First in the three-part series, "Saving Amache"
Mitch Homma was cleaning up his grandmother’s house in California after she passed away in 2004. Tucked away in a closet was something he had never seen before.
“We found, I don't know, like 18 boxes full of documents and photos of the family history going back from Japan,” he recalled recently. “And then, of course, all the World War II documents and photos since.”
Homma’s grandparents and parents didn’t talk about their World War II years much, but these boxes contained the answers.
“We didn't really learn stuff until after 2000,” he said. “So that's what started the long journey of putting all the pieces of the family history together.”
Homma wanted to know what happened to his family at Amache – one of the 10 main Japanese American internment camps set up by the U.S. government during the war.
It all started in early 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Anyone deemed a threat to national security by the military could be relocated inland. Due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese Americans were seen in a different light by the government.
Some community leaders were arrested by the government. Radios were confiscated inside homes close to the West Coast. Families had to sell their stores for pennies on the dollar. Homma said his family did what they could to hide any signs of their Japanese heritage.
“He [my dad] remembers grandfather draining the koi pond and having a big bonfire, burning a lot of Japanese items,” Homma said.
It is estimated that more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps. They could bring one suitcase of belongings, but the rest was taken from them.
“Dad remembers sitting on the curb and family heirlooms being thrown in the back of the car, back of the trunk for the FBI vehicle,” Homma said.
His dad and more than 7,000 other Japanese Americans were first taken to the Santa Anita Assembly Center outside of Los Angeles – a horse racing track.
“No matter how much his mom, my grandmother, you know, bleached and tried to clean the horse stalls, it still smelled,” Homma said. “They definitely knew they were living in a horse stall.”
They lived there for six months before they were transported by train to Amache in 1942. At its peak, the camp had more than 7,000 evacuees living in one square mile of land.
The guards were really strict when they showed up, according to Homma. They were put into small, poorly insulated rooms that only had a stove, a lightbulb and some cots.
“They pretty much had to make themselves, you know, pillows or cushions,” he said. “They were given army blankets and stuff like that.”
Everything they did was shared, from the bathrooms to the mess hall. Homma says it was a complete change of culture.
“That was one breakdown of, you know, your core traditional family values,” he said. “All of a sudden, you know, your family dinners are now your family dinner with 100 of your closest friends.”
Those who were held at the camp were fed meals that differed greatly from what they were used to. With the exception of white rice, they were served eggs, potatoes, and hot dogs, to name a few. It was a big shock to Homma’s father, so he stopped eating.
“I was told he lost, like, I don't know, like 50, 55 pounds before he passed away,” he said. “He [my dad] would mention growing up, ‘Amache took my father away.’ He was an 8-year-old little boy when his father died.”
Sanitation at Amache wasn’t the best, either. Derek Okubo’s relatives were also at the camp and felt the effects of it.
“I remember my grandma, she had mentioned to my cousin just how many times she had to filter the water in order to get it clear so that she could use the baby formula,” he said.
In moments like those, the parents did their best to be positive around the kids.
Okubo recalled, “I had asked my dad, ‘What was it like there at the camp?’ And he said, ‘There is a fine line between hope and despair on a daily basis.’ When you think about parents with young children, you know, the parents are trying to be hopeful, even though on the inside they're dying.”
It also strained the relationship between Japanese Americans and the American government – even though many served in the U.S. military, they were still fighting against Japan. Homma’s father served in the Marine Corps many years after his imprisonment, but Homma was curious if his dad would have served if he was old enough at Amache. He asked him at the nursing home shortly before he passed away.
“I thought for sure he would answer in two seconds and say, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” he said. “And he actually thought about it for 15 seconds and said, ‘I don't know.’ [I replied,] ‘What do you mean you don't know?’ And he again, he repeated, ‘Amache took my father away. I don't know if I could've served the country with my family behind barbed wire.’”
Okubo’s relatives had the same distaste.
“I asked grandma, you know, ‘What can you tell me about the camps?’” he asked. “And I saw a look come over her face that I had never, ever seen before. And it was one of anger, of pain, of disgust. You know, I had never seen that look. And she just shook her head and got up and left the table.”
Despite these conditions, the survivors made Amache home. They held art classes to bring life to their barrack walls. They made snowmen in the winter and planted gardens in the summer.
Over time, the guards loosened up a bit. The kids were allowed to go into town as long as they were back before dark. They could climb the water tower to take photos.
“The cowboys would ride up to the barbed wire fence and they'd give the kids short rides,” Homma said, recalling memories his father told him. “They'd walk to town and get a soda or something from Newman's drugstore.”
But it wasn’t easy. They were still living behind barbed wire with armed guards.
“I remember hearing comments that, ‘Oh, the Japanese were put into the camps to protect them from harm from the outside,’” Okubo said. “Which was B.S. If that was the case, why were the guns pointed in and not out?"
When the war ended in 1945, the Japanese Americans were let out of Amache with $25 and a bus ticket to restart their lives. Okubo’s grandparents worked hard despite the pain they had endured and opened a store in Denver. It was called Ben’s Super Market, on 28th and York near the zoo.
“I remember asking my dad, you know, how did they get that determination?” Okubo said. “And he said, ‘Well, sometimes the best form of revenge is to succeed.’”
This determination is not unique to Okubo’s family – it was a principle shared by many.
“Gaman means persevere … that principle, first of all, that allows people to accept it,” said Carlene Tinker, an Amache survivor.
Tinker said they pushed through by clinging to their cultural values.
“This other principle also, I believe, of Buddhist origin and that’s Shikata Ga Nai,” Tinker said. “And that is, it is what it is. You just accept it. It happened.”
Regardless of principles, Okubo knows what the United States did was wrong. He wants to make sure that this never happens again.
“After 9/11, you know, we heard the talk of internment camps again. And it was just like, haven't we learned?” Okubo said. “This country is supposed to represent all these wonderful values. And then when something like this happens, when the hate and the hysteria and the prejudice, we tend to forget it.”
Homma agrees. Stories like his are what he hopes Americans will never forget.
“All governments make mistakes, all ruling kingdoms make mistakes,” Homma said. “And it's what you do afterwards, right? Do you bury it? And so that mistake happens over and over and over again, you know, or do you learn from it?”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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