Published on June 30, 2003 by the New York Times
Japanese-Americans Relive Barbed Era
By SARAH KERSHAW
UNT, Idaho, June 29 After six decades, memories of life at an internment camp deep in a desolate wasteland of southern Idaho were foggy and fragmented, all but the most searing images diluted by time.
Those who were interned here could remember the railroad tracks and the day the train, with all its window shades drawn and armed guards on every car, pulled into the middle of nowhere to deposit them in this strange place. It was the Minidoka Relocation Center, which housed 13,000 Japanese-Americans rounded up from their homes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington and sent here in World War II.
Almost everyone remembered the canal, where a 10-year-old boy drowned and a desperate woman interned at the camp took her own life. And no one, even those who were young children, could forget the winter cold, the summer heat or the dust storms the wooden barracks covered with tar paper kept none of that out.
This weekend, about 110 internees and the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of internees made what was, for most, the first pilgrimage to what is now the Minidoka Internment National Monument. The three-day event was organized by four Japanese-American organizations in the Northwest.
Most of the survivors of Minidoka were children when they were sent here to one of the 10 internment camps where more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to detain anyone perceived as a threat to national security.
The internees are now in their 60's, 70's and 80's, but this weekend's trip reawakened images of a childhood spent at Minidoka: playing with marbles, making their own toys, eating rancid Columbia River smelt for a week straight, running from rattlesnakes, decorating sagebrush bushes for Christmas and wearing paper tags bearing a number assigned to each family. They remembered how their mothers cried as they waited in line for food outside the mess hall, and how their fathers, for decades after they left the camp, would never talk about it.
Sally Sudo, 67, who lives in Minneapolis, and her sister, Nobu Ikeda, 71, who lives in Upland, Calif., met in Salt Lake City and drove to Idaho to see the camp for the first time since they left in 1944. Their parents and eight other siblings were relocated from Seattle in 1942, and the family was given two rooms: Block 14, Barrack 2, Rooms C and D.
As they milled about this morning, after a somber ceremony and a tour of the grounds, Ms. Sudo and Mrs. Ikeda, like the others here this weekend, wore paper tags showing the number that had been assigned to their families during the internment. Their number was 11872.
Ms. Sudo, who was 6 when she arrived at Minidoka, said her family was temporarily held for three months at a fairground in western Washington before being sent to Minidoka.
"One day, they said, `Your camp is ready. Board the train,' " Ms. Sudo said. She recalled a frightening trip on the train, with the armed guards and shuttered windows.
Her family had no idea where they were going, she said. Her father, a restaurant worker, had immigrated to Seattle from Japan in 1899 about the time when many Japanese immigrants were settling on the West Coast and he was not an American citizen, which Ms. Sudo said made him afraid to fight the relocation.
"For my father, it was devastating," she said. "He was 64 or 65 when he left camp, and he had lost everything. He lived until he was 88, but he didn't really live, he just existed."
Both sisters said that returning to Minidoka this weekend made them deeply angry about the internment.
"When I think back," said Mrs. Ikeda, who was 10 when the family was sent to the camp, "I think that if I were older and able to speak out, I feel I would have resisted."
In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which acknowledged the injustice of the internment of Japanese-Americans, the largest forced relocation in the nation's history. A formal apology was made, and each internee was awarded $20,000 in restitution.
The Minidoka monument is the remnant of a camp of 600 barracks that once stretched 33,000 acres across what today is mostly farmland. The camp closed in October 1945, and what is left including the stone entrance gate and several boulders marking a flower garden grown by the internees was declared a national historic site in 1991.
Sylvia K. Kobayashi, 79, who spent a year and a half at the camp when she was a child and who now lives in Anchorage, said she was reluctant to return because she had tried to forget her time at Minidoka, but friends persuaded her to come, she said.
"I closed the door to that part of my life because it was so sad and upsetting," Ms. Kobayashi told a group of about 50 internees and relatives of internees, who gathered at a hotel in Twin Falls, about 20 miles from the camp, to tell stories on Saturday night. "It brought back too many bad memories. Life goes on, and we must go on with our lives and find happier times, which I did."
But others said reliving those painful years would help them find peace and encouraged other internees to tell their stories to anyone who would listen.
Several people also drew parallels between the internment and the situation with Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans who have been detained in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We were here for almost three years," Jerry Arai, 65, who was interned at the camp from 1942 to 1945 and who is now an architect in Seattle, told the group of internees at the ceremony today. "Surrounded by barbed wire, guards and watchtowers, living in exile."
"We cannot forget these hardships the Japanese endured," Mr. Arai said. "Let us not stand back in the midst of fear, hate and prejudice to see it happen to others."
After the ceremony, several internees took one last look at the place, glancing across a changed landscape, posing for final photographs, commenting on how much greener everything looked. Then they boarded two long white buses and left Minidoka for home.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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