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The internment camp story has been told — but these Colorado authors examined what happened after

Denny Dressman and the late John Elliff had collaborated before on World War II history. This time they told the stories of Japanese Americans who built amazing lives after the camps.

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 interview with author Denny Dressman.

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.


Author Denny Dressman.

What inspired you to write this book?

The late Dr. John Elliff, owner of Vis-Op Publishing (among many endeavors), approached me in 2016 with the idea for this book. He had previously published “Sterling Heroes of WWII,” on which we had collaborated. Dr. Elliff’s son Eric, now a Denver District judge, had been the managing partner of a law firm in Denver, and a Japanese-American woman had worked in the office. Dr. Elliff learned that she had spent part of her childhood in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II, and he was impressed with the way she had made her life after internment. “What if we did a book about the lives people led AFTER internment,” he said to me. It was a brilliant idea. For all of the books written about internment, I could not find another that focused on what internees did with their lives after the camps.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

I am a big fan of the late David Halberstam and the prolific historian David McCullough. I read mostly nonfiction, much of it with a historical bent. I have read all three of Bret Baier’s “Three Days” books and find them well-done and great reads. 

I admire “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and have read extensively about Harper Lee. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I enjoy John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Jack Higgins.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

A book such as “Beyond The Camps” requires context. I tried very hard to provide that context in the opening section, and feel it presents the book effectively. I did not desire to stoke political debate, so I sought to subtly note the significant difference between the 120,000 internees—who were either U.S. citizens or in the country legally—and illegal immigrants flooding the southern border from Mexico today.

I provided two excerpts because the people featured in the book all have some kind of connection to Colorado because of the state’s governor at that time, Ralph Carr. (This wasn’t intended to be a Colorado-centered book, but because of Gov. Carr, Colorado is a part of virtually every story.) 

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I have written 10 books, all nonfiction. I enjoy nonfiction because I learn so much in researching each subject. “Beyond The Camps” was satisfying for two main reasons: 1. I met so many interesting and resourceful people who put the ordeal of internment behind them and truly realized the American Dream.  2. I learned so much about Japanese-American internment, as well as nuggets such as how Japan took its census, who developed the adding machine, and what it was like to be at the site when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Visiting the site of Camp Amache in extreme southeastern Colorado was a moving experience.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

The opening section, titled 2017, was perhaps the most challenging, because I wanted to put the past and present in perspective, and capture the profound passage of 75 years—in terms of both society as a whole and individual lives.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

What I was most taken by was that two of the 10 internment camps were located in Arkansas! That meant some of the 120,000 West Coast residents were relocated 1,800 to 3,000 miles from their homes. Arkansas!

Many of the personal stories are remarkable. Among my favorites are Bob Sakata, patriarch of Sakata Farms, where they grew 25 MILLION ears of corn each year for distribution to supermarkets across the country; Stanley Kasuo Yoshimura (S.K.Y.), a landscape architect by trade who became a successful pastry chef at the Brown Palace Hotel; and Robert Hamada, who spent part of his childhood at Amache but became Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

What project are you working on next?

I published my 10th book in May 2019, and am now assisting in the completion and publication of The Delta Tango Trilogy by Christopher LaGrone, three books about becoming a Border Patrol agent and experiencing life on the Arizona-Mexico border. 

Chris died unexpectedly in December of 2018 at the age of 41, and his mother, Sherryl LaGrone, is making sure Chris’s dream to be a published author is realized. It is an honor to help her.

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

— Read an excerpt from “Beyond the Camps


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