From bitter landscape of war emerge healing ground, peace

December 07, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

JEROME COUNTY, Idaho - The barbed wire and watchtowers are gone, the military police building reduced to a stone foundation.

For more than 60 years, the former Minidoka internment camp has remained etched in the memories and imaginations of many Japanese-Americans as a desolate and menacing place. But today, the site blends almost seamlessly into a serene landscape dotted by clumps of trees and low hills beyond.

On her way here this June morning, Jeni Yamada brushed a few simple strokes into her sketchbook to capture the scene. She has long wondered what her mother and grandmother felt as they arrived two generations ago. Now, finally, she will walk this ground herself, ready, she believes, to confront her own feelings.

Jeni's two uncles trudge through the high grass. A guide for what is now a little-visited national monument helps them explore the land on which they lived during World War II. But Jeni stays close to her mother, Mitsuye, close to the camp's one-time entrance, which contains the few tangible remnants of what used to be.

She rests on a basalt boulder in the ornamental rock garden, the handiwork of an internee who owned a landscape design business in Seattle before the war changed everything. The garden had disappeared in part until a recent excavation uncovered its stone-lined pathways. Other artifacts from the dig offered a glimpse into the world of those who called this place home: pieces of a white ceramic gravy bowl, a 1940 Lincoln penny, a few seashells that a Japanese-American soldier had sent his imprisoned father from overseas.

Jeni wonders: Could enough dirt and dust really have accumulated in just 60 years to conceal this place? It seems to her like a metaphor for this trip - the diggers' meticulous brushing away of the earth.

Nearby, Jeni's eldest son, Aaron, stands alone, absorbing the landscape through an artist's eye. The 24-year-old fills his pad as he looks past the irrigation canal toward a farmhouse, once part of the military police headquarters. Off in the distance is where his grandmother lived during her internment, in Barracks 4.

For newcomers like Jeni, it is difficult to envision Minidoka the way it was. Some who lived here and have returned on this pilgrimage are disappointed to find it now so fertile and green. They want visitors to see the bleakness and dust they knew, the place they felt was forgotten by God. This Minidoka doesn't seem so bad.

For Jeni, the feeling is more complex. It has taken her whole life to get here. Now she is not sure what it all means. This is her first day at the camp, and she will have to go further still before she finds out.

Barracks memories

Jeni Yamada's journey to Minidoka began long ago - on Dec. 7, 1941, the date Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and killed more than 2,300 American servicemen. Within hours of the devastating attack, her grandfather, a self-made immigrant and veteran government employee, was arrested and later imprisoned because the FBI considered him a threat. The historic day set in motion a similarly historic act: the signing of Executive Order 9066, the decree that led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, during the war. Never before and never since had so many civilians been forcibly relocated on American soil.

For years, Jeni, who lives in North Baltimore, has wanted to see what remains of the place where the government held her mother and 13,000 others. She has wanted to feel what her mother felt, living in an uninsulated room in a crude, wooden barracks. Today, if only for a few minutes, she will.

The Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum is tucked near Twin Falls behind the Flying J Travel Plaza, at the junction of two highways, not far from the Minidoka camp. The machinery scattered around its grounds makes it look something like a junkyard, until it sinks in that these hulks of metal - an old tractor, a hay derrick, a harvester - are the heart of the exhibit. Approaching on the bus, those with Jeni on this pilgrimage peer out the windows at the windmill and the first log cabin in Jerome County, complete with outhouse.

Aside from visiting here, touring a barracks now is nearly impossible without trespassing. Though some were demolished after the camp closed in 1945, many were moved and converted into barns, other farm buildings or even homes.

This one is covered in black tar paper, restored to look as it did during the war. A hundred twenty feet long, it contains what would have served as six "apartments," some no bigger than 20 feet by 16 feet.

In one room stands an original potbellied stove, the only means of heat during Minidoka's unforgiving winters. Three child-size chairs, crafted from scraps of wood found around camp, are lined up by the front wall. In another room are five shaky cot frames, rusted and bare, set side by side, inches apart.

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