Remembering Japanese Internment

Over the 4th of July, I headed out West to a family reunion in a very remote part of the U.S.: Minidoka County, Idaho–an apocalyptically stark stretch of mile-high lava rock and sagebrush in the heart of the Snake River basin, unfolding like a moonscape from the base of the Albion mountain range at the Utah-Idaho border.

I’d grown up on my dad’s stories about his Idaho childhood. One story that intrigued was his very early memory of working my grandfather’s fields alongside Italian and German World War II POWs, who were held in a prisoner-of-war camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. POWs were used to remedy a shortage of farmhands in agricultural areas throughout the U.S.

Not long ago, I asked my dad if any World War II Japanese internment camps had operated in the Minidoka area. He wasn’t aware of any. Imagine my surprise then when I learned of this memorial service, held today, for the Minidoka internment camp–one of the larger Japanese internment camps operated during World War II.

Its no surprise my dad–otherwise an encyclopedia of information about southern Idaho–was caught short on this question. Virtually nothing of substance remains to memorialize the camp today, although a more substantial memorial is planned.

Minidoka residents–fond of calling their region the “Magic Valley“–shouldn’t get off so easily. Just as the government loaned Axis POWs to some local farmers, it loaned Japanese-Americans to others. Some 2,300 “Nisei” camp residents worked area sugar beet farms on “agricultural leave” from the Minidoka camp–hard, backbreaking work at a time when local farming was undertaken without modern tractors or modern irrigtation technology. To be sure, the camp residents weren’t technically forced to work, as this bit of outrageously upbeat 1943 government propaganda notes–but the Japanese internees had little other choice of employment.

This shameful episode–part of the darker history of communities throughout the West and a telling example of the worst that can happen when courts abdicate oversight of the political branches during wartime–deserves substantial local recognition in Minidoka and other host communities. For more about the location of internment camps, see here and here.