EDEN — Visitors to the Minidoka War Relocation Center will have an expanded experience this summer enhanced by on-site staff who will offer tours.
The center, known locally as Hunt Camp, incarcerated 13,000 people of Japanese heritage, known as Nikkei, from 1942 to 1945 during WWII. Two-thirds of them were American citizens, and half of them were children.
“This should never have happened,” Tracy Kenoyer, of Puyallup, Wash., said as she took a self-guided tour on May 25.
The U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service began developing the 72-acre site at 296 S. 1400 E. in Jerome County in 2008. The original camp was 33,000 acres.
This is the first time there has been onsite staff at the site, said Hanako Wakatsuki, chief interpreter for the Minidoka National Historic Site.
The temporary visitor center is located at the Herrmann house, which was built by the family who homesteaded the property after the center closed. The visitor center will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Guided tours are available at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays with no reservations required for groups of less than 12 people. People may also take self-guided tours from sunrise to sunset on 1.6 miles of trails.
Visitors should bring hats, water and watch for snakes.
A permanent visitor center will be constructed in the warehouse building in a couple of years. Work to save a root cellar from collapse and restore other buildings at the site is also underway.
Kenoyer said she remembers as a child hearing her father talk about what happened to Japanese citizens living in their community during the war.
The fairgrounds near where she lived were used as a holding area for the people who were shipped to the incarceration camps.
“When they returned home they found other people living in their homes and they couldn’t find jobs,” Kenoyer said.
The people incarcerated at Hunt Camp had all been living in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
“It’s really sad that we wanted to do this to other Americans,” Kenoyer said. “It upsets me.”
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that stripped 110,000 people from across the county of civil liberties and freedoms, the families were given two weeks at the most — sometimes just days — to close their businesses and arrange for their absences before they were taken to one of the 10 incarceration camps across the country.
A replica of one of the eight guard towers has been erected at the entrance to the site, and visitors can listen to an audio recording of Gene Akusutu, who was incarcerated there, describe arriving at the arid desert location.
“Many people were relieved when they saw the camp because they didn’t know if they were going to be taken out into the desert and shot,” Wakatsuki said.
Most of the 600 buildings, including 402 barracks, military police buildings, hospital buildings, barracks used as schools, mess halls and communal latrines were crowded onto 946 acres.
The park is working to reestablish block 22 of the compound with a barracks building and mess hall.
Six families lived in each barracks and up 350 people lived on each block.
The living quarters were 16 feet by 20 feet, and for a large family the space was 24 feet by 20 feet. The ceilings did not extend to the rafters, which allowed wayward children to peer over into the family-next-door’s business, Wakatsuki said.
Wakatsuki said the lack of privacy at the latrines was especially painful for the women who were incarcerated. Many would wait until the cloak of night provided a sliver of modesty, but they often found many other people had the same idea.
“One woman put a bag over her head so she could relieve herself,” Wakatsuki said. Some women made stalls out of cardboard or held up sheets for each other to provide privacy.
Meals were often prepared by unskilled cooks and the quality could vary widely.
One photo in the mess hall shows a group of children eating a Christmas dinner consisting of hot dogs.
Despite their difficult circumstances, the people tried to make the best of it. They organized churches and recreational activities like baseball and they planted gardens for beauty and food.
They also helped build the canals that make the Magic Valley so magical, Wakatsuki said.
Prisoners also worked in local fields cultivating crops, but at the most they were only paid $12 to 14 a month, which was not enough to pay the bills at home and prevent their homes and property from being seized for tax debts.
“It was really hard for them to rebuild their lives afterwards,” Wakatsuki said. “They faced a lot of open hostility and racism.”
Often family members would not even speak of the incarceration.
Congress conducted a study into what happened with the incarceration camps during WWII and concluded there was no military necessity for the action, and it was caused by racial prejudice, Wakatsuki said.
The study prompted the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that granted reparation and offered an apology to Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned during WWII.
Keegan Jones, National Park Service intern at the site, who will help provide tours this summer, said the violation of American civil liberties that occurred is astounding.
“I’m surprised that it’s not taught in schools,” he said. “I was also surprised at how close to home it is.”