September 24, 2018|By Emily Korest
From 1942 to 1945, over 100,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated without trial or due process in concentration camps around the United States—13,000 of these incarcerees were imprisoned in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in southern Idaho. The land where the War Relocation Authority established the camp was bleak. In winter it was bitterly cold; in summer it was brutally hot. The rocky soil at Minidoka had never been farmed before, but after digging irrigation channels and growing crops (predominantly potatoes) the camp was able to fully feed itself.  

Despite mistreatment and mistrust from the United States government, over 6,000 Japanese American citizens fought in World War II. Minidoka supplied a disproportionately large 25% of those Japanese-American volunteers. At the camp, prisoners eventually created the Minidoka Honor Roll, a huge plaque with the name of every resident of Minidoka who had gone off to serve their country, many of whom would be killed in Europe during this service with their loyalty still questioned at home.

“A lot of people refer to it as Japanese Internment but that’s actually a misnomer because internment refers only to nationals, and two-thirds of the people who were incarcerated were actually American citizens. The one third who were Japanese nationals were barred by law from becoming naturalized citizens. So academia have moved on to say that it was the Japanese Americans incarceration experience or confinement sites or actually academia uses the term American Concentration Camps.”

– Hanako Wakatsuki, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Minidoka

Minidoka National Historic Site ID c Richard Hannon Photography201807308 2The recently built replica of the original Honor Roll at the Minidoka NHS in Idaho. Photo by Richard Alan Hannon.

After the camp closed in 1945, part of the land Minidoka sat on was partitioned into 43 agricultural homesteads and allotted to white World War II veterans. One of these veterans, John Hermann, acquired a 128-acre property that included the locations of the original camp water tower, fire station and several barracks. Upon his return from the Korean War, Mr. Hermann’s farm was selected as a “farm-in-a-day” property, and on April 17, 1952, volunteers dug a well, put up fences, planted crops and built a house to establish a working farmstead—all in a single day.

In January 2001, as one of his last acts in office, President Clinton signed a presidential proclamation creating the Minidoka Internment National Monument (later renamed Minidoka National Historic Site after the proposal to improve the site) on 73 acres of the original camp site that were still in government ownership. 

“At Minidoka, we had almost nothing physical, but we had all of these oral histories, and they are going away quickly.  So that was the urgency, to get to a point where we could make sure that those stories were captured.  Education, telling the stories, and preserving what little of the cultural landscape was left were our main goals.”

– Neil King, previous Director of Minidoka NHS who worked with the Fund to acquire additional lands

Minidoka archive
An overhead shot of the Minidoka War Relocation Center (1942). Photo courtesy of the National Archives. 

The National Park Service (NPS) had strong interest in expanding the Historic Site, as it was only situated on 73 acres of the original 33,000 acres. The property they were most interested in was the adjacent farm, still owned and operated by John Hermann. The historic fire station was still intact on the property, and it was also the site of the baseball field that the incarcerees used for recreation. John Hermann was amenable to this sale but unfortunately passed away while in talks with NPS, making it necessary for his widow to quickly sell the property. However, NPS had not yet been cleared to buy the property. The Fund was able to step in and quickly purchase the Hermann farm and then over time transfer the site to the NPS adding 137 acres to the Historic Site and nearly tripling its area.  Subsequently, the Fund also purchased an additional adjacent farm property and placed a conservation easement on it, which will ensure it stays farmland forever, and sold it to a local farmer named Dean Dimond. This property, while not owned by the NPS, has many relics of the original camp that are being preserved by the conservation easement and the Dimond family. 

Minidoka National Historic Site ID c Richard Hannon Photography201807306 1Remnants of the rock garden built by incarcerees of Minidoka, still on Dean Dimond’s property with Dimond and family shown in background. Photo by Richard Alan Hannon.

In addition to the original fire station that NPS acquired with the Hermann property, the site has added other real buildings from the camp, including residential barracks and a mess hall that NPS was able to acquire, restore and move back on to the original site. The site has also developed a 1.6 mile walking trail around the property and a replica of the original Honor Roll. Recently, Minidoka also completed the creation of a replica guard tower and held a "field-in-a-day" event, mirroring the Hermann farm’s “farm-in-a-day” history, where volunteers helped to rebuild the old baseball field at the original site of the camp. NPS is also currently building a permanent visitor center.

“The Idaho community there has always had a relationship with the camp. A lot of people in that area have lived there all their lives. When the camp was open a lot of the internees ultimately helped provide assistance on the local farms.  So, in an interesting way Minidoka has been deeply engrained in southern Idaho for years, since the 1940s.  There’s a familiarity, there’s respect and understanding amongst the Idaho community for this camp and what it means, and that chapter of American history. With this there’s a strong support locally for protection and interpretation of the camp.”

– Mark Elsbree, Senior Vice President and Western Director for The Conservation Fund

Minidoka National Historic Site ID c Richard Hannon Photography201807308 3The reproduction of the Guard TowerPhoto by Richard Alan Hannon.

The Friends of Minidoka was founded shortly after the designation of the site, and in 2003 they helped to start an annual pilgrimage to the site, bussing out former incarerees, their descendants, and other visitors. This four-day pilgrimage seeks to memorialize the experience of prisoners by gathering their stories and sharing them with a wider audience. It gives the attendees the opportunity to think about the importance of civil liberties and the legacy that Japanese-American incarceration still has today, and stresses “Never Again." It is a thought-provoking and educational experience for all involved, and has seen large increases in attendance since its inception, with the 2017 pilgrimage having over 300 attendees.  

Minidoka National Historic Site ID c Richard Hannon Photography201807302 3Actual camp barracks restored to its original location on the Herrmann Farm shown behind Historic Site signagePhoto by Richard Alan Hannon.