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Book Excerpts

The story of a dismal chapter in U.S. history didn’t end with internment camps

The history of Colorado's Amache facility outside Granada, like nine others in the U.S., gave rise to many remarkable stories of Japanese-American success and accomplishment

Denny Dressman is a former award-winning reporter, editor and senior executive who concluded a 42-year newspaper career in 2007 when he retired from The Rocky Mountain News after 25 years there.

A member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame and a past president of both the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Authors’ League, he is the author of nine other books. His biography of the late Grambling University football coach, Eddie Robinson, was a Colorado Book Award finalist and is the basis for an award-winning movie script. He lives in Denver with his wife Melanie.

The late John Elliff, who proposed the book and published it, was an ophthalmologist from Sterling, Colorado; an oilman; and a former banker, developer, pilot and candidate for political office. 

The following is an excerpt from “Beyond the Camps: From Japanese Internment Nightmare to ‘American Dream.'”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2017

A lot happens in 75 years. 

Old fears and suspicions are replaced by new ones . . . once-inhabited land returns to its natural state . . . enemies become allies . . . lives unfold and children grow old.

In February 1942 America was reeling from Japan’s surprise attack in Hawaii . . . “Remember Pearl Harbor” was the rallying cry of a whole nation . . . hostility toward Japanese who had chosen to live in the United States and Japanese Americans—born in the U.S.A.—was widespread.

Marge Taniwaki was seven months old.

By 2017, scrub oak and native grasses obscured the shallow foundations in the square-mile area near Granada, Colorado, where 7,500 once were confined . . . nine other camp sites just like that one, in six other states, had been abandoned, had become the sites of memorials or museums, or had been designated national landmarks . . . 

Japan had become one of America’s closest friends . . . Muslims had become the new targets of mistrust . . . and those crossing the border with Mexico illegally were the subjects of social controversy—while 120,000 “internees” from the West Coast had lived, for the most part, successful, productive lives in America. 

Author Denny Dressman.

Residents of so-called relocation camps went on to become judges, lawyers, doctors, and business leaders; noted artists, writers, composers, and actors; educators, community leaders and civil-rights activists. They were gardeners, farmers, shopkeepers, office workers and housewives—thousands of them solid citizens, and their children and grandchildren, established successors. There were Medal of Honor winners, and a presidential cabinet member, Norman Mineta.

Marge Taniwaki learned to walk and talk at California’s Manzanar Relocation Center as Margaret Yamada. When she was approaching her 76th birthday, a question was posed to her:

“How did so many of the victims of post-Pearl Harbor hysteria put injustice and embarrassment behind them, avoid bitterness while still insisting that wrongs be acknowledged and rectified to the extent possible, and achieve, in the aftermath of internment, at least some part of the so-called American Dream?”

The Japanese culture is a big part of the answer, as we shall see in the stories to follow. But there is more, something else uniquely Japanese.

Shikata ga nai, Marge answered.

The Japanese phrase literally means “it can’t be helped,” and often is considered the root to the corollary “don’t dwell on the past.” 

Shikata ga nai has been criticized by some Japanese, and others, as evidence of the passivity that allowed internment to occur without greater resistance. But increasingly it is recognized as representing a quality called resilience, which author Christian Moore, a licensed clinical social worker, defines as “the ability to bounce back when you have every reason to shut down . . .” and the quality that enables people “to overcome and thrive as they face the setbacks, challenges and fears of daily life.” 

Rather than give up, internees made the most of life once incarceration ended. Instead of dwelling on the past, they achieved some measure of the American Dream—widely considered to be some combination of a good job or maybe a professional career, a home and usually a family, at least middle-class financial security, and the freedom to openly dissent. 

This is not to say the ugly past didn’t leave scars and strong feelings, nor that everyone prospered. But most managed to enjoy positive aspects of life in America—pieces of the American Dream—while in many cases working actively to address the wrong in various ways and make sure future generations know about what had happened decades earlier.

They are loyal Americans, sharing only race with the enemy.”

— Gov. Ralph Carr

The Beacon

Granada, Colorado (population 342 in 1940) is 12 miles west of the Kansas state line, about 80 miles north of the Oklahoma border, and 142 miles east of the nearest city of any size, Pueblo (population 52,162 in 1940). This isolated Great Plains location, on the western edge of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, met the criteria established for all 10 Japanese-American internment camps: an isolated, rural area far from a population center to reduce the possibility of escape, yet located where labor was required in local agriculture or manufacturing.

After President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, creating the War Relocation Authority (WRA), governors in most states identified as possible “relocation” destinations objected strongly. Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr expressed the grave concerns of the time and admitted his own reservations, but in an act that would cost him politically years later while making him a respected and revered figure among the disenfranchised Japanese Americans, announced in a radio speech: “If any enemy aliens must be transferred as a war measure, then we of Colorado are big enough and patriotic enough to do our duty.”   

Colorado at that time was home to about 2,300 Japanese Americans, with roughly 600 of them living in and around Denver. Brighton, a rural town about twenty-five miles north of the city, in particular had a well-established, though small in numbers, Japanese community that proved pivotal for some in the years after internment. The state’s Japanese American population would grow because of Carr’s position in general and his promise to internee laborers in particular. All agricultural states needed field hands to harvest their various crops in the absence of young men who were serving in the military, and as a result, internees at all of the camps could be granted temporary work release to help where needed.

Eventually, internees could leave confinement by relocating to an interior state—provided they had an American sponsor. But early on, they were expected to return to barbed wire confinement when the field work was finished—except in Colorado. “If you help harvest the sugar beets,” Gov. Carr is said to have announced, “you can stay.”  

Born a prospector’s son in 1887 and raised in high-country mining camps, Ralph Carr had come to know Japanese Americans while working as a lawyer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, before his election as governor in 1938. He was nearing the end of his second two-year term when he opened Colorado to the WRA. In his February 28, 1942 radio speech, Carr expressed a personal viewpoint contrary to popular sentiment: 

“In Colorado there are thousands of men and women and children—in the nation there are millions of them—who by reason of blood only are regarded by some people as unfriendly. They are as loyal to American institutions as you or I. Many of them have been here—are American citizens, with no connection with or feeling of loyalty toward the customs and philosophies of Italy, Japan or Germany.

“The world’s great melting pot is peopled by the descendants of every nation in the globe. It is not fair for the rest of us to segregate the people from one or two or three nations and to brand them as unpatriotic or disloyal regardless.”

Declaring it was his responsibility to shape public opinion if he could, Carr traveled the state, discouraging public resentment and urging tolerance and civility. Later in 1942 Carr would lose the race for U.S. Senate to Democrat  “Big Ed” Johnson, who favored using the National Guard to close the state’s borders to people of Japanese descent, as he had done with Mexicans while governor. Calling Carr a “Jap lover,” Johnson criticized his opponent for “welcoming” Japanese Americans to Colorado. Most historians believe Ralph Carr’s position on Granada and Japanese-American internment was his political Waterloo. But he is widely recognized as a beacon for Japanese Americans seeking a fair shot.

At Sakura Square in Denver, site of the Tri-State/Denver Buddhist Temple, the 20-story Tamai Tower apartments, and the annual Denver Cherry Blossom Festival celebration of Japanese heritage and culture, Ralph Carr is honored in the bonsai garden with a monument and this inscription:

“In the hysteria of World War II, when others in authority forgot the noble principles that make the United States unique, Colorado’s Governor, Ralph L. Carr, had the wisdom and courage to speak out in behalf of the persecuted Japanese American minority. ‘They are loyal Americans,’ he said, ‘sharing only race with the enemy.’ He welcomed them to Colorado to take part in the state’s war effort, and such were the times that this forthright act may have doomed his political future. Thousands came, seeking refuge from the West Coast’s hostility, made new homes and remained to contribute much to Colorado’s civic, cultural and economic life. Those who benefitted from Governor Carr’s humanity have built this monument in grateful memory of his unflinching Americanism, and as a lasting reminder that the precious democratic ideals he espoused must forever be defended against prejudice and neglect.”

August 21, 1976

The state judicial complex in Denver is named the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in his honor, and in 1999 The Denver Post named him its “Person of the Century.” He is memorialized at the State Capitol with a plaque that reads:

“Dedicated to Governor Ralph Carr as a wise, humane man, not influenced by hysteria and bigotry directed against the Japanese Americans during World War II. By his humanitarian efforts, no Colorado resident of Japanese ancestry was deprived of his basic freedoms, and when no others would accept the evacuated West Coast Japanese, except for confinement in internment camps, Governor Carr opened the doors and welcomed them to Colorado. The spirit of his deeds will live in the hearts of true Americans.”

A sign at the edge of town announces, “GRANADA The End of the Line.” It’s a reference to the late 1870s when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached “Old Granada” and briefly halted its westward expansion. But it could just as accurately stand for the termination point for more than seven thousand people of Japanese descent transported from the West Coast, who rode trains to their new home, an arid plot of sagebrush and scrub oak inhabited by rattlesnakes and scorpions.

The Colorado outpost was called the Granada Relocation Center, but the one square mile where everyone lived eventually was given a name of its own because mail to the internees—addressed simply to “Granada, Colorado”—overwhelmed the little Post Office in a town so small it never had a stoplight. R. L. Christy, then mayor of nearby Lamar, suggested a separate postal designation—“Amache, Colorado.” 

There is irony in that choice. The name Amache is Native American, drawn from a member of a tribe that had been relegated to living on a barren reservation decades before the internment of Japanese Americans.  Amache Ochinee was the daughter of the Cheyenne nation’s Chief Ochinee (which means One-Eye), who was killed in November 1864 at the Sand Creek Massacre—an act for which the U.S. government eventually paid reparations. Chief Ochinee’s daughter had been courted and married—at the age of fifteen—by 23-year-old John W. Prowers. Then a freighter for Col. William Bent, namesake for the Santa Fe Trail trading post called Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta, Prowers later acquired extensive ranch land between Lamar and Las Animas, and is credited with bringing the first Hereford breeds into the territory. He is the namesake of Prowers County, which includes Granada and Lamar.

The Grenada Relocation Center dwarfed the tiny town of Granada. The only one of the ten internment camps built on private land, it encompassed sixteen square miles. Most of that land was acquired by the WRA through condemnation proceedings from owners who mostly were less than enthusiastic about giving up parts of their property and attendant water rights. Most of it was used to raise livestock and grow produce; the housing compound involved only 160 acres.  Within Amache’s barbed wire perimeter were churches, a cemetery, schools, fire and police department buildings, warehouses, a “city dump” and an athletic field. There was only one way in or out—the gate from U.S. Highway 50. The town of Granada was within walking distance, albeit a good walk, of that entrance.

James G. Lindley, a metallurgical engineer who had been an administrator with the federal Soil Conservation Service, was placed in charge of Amache. His title was project director. He demonstrated what Bob Fuchigami, a Granada internee who later wrote a history of Amache, termed “his inherent fairness, compassion and sensitivity” by overruling plans to separate the Japanese Americans’ living quarters from the administrative area with barbed wire. Lindley later moved his family from Lamar to Amache and enrolled his daughter in the camp school. “His trust and respect for the evacuees did not go unnoticed,” Fuchigami wrote. “Because of his caring and competent leadership, Amache had the lowest number of problems during the incarceration period.”

Life and conditions in Colorado were fundamentally no different than at the similar locations in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. Amache had a total of 560 buildings with 30 residential blocks, each containing 12 barracks subdivided to accommodate six families in single rooms about the size of a frontier sod house. Each room housed four to seven persons. Family members slept on canvas-covered, wooden army cots, and, in cold weather, huddled around a potbellied coal-burning stove. There was no furniture and little room for it; residents salvaged scrap wood from barrack construction to build crude chairs, tables and shelving. In reality, family members spent few waking moments in the cramped spaces. 

Each residential block included a mess hall that could hold up to 250 people; a recreation center that was often converted to a space shared by a wide array of groups; and, because the barracks had no running water, a multi-use building that housed showers, unpartitioned toilets with a dehumanizing lack of privacy, and laundry areas. The communal toilet facilities meant that trips to the bathroom often involved walking in the dark and through blizzards or dust storms.  And of course, long lines every morning. 

With 7,500 residents within one square mile, Amache had a population density fifty percent greater than New York City at the time and was Colorado’s tenth-largest city. (Poston in Arizona housed 20,000.) With illness a constant threat because of such density, Amache had its own 150-bed hospital. In the summer of 1944 the camp newspaper, the Granada Pioneer, reported an “all-out” effort to combat polio, the crippling disease that then was afflicting eight of every 100,000 Americans, including President Roosevelt—on its way to a peak of 37 per 100,000 in 1952. Draft-age men residing in the camps were encouraged to serve in the U.S. military during the war, and an estimated 33,000 responded. Approximately eight hundred were killed in combat, thirty-one from Amache.

Nearly two thousand school-age children were confined at Amache. To them, the Sears Roebuck catalog was “the book of dreams.” On October 12, 1942, elementary and secondary schools opened, staffed by a combination of camp residents and Caucasians from outside. Teachers who were internees were paid from $12 to $19 per month, while the non-Japanese Americans received more than five times that amount. 

Internment itself created educational challenges. Observed one teacher: “It was extremely difficult to teach the ideas and ideals of democratic society . . . when constant reminders confronted boys and girls with evidences of prejudice and undemocratic procedures.” Noted another: “Frequently children showed a need for more sleep. Parents reported the problems confronting them in getting the children to bed early since the family lived in one room.” In general, communal facilities and cramped living quarters made it difficult to maintain the family unit; in many families, members drifted apart, never to recover their pre-war unity.

— Buy “Beyond the Camps” by Denny Dressman and Dr. John Elliff

— Interview with author Denny Dressman


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