Amache survivors recount life in Colorado’s World War II Japanese internment camp
One Book One Valley event helps explain the real events behind this year’s selected historical fiction title
This year’s One Valley One Book title and program invites community members to take another look at a critical piece of Colorado and American history that is often overlooked.
“Through the choice of the title ‘Tallgrass’ and the companion juvenile title ‘Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky,’ also written by a Sandra Dallas, we have been able to give our community a title that will help them learn more about history,” said Lori A. Barnes, the director of Library Services at the Vail Public Library. “History, as we know, consists of negatives and positives — it’s part of what makes history so important to all of us and we have to be able to look at both sides to fully get the entire picture of a particular moment in time.”
Both of this year’s titles are centered on the World War II-era Japanese internment camp in the southeastern Colorado town of Granada.
This camp, also known as Amache, was one of 10 camps across the interior United States created during World War II following Executive Order 9066. This order, which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, forced nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans out of their homes on the West Coast and relocated them to these 10 internment camps.
While “Tallgrass” is categorized as a historical thriller and tells the story of a family living in Granada when the camp was opened, the novel’s historical basis serves as a powerful foundation for learning about the true lives of those who lived at Amache from 1942 to 1945.
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“The beauty of fiction for me has always been that it opens my mind and gets me excited about learning about the history and the truth that underlies these stories that we read,” said April Kamp-Whittaker, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, during a virtual event hosted by One Book One Valley on Wednesday.
This event was one of One Book One Valley’s first events this year as the program seeks to broaden the discussion around — and further enlighten the community to — the themes of the 2022-selected book, Barnes said.
The Wednesday event featured a panel of three individuals who survived Amache. The panel was facilitated by Kamp-Whittaker, who has been working in Amache since 2008 as part of the University of Denver’s Amache project. This long-term community-based research project is dedicated to researching, interpreting and preserving the site in Colorado.
Through telling their stories, panelists and Amache survivors Min Tonai, Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker and Ken Kitajima shared what it was like to be a Japanese American at this time in history and the importance of preserving and remembering Amache.
Life at Amache
The Amache camp was opened following Order 9066 and would go on to house over 10,000 Japanese Americans — though never topping 8,000 at one time — in the three years it was operated. Nearly overnight, Whittaker said it became the 10th-largest town by population in Colorado in 1942.
“When Dec. 7 (1941) came, our family and Japanese relatives and friends suffered tremendously,” Kitajima said. “The time came as President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. They gave us two weeks to get ready to move to the train with only what you could carry. To make the story short — leaving out many details — our family lost almost everything we owned.”
Tonai and Kitajima were both teenagers when they arrived by train at Amache, and said that their initial responses to the site were that it was barren and not a hospitable climate.
“We knew that this was not going to be an easy place to live. I knew they weren’t going to put us in a nice place, so we just accepted it,” Tonai said. He went on to describe that the construction of the barracks did little to shield them from the elements, which included dust and heat in the summer as well as snow, hail and freezing temperatures in the winter.
“All in all, it was not a very nice place to live,” he added.
Of the climate, Kitajima said it was “terrible: we experienced dust storms, snow, hail and wind.”
Through the work of the University of Denver’s Amache project, as well as other efforts to uncover and preserve the site’s history, including talking to survivors, archeologists and researchers have uncovered much about life in the camps.
“The people in prison at Amache really made their way the best they could and they really worked to create a habitable environment, both socially and physically. The internees established churches, both Christian and Buddhist. They had a newspaper, they had social organizations and clubs and they found employment,” Kamp-Whittaker said.
A “city behind barbed wire,” Kamp-Whittaker said that it contained a hospital, schools, a store, a police station and more.
Kamp-Whittaker further described the city as “this place where people who were taken from the homes and forced to live in a hostile environment came together and, to the extent possible, they really transformed a prison into a town and one where their children could feel safe and where social institutions will remain.”
“They got there by ingenuity and skill, by drawing on their connections with one another and the outside world and despite being singled out for their ancestry, they didn’t abandon it but they expressed it incessantly and creatively,” she said.
Both Tonai and Kitajima were members of the Boy Scout Troop 179 during their time in Amache. Kitajima also recounted that he went to middle and high school at the camp and got permission to hunt for insects and fish for carp outside of the camp’s fences.
And although Tonai and Kitajima were engaged with their community during their time at Amache, they were acutely aware of the circumstances surrounding their imprisonment.
“There’s no question my life had changed. There’s no question that the American people or the American government was prejudiced against us: I was behind a barbed wire fence,” Tonai said.
However, Tonai said that his mother did everything to keep him and his family from being bitter.
“I remember things that happened where people were in fact prejudiced against us and said things that were wrong, but you had to have the right attitude or you couldn’t advance in your life,” Tonai said. “We realized we were still Americans and as Americans, we had to do things to go on and go to college and all the things that go into being successful.”
Tonai and Kitajima both served in the Korean War, Tonai in the army and Kitajima in the Air Force. While Tonai recounted receiving nothing but respect during this time, Kitajima said he faced more racial prejudice in his first four years of service than at any other point in his life. However, throughout his life Tonai remained an active community member — going onto become a science teacher, work in politics and much more — all while teaching his own kids to have pride about being American.
“Despite all of this that my father has talked about, he and my mom raised my brother and I to be Americans through and through. (He) never, never showed any type of resentment, it was move forward, take your own accountability, be proud of the country you’re apart of and contribute,” John Kitajima said at the event.
Tanigoshi Tinker, who was 2 when she entered the camp, has few memories of her time there, but recounted on Wednesday what it was like growing up following her family’s release.
She said that, as was common in many Japanese families, her parents wouldn’t talk about their experience at Amache.
“We were never able to converse about that. I suppose there were many reasons for that, maybe they were ashamed — I know it was a very tough time for them,” Tanigoshi Tinker said. “Whenever I brought up camp, there was silence. Maybe, on a positive note, they just accepted it: it was what it was and you just go forward. I’d like to think that was how they felt.”
Much of Tanigoshi Tinker’s adolescent years after leaving the camp were spent in predominantly white schools and neighborhoods where she experienced racism and prejudice. While she reflected that she struggled to grasp why these things were happening as a young child, Tanigoshi Tinker said she’s “sure this impacted me psychologically.”
“I was feeling a great deal of racial prejudice,” Tanigoshi Tinker said of her time at a high school in Long Beach. “Fortunately, I survived it, it didn’t impact me seriously but it was a very tough experience.”
Recognizing Amache’s history
The site of the Amache camp is currently expected to become the country’s next national park site. A bill recently passed the Senate and House to declare it the Amache National Historic Site. Currently, it awaits President Joe Biden’s signature to become official.
Kitajima, in reading a statement on Wednesday that he said was “more important than anything I’ve ever said,” addressed this possible designation.
“When the Japanese warlords bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the day of infamy, also the day of remembrance,” Kitajima said, later adding: “Over the many recent years, I have found that millions of U.S. citizens — young school children, young adults and some old ones — knew little or nothing about the true history of this shameful act. I personally call Feb. 19, 1942, the true day of infamy. Let’s preserve, through the National Parks Project the history of Amache as a true, historic site for all who live in the greatest country in the world.”
Tonai highlighted that in solidifying remembrance of Amache and its history, it could help prevent history from repeating itself.
“It’s extremely important that what the government did to the Japanese — it was purely prejudice, it was unlawful, yet it’s an experience that people should know (about), so they never do this again to any group of people,” Tonai said. “We who experienced it have to speak up and have to tell people that this is the wrong thing to do.”
In addition to supporting the designation of the site, Tanigoshi Tinker has been engaged in a number of activities to preserve the history of Amache. Not only has she participated in the Amache Research Project’s field school every two years since 2010, but she was involved in digitizing the camp’s internee-run newspaper as well as in collecting oral histories of those that lived there.
“People like Min, Ken and myself, we’re getting older, we’re not going to be around here very long, so we have to bring to the public what we experienced,” she said. “All of this history will tie together and form a unified story that, in the case of Amache, it should not have happened, it was wrong, it should never happen again. That is what I hope the National Historic Site is able to perpetuate our story and to convey to future generations.”
“The Story of Amache” virtual panel and discussion will soon be available to rewatch on OneBookOneValley.com.
In addition to this event, One Book One Valley is hosting several other programs around this year’s titles. This includes a living history performance telling the story of Eleanor Roosevelt during this time period on March 23 as well as an event with the author Sandra Dallas at Colorado Mountain College on April 7.
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