Amache National Park a reminder of baseless imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII
From 1942-1945, 10,000 people were imprisoned at Amache 'relocation center' in Colorado
If you’ve never been there before, it’s all too easy to miss the wind-worn sign marking the turn for Amache off Country Road 23 in Granada, Colorado.
On March 23, President Joe Biden signed the Amache National Historic Site Act tasking the National Park Service with preserving the place on the western rim of the Dust Bowl where the U.S. government imprisoned 10,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants behind barbed wire from 1942 to 1945.
Amache held a fraction of the estimated 110,000 people who were forced out of their homes along the West Coast and California’s fertile Central Valley under the guise of national security as the nation fought Japan in World War II.
“The sheriff’s department came to our land where we were farming and gave us two weeks to move,” recalled survivor Ken Kitajima, now 92. When he was 12 years old, his family was forced to sell their berry farm and go to Amache.
“You get what you can carry; you cannot take anything else,” Kitajima said. “My father had a lot of farming equipment, a tractor and pickups and so forth. He just about lost everything. They made us dig a hole in front of our yard three feet deep and made us throw away Kodak cameras and any books on Japanese history.”
Kitajima grew up in the Colorado prison camp, befriending military guards and sneaking out to fish along the Arkansas River. Years later, Kitajima enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War.
Given sparse bunks as shelter from inhospitable desert scrub and sand, the people condemned to Amache constructed a small town complete with a hospital, town hall, police station and a co-op store with a shoe department.
The people honored the changing seasons with traditional Japanese festivals. They organized school dances, baseball games and sumo wrestling matches. They planted trees, designed intricate ornamental ponds and printed wartime propaganda in the silkscreen shop.
Over three years in this desolate place, 412 babies were born and 120 residents died. A quarter of the inmates were children, enrolled in education programs designed to teach the democratic ideals of the country that had cast them aside.
Despite being imprisoned by the U.S. Army, 953 men and women voluntarily enlisted and deployed to the front lines. Of them, 105 were wounded and 31 were killed in action.
As an administrative means of sorting innocent citizens from suspected spies, incarcerated adults received a questionnaire asking them to declare their allegiance to the country that had imprisoned them. Most did, but a few objected.
“In the early days you were so afraid, if you were administered that questionnaire, of some punishment because the people had no idea what was going to happen to them, what their future was going to be,” explained Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, an 82-year-old survivor of Amache now living in Long Beach, California.
Tinker was three years old when her parents were forced from their home.
“When Pearl Harbor happened, these people were rounded up in the middle of the night, without any warning and taken away. Some of them didn’t return for four years. Given that kind of an environment, naturally you’re going to be a little more compliant, you’re going to be a little more obedient,” Tinker said.
At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Tinker found her father’s answers to the loyalty questions.
“He was a Yes-Yes,” Tinker recalled, meaning he said he would willingly enlist in the military, and he pledged allegiance to the United States over the emperor of Japan. “Now that I understand that stance, the position that the No-Nos took, and now that I’m a braver person than I was 30, 40, 50 years ago, I probably would have had some objections. I probably would have said No-No.”
Every other year Tinker returns to Amache as part of the University of Denver’s archaeology field school, run by Professor Bonnie J. Clark. The group includes Clark’s students, survivors of Amache and their descendants. Over the last decade, they’ve uncovered more than a thousand artifacts and published several studies on the gardens cultivated for mental and physical subsistence.
“I think that anytime somebody gardens in their prison, we should pay attention, because it means it’s important,” Clark said. “What belongs on the high plains of Colorado is yucca and sagebrush, but they grew tropical plants like canna, and things that need a lot of moisture like cattail, dogwood and roses. In each of those instances, somebody prioritized that, they paid for it somehow.”
Inmates weened themselves off the Army’s rations by providing the camp with an abundance of lettuce, celery, spinach, onions, lima beans, potatoes, corn, alfalfa and sorghum. They grew so much food they sent produce to the nine other prison camps and made $362,000 at the market, becoming one of the largest food producers in the state.
The farmers’ success also seems to have been a factor in their exile.
While Japanese Americans were removed from the western half of Washington state, Oregon, California and southern Arizona, California was the only state to enforce removal in a second exclusion zone: prime Central Valley farmland.
“It seems pretty clear that what really was behind that in California was not just racial hysteria, which certainly was going on, but that there were a lot of different powerful lobbying groups in California who had been pushing to get rid of Japanese,” Clark said. “There was a lot of greed involved.”
Following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the U.S. government told the public it was necessary to imprison Japanese Americans and immigrants while the nation remained at war with Japan.
At the same time, America was also at war with Italy and Germany but arrested fewer than 15,000 European immigrants and descendants. Hawaii, where the attack took place, did not take the notion of rounding up its citizens seriously since people of Japanese ancestry made up a third of the island’s population and arresting them would have destroyed the economy.
It would take 50 years for the truth to become official through an act of war reparations approved by Congress: the people of Japanese descent never posed a threat. Worse, the U.S. government knew it while enforcing and defending the incarceration up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“All this was done despite the fact that not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast,” wrote the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1982.
To this day, Tinker and others see the same racist fears that drove Japanese imprisonment leading to renewed witch hunts. Tinker saw parallels in post-9/11 talks of detaining Muslim Americans — which did not become reality — and in the continued detainment of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. at the southern border.
“Like all national parks, we have a story. Our story is specific to a group of people who were mistreated, deprived of their constitutional rights, unjustly defined as an enemy when we had no part in that designation,” Tinker said. “Now, the story speaks to racism and how racism can be so dangerous.”
Barbed wire still divides Amache from the surrounding farmland, not because anyone cares who comes and goes, but as a reminder of what this place is. While the people proved resilient in the face of adversity, celebrating weddings and festivals and Christmas with Santa Claus, one must never forget that Amache was a prison and nobody deserved to be there.
“I think this National Park Service designation is so important to everybody because it’s a sign that Amache will be remembered permanently,” said Calvin Hada, president of the Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado.
Hada’s grandmother was incarcerated at Amache. Decades later, his father led the first pilgrimages back.
“The people returning who were incarcerated there, they kind of come to grips with what happened and when they see how other people are preserving it and celebrating it and remembering it, it’s somewhat cathartic,” Hada said.
The National Park Service anticipates it will take two years for the town of Granada to transfer the land to the federal government. More time is needed to develop a management plan and environmental impact assessment. Amache remains open and accessible to the public during this process, both in Colorado and through the legacy transcribed in history books.
If all goes well, no one need ever miss the turn to Amache again.