On December 7, 1941, on what seemed to be a relatively calm Sunday morning for the residents of the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, two waves of Japanese warplanes appeared out of the clouds and attacked the United States military base at Pearl Harbor. Described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and forever known as “a date, which will live in infamy,” the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to enter World War II. On December 8, the United States declared war with Japan. Americans were fearful that people of Japanese descent living in the United States might side with the Japanese, which prompted President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Executive Order 9066 authorized the removal of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent from their homes and jobs in Arizona and on the Pacific coast and their internment in 10 isolated relocation camps. Among these was the Minidoka Relocation Center, whose ruins at the Minidoka National Historic Site today continue to tell the painful, yet resilient story of America’s Japanese American community during World War II.
Managing the relocation of these Japanese families was the job of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which the Federal Government established to construct and administer the camps where the Japanese in America would live for the war. Toward the end of 1942, over 110,000 Japanese Americans were living in the relocation centers.
Established in south-central Idaho, camp Minidoka opened on August 10, 1942, and remained in operation until October 28, 1945. During this period, 10,000 evacuees from Oregon, Washington, and Alaska lived at the camp at Minidoka, which the WRA built to mimic a small American town. The camp had a 600-bed hospital, schools, a library, fire station, food and retail stores, barbershops, salons, and recreational areas, such as theatres, ballparks, swimming pools, and social halls. In addition to the recreational and service buildings, the camp had 35 residential blocks, each of which consisted of 12 sleeping quarters. All of these blocks included a central H shaped building, where residents could shower and do their laundry. Although the 946-acre camp mirrored a fully functioning town, the five miles of barbed wire fencing, eight watchtowers, and the overall military presence separated the Minidoka Relocation Center from neighboring communities.
For those living at camp Minidoka, it was a place of labor. Initially, the WRA planned to develop the relocation center into a farming community, but over time, as the number of residents and facilities at Minidoka continued to grow, the evacuees began doing many jobs to support the camp. The inmates worked as doctors, nurses, mechanics, dentists, draftsmen, surveyors, and laborers, who helped the Bureau of Reclamation design and build the camp. Despite holding respectable positions at the camp, the Japanese evacuees earned very low wages for performing these jobs compared to the minimum wage available to Americans working in the same professions outside of the relocation centers. On average, most inmates at Minidoka earned between $12 and $19 per month; meanwhile prisoners of war during this time earned on average $19.50 a month.
Although the inmates at the Minidoka Relocation Center did not suffer from physical abuse, the working conditions coupled with the living conditions did cause a psychological blow to their culture and morale. The lack of privacy and the communal living changed the relationships in and between families. As they learned to live under government control, the younger generations began to ignore the authority of their elders, who up until the war had a strong familial control over the younger generations. Eventually, the younger inmates began enlisting in the US Army. In the end, around 26,000 Japanese Americans from all 10 camps served in World War II, of which nearly 1,000 were from Minidoka. Many of them served in action, and others served as interpreters.
Many in the Minidoka community criticized these soldiers for fighting for a nation that had placed their families in camps, but the soldiers enlisted to prove their patriotism to a nation they called home. By the end of the war, the Japanese Americans in the armed services suffered over 9,000 casualties, with Minidoka having the largest casualty list of all the camps. On October 6, 2010, nearly 65 years after the Minidoka Relocation Center closed, President Barack H. Obama signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the brave Japanese Americans who served in World War II.
To learn more about Minidoka National Historic Site, tourists may visit the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument Visitor Center, where visitors can view historic photos, gather brochures, and request further information on Minidoka National Historic Site. Since what remains of the Minidoka Relocation Center is on private property, tourists are not able to tour the site, which includes the buildings privately owned in the community. Visitors may walk through the remains of the entry station, waiting room, and rock garden. There is a small gravel parking area with interpretive signs outside the private property, and at the entrance area, visitors can read the historical commemorative plaques that list the names of the Japanese American troops from Minidoka who served during the war.
Additionally, as of 2008, the Nikkei Exclusion Memorial was named a National Historic Site, and it is now an official NPS satellite unit of the Minidoka Internment National Historic Site. Located miles away on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, the memorial stands at the former location of the Eagledale ferry dock. On March 30th, 1942, two hundred twenty–seven men, women and children (two–thirds of them American citizens) were forcibly removed from their homes by US Army soldiers and ferried from the dock to nearby Seattle. They were the very first people of Japanese ancestry exiled from the west coast and were relocated to Manzanar, another camp in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. About a year later the majority of the Bainbridge islanders were transferred to Minidoka.
Nidoto Nai Yoni, translated as "Let It Not Happen Again" is the motto and mission of the Nikkei Exclusion Memorial. The newly opened site is not yet complete as of 2011, but its main features are finished and open to visitors. More information can be found on the Bainbridge Island Japanese Community Website.
Although little remains of the dock at Bainbridge or the camp at Minidoka, the few remnants stand as a reminder of what happens when a nation built on the idea that all men are created equal lets fear, racism, and war overpower its founding principles of freedom.
Minidoka National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located between the towns of Twin Falls and Jerome, ID. Many of the site’s features are located on private property, which visitors may not enter. Although Minidoka National Historic Site does not offer visitor services at the site, a display on Minidoka is on view at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument Visitor Center. Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is located at 221 N State St. in Hagerman, ID. The visitor center at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is open every day from 9:00am to 5:00pm during the summer, and closed every Tuesday and Wednesday during the winter. There is no admission fee. For more information and directions, visit the National Park Service Minidoka National Historic Site website or call 208-933-4100.
Minidoka National Historic Site has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.