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Forward into the Past

At Camp Amache, a school project reopens an ugly chapter of Colorado history



"As a young man coming out of college, it was an eye-opener," he said. "I spent that first year just keeping my head above water and a lot of late nights trying to stay ahead of the kids."

But Hopper already knew a lot about Granada, in southeastern Colorado near the Kansas border. A native of Las Animas, about 45 minutes west on U.S. Highway 50, he'd grown up hearing about the town and its particular secret.

In 1942, on an expanse of gritty farmland southwest of town, the federal government had built an internment camp to house thousands of Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes in California.

Officially known as the Granada Relocation Center, the facility was also called Camp Amache, after the daughter of a 19th-century Cheyenne Indian chief. Camp Amache was one of 10 relocation centers established during World War II in the rugged interior West, designed to detain more than 120,000 Japanese Americans -- about two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

Hopper's mother had worked with a former Camp Amache resident who stayed in Colorado after the center closed. "She knew about it, and about him being in the camp -- a lot of people didn't -- and she would relay the stories," Hopper said. "So I was always interested in it. But it was a freak of nature for me to actually teach in Granada."

One afternoon, during his third week at the school, Hopper drove up the road leading to what was left of the camp and looked around. He didn't see much.

Abandoned in October 1945, Camp Amache had been razed, its 550 buildings carted off to other military locations, sold to business enterprises and school districts, or simply demolished; nearly five decades later, the land looked almost as it had before the camp was built, a giant sandy rise covered with yucca, sagebrush and weeds.

The only signs that this site had once held a bustling community were the cement foundations of the barracks, a few plumbing fixtures and the wind-blown trees, Chinese elms and cottonwoods that the camp's residents had planted to provide some refuge from Granada's blistering summers and blustery winters.

Here was a piece of American history, as real as Gettysburg or the Alamo, but located in the back yard of a tiny town on the plains, only a mile from his school, utterly unexplored and almost entirely forgotten.

"I looked at some of the really bright kids in my class and decided I needed to do something new and something different, and that I should use this opportunity," Hopper said. "Other history teachers would be frothing at the mouth to have something like this."

Endangered places

The next school year, Hopper secured permission from Granada High's principal to research the history of Camp Amache as a class project. The first assignment for Hopper's students was to track down former detainees now living in California and Colorado (about 2,000 had remained in this state) to get their views on the camp.

"I interviewed some local people who gave us quite a bit of information about where to find them," Hopper said, "and we went from there, trying to find the people who lived there. That was going to be the hardest thing. It was tooth and nail, scratching up this stuff."

But their timing couldn't have been better. As Hopper and his students were dusting off Camp Amache's story, the rest of the country was just beginning to face this part of its past -- a terrible and embarrassing chapter that had been hidden, kept out of the history books and ignored for almost five decades.

In 1983, President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Wartime Relocation condemned the creation of the camps. Although Japanese-American civic groups had been pressuring the federal government since the 1970s to make amends, it wasn't until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan offered the first apology to detainees in the form of the Civil Liberties Act.

The act acknowledged "the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry." It also created the Office of Redress Administration to reimburse detainees and their families for lost jobs and belongings, and to attempt to repay them for stolen freedom; during the 10 years it was open, the office paid out $1.6 billion in $20,000 chunks to 82,219 people.

Over the next decade, a number of civic groups were organized to preserve the vestiges of the camps -- in addition to Camp Amache, nine more were scattered across Arizona, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming -- and to find ways to teach the public about their existence.

Hopper and his students became part of this movement. Together with the Denver Central Optimist Club, which consists entirely of Japanese Americans, and the Amache Historical Society, a California organization made up of former Camp Amache internees, they've worked to gather information about the camp and raise money to salvage its remains, which are threatened by time, weather and vandalism.

Through their efforts, Camp Amache was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

Recognition of the camps culminated in February 2000, when the U.S. Department of the Interior released Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese-American Relocation Sites, the result of a four-year study examining and cataloging the "tangible remains currently left" at the Japanese-American internment sites.

That same month, Vice President Al Gore announced that he would ask Congress for $4.8 million to help preserve the camps.

In January 2001, the Interior Department presented its Report to the President: Japanese-American Internment Sites Preservation, which included a recommendation that the National Park Service study Camp Amache and another relocation center, Tule Lake in California, and examine "the potential for partnerships between the agency and other interested parties, including federal, state and local entities."

The next month, Colorado Preservation Inc. (CPI), a private nonprofit organization, named Camp Amache to its 2001 Most Endangered Places list. The designation is intended to help local preservation groups raise money and awareness.

Trying to forget

Although Granada's residents had been relatively comfortable with Hopper's efforts, the state and national attention pried open a chapter of the town's history that had been closed decades earlier. It also stirred old resentments toward the federal government, which had condemned land in and around Granada to make room for the camp, displacing hundreds of people.

The Town of Granada now owns several hundred acres where the heart of Camp Amache used to be, and its three drinking-water wells are located there, as are the town dump and a small fairground. Many locals, including Mayor Alan Pfeiffer, have no interest in relinquishing control of the site to anyone.

"I'm afraid if the National Park Service takes it over, they'll take it all over," Pfeiffer said. "They'll have these guys with little hats and badges come in, and we'd lose our access to the land and we'd lose our landfill. What the federal government wants, the federal government gets."

Pfeiffer doesn't believe Camp Amache is worth preserving.

"I don't know much about the place, and I don't much care," he said. "Here's the best way to describe it: I had cousins who lived in New York, and I asked them once if they've been to the Statue of Liberty, and they said no. I asked them if they've been to Coney Island, and they said no. So I asked them why, and they said, 'Because we live here.' It's the same living in Granada. Anytime I want to, I can go see it. You see, I look at things not from the cultural standpoint, but from the common sense one."

That standpoint makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including officials at CPI.

"A lot of people were not real pleased that this site was getting a lot of attention. They don't like this period in history; they don't want to remember it," said Rachel Yank Simpson, who prepared that CPI list.

For Hopper, the national attention and CPI designation came as pleasant surprises. But he doesn't want to lose control of Camp Amache either; that's partly why he's working so hard to do his own restoration the right way.

Over the last decade, Hopper and his students have assembled a vast collection of information about Camp Amache. They have a list -- in English and in Japanese -- of everyone who spent time at the camp and in which block they lived; hundreds of photographs, donated by former residents and their families; and file cabinets full of correspondence, memorabilia, newspapers and recorded interviews with Camp Amache detainees and employees.

In 1997, the class received a $2,500 grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts and formed the nonprofit Amache Preservation Society, which is made up entirely of students. The next year, they helped to organize a gigantic reunion of former internees and their families, during which more than 500 people visited Camp Amache. "It was quite the sight in Granada," Hopper said.

Hopper's students also maintain the camp's cemetery. Over the past few years, they've installed benches, laid sod and planted about 200 trees. The cemetery, which originally held more than 120 graves, has only 13 now, all of them children; the other bodies were reinterred elsewhere.

"I'm sure there are people around here who are afraid that the federal government will take the land away," Hopper said. "But that won't happen. That land up there is priceless for this city, and we can't lose it. I keep telling them if they play ball with the right people, they won't."

Forced to leave

Lawrence McMillan was nine years old when the War Relocation Authority (WRA) told his family that they'd have to move out of their home. McMillan's father operated and maintained the irrigation equipment on the Koen Ranch, a sprawling sugar-beet operation.

On February 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the military to remove Japanese immigrants and anyone of Japanese descent, including citizens born in this country, from coastal areas in California, Oregon and Washington, as well as from parts of Arizona.

A few weeks later Roosevelt created a new agency, the WRA, to carry out this order and build internment camps as far from major cities as possible.

Granada was one of those places.

"It's probably as far away from anywhere as they could get," McMillan said. Set amid the rolling hills of southeastern Colorado's desert prairie, Granada is bordered by the Arkansas River, the railroad tracks and hundreds of square miles of sagebrush and yucca plants.

About halfway between the town of Lamar and the Kansas border, the settlement thrived in the 1800s and early 1900s because of its proximity to the Santa Fe Trail and its importance as the end of the line for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Today it's just a flash of color along highway 50.

In the early 1940s, though, Granada was one of several Colorado towns linked in a sugar-beet farming network. Trains loaded with sugar beets, as well as melons, alfalfa and wheat, left Granada every day during the harvest season. These same trains would later carry more than 10,000 Japanese Americans into town.

In the spring of 1942, the WRA announced that it was condemning 10,500 acres around Granada -- all land needed for Camp Amache. Some of the property owners tried to fight the condemnation in court; they lost. Although the owners were paid market value for their land, they were forced to leave farms that some had lived on for generations.

"The sugar company got paid," said McMillan, now 67. "We didn't. Fifty families lived on Koen Ranch. They moved us all out. In that way, we were kind of in the same predicament as the Japanese people were. There wasn't any place to live. We moved from a modern house with running water to one without."

The condemnation came only a few years after the end of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era that devastated farming communities throughout the Great Plains. Even so, McMillan said his friends and neighbors understood they had a duty to do what their country asked of them.

"Hell, you took it in stride," he said. "It was during the war."

McMillan's aunt, Bessie Tuck, remembers things a little differently. After the families were kicked off, there was a lot of resentment, she said. "I think anyone would resent that."

Hopper hasn't had much luck getting in touch with people forced to sell their land. "They won't even talk about it," he said. "You can't blame them. A lot of them spent a lot of money in court to keep their land, and they still lost it. Then, after the camp was closed, the land was sold to the highest bidder. These are very patriotic people, and this is a very sore spot in our community."

The people who had to find new homes also had to find new jobs. Many of them went to work for the WRA, helping to build the camp. Construction began on June 12, 1942, with a crew of more than 1,000 workers. The $4.2 million project provided much-needed employment for men who weren't fighting in the war.

"This was a busy place when they started building," McMillan said. "It was a regular carnival around here, and they paid good wages." He has a pay stub from August 12, 1942, tacked to the wall of the barbershop he's owned for 40 years. The pay stub was brought in by someone who had worked at Camp Amache; the job paid 62-and-a-half cents an hour.

Guarded by armed military police, the first trainload of detainees from assembly centers in Merced and Santa Anita, California, arrived at the depot on August 27, 1942. Hundreds of people from as far away as Pueblo and Colorado Springs came to Granada to watch. "It was quite a day," McMillan remembers. "We had never seen no Japanese people before."

Barbed-wire and loyalty oaths

By October, there were 7,318 people living at Camp Amache. Although it was the smallest of the country's relocation centers, it instantly became the tenth largest city in Colorado. More than 10,000 people would live at the camp over the three years it was open; 120 would die there.

The main section of the camp included 29 residential blocks, each with twelve 20-by-120-foot barracks, a laundry, bath and latrine building, and a mess hall.

Thomas Shigekuni's father mopped the mess hall in Block 12-G every night. "My father also made rice for his block, a hundred pounds a week," he said.

Shigekuni, now a probate lawyer living in Torrance, California and on the board of the Amache Historical Society, was 12 years old when he, his two older brothers and his parents were moved from their home in the Los Angeles suburbs to Camp Amache. "Before, my parents had a wholesale and retail nursery business," he said. "All that disappeared overnight."

Although the detainees had to leave their jobs and businesses behind, they brought their skills with them. Camp Amache soon boasted two silk-screening shops, a barbershop, a shoe-repair place, a newspaper and a dry goods store, as well as five churches and facilities for the Red Cross, the YMCA and the Boy Scouts.

There was a state-of-the-art hospital, a large recreation center and a high school, which the detainees paid for themselves and which was the most expensive building ever constructed in Granada.

In many ways, Camp Amache was like any other town -- except that it was entirely surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and guarded by military police in six watchtowers.

The WRA made good use of the fields, ditches, buildings and pens already in place on the land. The detainees grew alfalfa, corn, onions, potatoes, grain, sorghum and table vegetables; they also raised hogs, chickens and cattle. Many had been farmers before their relocation, and they were able to coax celery, head lettuce, lima beans and other crops out of dry, sandy soil that the locals had thought would never support such plants.

Camp Amache residents were allowed to leave the compound to attend college and work at nearby jobs, but in order to get clearance, they had to fill out a loyalty questionnaire. The questions -- administered under oath -- included: Will you stay away from large groups of Japanese? Will you try to develop such American habits which will cause you to be accepted readily into American social groups? Are you willing to provide information on any subversive activity?

They were also allowed to shop outside of the camp, and they made full use of everything Granada had to offer. "The business owners here loved the Japanese, loved them to death," Hopper said. A lot of local merchants who had been struggling since the Depression thrived selling to the Japanese. "They pretty much saved them," Hopper adds.

But the Japanese were enterprising, too. They had fresh fish shipped in by rail every day, along with ice cream from Garden City, Kansas, and sake sent (illegally) from Portland, Oregon.

"They had any kind of fish you wanted," Bessie Tuck remembers. She also recalls a Japanese "tea house," one with a bit of a shady reputation. "We didn't ever go in there," she said. "It was a funny place."

Leaving the camp had its hazards. Shigekuni recalls taking a trip to Lamar, about 15 miles east of Granada. When he tried to board a return bus, the driver said, "Not you, you dirty Jap," and closed the door. "Those things I remember, and they seared in my memory," he said.

$25 and a new life

On December 17, 1944, Executive Order 9066 was repealed, and the detainees were allowed to return home. But because anti-Japanese feelings were still rampant and also because most of Camp Amache's residents no longer had homes to go back to, the entire camp stayed put.

On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered, ending the war. The military police pulled out of Camp Amache a few weeks later, but still many of the residents remained. Finally, on October 15, the last of the internees left on a train for Sacramento. The camp was officially closed on January 27, 1946.

"When they turned us loose, they gave us a train ticket, $25 apiece, and told us to start a new life," Shigekuni said. Since his family didn't have anything left in Los Angeles, they moved to a suburb of San Francisco, where Shigekuni's parents got jobs as domestic servants.

Of the 2,000 detainees who stayed in Colorado, many moved to Denver. A few opened businesses in Granada or took up farming nearby. McMillan remained friends with some of the camp's former residents, including one fellow who moved to Holly. "They were good people," he said. "No doubt about it." Tuck also kept in touch with some of the friends she'd made.

The Town of Granada bought the land where most of the camp's buildings had stood, about 600 acres, for $2,500, and converted the drinking-water wells that the internees had dug to its own use. The sewage-treatment area was turned into the town dump. The rest of the land was sold by the government, and most of it returned to farms and ranches.

In 1983, members of the Denver Central Optimist Club decided they wanted to erect a memorial to the 31 men who'd left Camp Amache to fight and die for the United States during the war.

"At that time we were getting older, and we felt like we should honor the people who went out of the camp and got killed in Europe," said Jim Hada, 76, who has been president of the club for nine years.

Part of an international organization whose mission is to support youth, his club has about 40 members; since 1983 they've made a pilgrimage to Camp Amache every year around Memorial Day. "It's really important to Japanese people that you recognize the dead and not forget them."

Since the town owns the land where the Optimist Club wanted to erect the memorial, Hada and Sus Hidaka, another club member who has since died, went before the Granada Town Council for ask permission to build it. At that meeting, they got into a heated argument with council members over the wording of the proposed memorial.

Hada and Hidaka wanted the inscription to include a detailed description of the injustices endured by the detainees, including that they were forcibly brought to the camp and treated by armed U.S. troops as prisoners for 3 1/2 years, though none had been charged with any crime

They also wanted acknowledgment that the U.S. Government Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians has since admitted the uprooting was "a grave injustice" fueled by war hysteria and racism -- and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself had referred to such camps as concentration camps.

Amache remembered

Hada remembers that town council meeting well. "They objected to the wording calling it a 'concentration camp,'" he said. "They also objected to the idea that they were incarcerated involuntarily."

"This wasn't a concentration camp," said McMillan, who in 1983 was in his first term as mayor of Granada. "We wouldn't go along with that."

After several months during which nobody would budge, the two sides eventually compromised on the following: "Amache Remembered: Dedicated to the 31 patriotic Japanese-Americans who volunteered from Amache and dutifully gave their lives in World War II, to the approximately 7,000 persons who were relocated at Amache and to the 120 who died during this period of relocation."

But the camp wasn't all bad, McMillan insists. "When we were kids, we'd go up there to see movies because we didn't have anyplace to see movies in town," he remembers. "They had stuff up at that commissary that you couldn't buy at my aunt's grocery store."

"Some of the old people said they should have just moved Granada up there," Mayor Pfeiffer added. "There was a post office and a hospital and a fire station and a high school that was nicer than the one in town."

Hopper laughs at these notions. "Yeah, it was the Granada Hilton," he said. "Some of the people say, 'They had it good up there.' Well, it depends on what you think 'good' is. If good is losing everything you have to come live on a sandhill surrounded by barbed wire, then, yes, they had it good. If being completely isolated, eating strange food that makes you sick is good, then, yes, they had it good. If being taken from the green valleys of California and being stuck up there is good, then, yes, they had it good."

A clean hospital didn't make up for lost dignity and lost careers, he points out. The freedom to shop didn't make up for being crammed into overcrowded barracks. And a movie theater didn't make up for having to sign loyalty agreements.

"Those people lost everything," Hopper continued. "People around here don't realize what they lost. People say to me, 'You gotta understand the times, son.' And I say, 'Do we understand the times now?' The old attitudes will be here until they die. What I'm doing is changing the attitudes of these kids."

But Hopper has learned to hold his tongue around people with the old attitudes. Instead of using the term "concentration camp," he uses "relocation camp." But, the term "concentration camp "is what his students call it when no one is around.

"People out here don't want it to sound like it was a German concentration camp," he said. "But I've looked up the definition of a concentration camp." And that definition is: "a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined."

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