personal connection for me as my grandmother was relocated to this camp in 1942.

A Very Brief History

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the evacuation of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans to “relocation centers” across Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming.

My grandparents and their families were instructed to leave their homes and belongings, pack only what they could carry, and board a train to an unknown destination. The families were tagged, boarded on to trains, and herded into the camps where they were they would spend 2 to 4 years imprisoned by their own government.

At the end of 1944, the courts ruled that Executive Order 9066 was deemed unconstitutional. After the ruling it took until March of 1946 for all of the camps to close.

Walking the Site

Jen and I showed up on a Monday, and unfortunately when we showed up, the visitor’s center was closed. So we opted to just walk around and checkout some of the informational boards and just take in the energy of the place.

Walking around, I felt several things that I still can’t pinpoint or precisely describe.

It was hot and dry, but I could also tell that in the winter, the area could drop below freezing and be equally as miserable. It was not a hospitable environment.

My initial feeling was extreme sadness. I was imagining what it could have been like stepping off a bus into the barb wire fenced camp. The lookout towers are all gone, but there was a replica at the entrance. I imagined them spread out over the perimeter of the camp. I’ve heard more than one story that the internees were told the guards in the towers were there for their protection, but the guards were all armed and facing inward—as if the threat was from within the camp and not outside.

Replica of a guard house

Memories of Minidoka

I imagined being assigned a block and a barrack and instructed to go there and remain until further notice. I imagined having to use the bathroom and having to walk into a large room with dozens of outhouse style toilets with no privacy and no tissue. I imagined how dehumanizing it might have felt to be incarcerated by the government I loved only because I was born with Japanese genetics.

Walking past Block 22

As I continued to walk the site, my sadness turned to anger and frustration. This was discrimination defined to the letter. Our government somehow allowed this heinous executive order to pass and allowed the military to round up citizens as if they were enemies of the state that had committed a crime. I was frustrated that there are people in this country that don’t even think twice about this event.

But as those feelings passed, I started to find nuggets of hope and impressive strength. The prisoners of this camp grew enough food to export to other camps that couldn’t grow enough food for themselves. They cultivated the land where it looked like nothing would ever grow. They built an impressive root cellar with nothing more than the material from the surrounding environment—some of the structure still stands today! They organized clubs like dancing, lifeguarding, and baseball. They created community despite their circumstance. They rose above their situation, even though it was dire.

Grandma

The last thoughts I’d like to share about Minidoka are more about my grandmother. I cannot believe she lived through this. She is one of the strongest people I know. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that she’s endured so much bad and is one of the most positive people I know.

Jen and I were having a conversation with her not too long ago—talking about having four kids and how hard that must’ve been. The childbirth alone! She kinda shrugged her shoulders and said, “It really wasn’t that bad.” She also said something to the effect of, “You know, Japanese women don’t cry.” How hardcore is that?!

Another impressive story: I think it was around March of this year, she had fallen badly, but she seemed OK. At least, she felt good enough to go get her hair done and go gambling (one of her all-time favorite hobbies). The next day she was having a real hard time standing up. Fortunately, my father was with her at that time and ended up taking her to the hospital. Turns out, she had broken her hip two days prior! Just to be clear: Grandma broke her hip, then went to get her hair done, then went gambling, slept on it, then went to the hospital!

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, when she was done with her surgery, she went into a rehabilitation center. If you’re following along with the timeline, you know this is right when COVID struck. Jen and I went to see her only to find that her roommate was violently sick. My heart was in a tizzy cause I really didn’t want Grandma to be stuck in physical rehab during the lockdown.

She assured us that she was eating all of the “awful food” so she could get strong and go back home. She assured us as well that she was doing all of the exercises so she could get strong enough.

Sure enough, this 93 year old, hardcore, Japanese woman got out of that physical therapy center, didn’t get sick from her roommate, and made it back home—all in the midst of a pandemic. I can’t even begin to tell you how impressed I am with her.

I never say it enough, but I absolutely love my Grandma! I cannot believe how lucky I am to have such a positive role model in my life.

Grandma: I know you’re reading this… I love you! Thank you for being you. Thank you for everything you’ve shared and taught all of us in the family. Thank you for being a part of our lives!

2 thoughts on “Minidoka: A US Concentration Camp

  1. I am in awe of your grandma, Trevor. And as I read this story I find that I love your grandma, too!
    Our grandparents are true gems and we are so lucky to have their relationship and influence in our lives. Recalling my own grandmother, I am reminded of the stoic fortitude of their generation, and I try to reinforce that level of strength into myself to hopefully carry that on to my next generation (to my nephews).

    America is a nation with a complex and checkered past and I truly grieve this part of our history.

    I remember learning about the internment camps when I was in the 4th grade. And thought it was about a far away land – she could NOT mean this happened for real (she also showed us the movie “Roots”, to shock our little brains).

    Anyway thank you for sharing this Trevor. It is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

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