February 20, 2022

On 80th anniversary, Camp Amache families remembered and honored by Sect. of Interior Deb Haaland

All that’s left from the original camp are wind-blown prairie grass and old building foundations. 

“It's a part of American history that for many years, people wanted to sweep under the carpet,” said Derek Okubo of Denver, whose father, Henry, was incarcerated on these grounds 80 years ago. 

It was February 19, 1942, shortly after the American entrance into World War II, when more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent were confined to so-called relocation camps on a directive from the President of the United States, Executive Order 9066.  

Many were American citizens. Some 7,000 were forced from their homes on the west coast and ordered to moved to the Granada Relocation Center in the plains of southeastern Colorado. That place, more commonly known as Camp Amache, is now on track to be officially designated as a National Historic Site.

Okubo and his sister, Stacey Okubo Davis, were among the families, local community members and government officials — including Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Joe Neguse and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — who all gathered at the site Saturday to commemorate the anniversary and the camp's forthcoming inclusion into the National Park Service. 

“If we're really to grow as a country, we have to face our demons and we have to be willing to feel things that we aren't willing to feel and think about things we don't want to think about,” Okubo said, “this is one those tools which helps us to do that, for us to heal as a nation.”

Okubo and Davis say they visited the site with their father, Henry, when he was still alive, and he would have been happy to see the site recognized nationally. 

“It was important to him because he wanted people to learn,” Davis said. “So we don't repeat the same mistake. So coming down here with him in mind was a very emotional experience for us. And then to be able to go to the site where his barracks were, where he lived with his family was really very meaningful.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said some don’t know what happened here.

“This is all of our history. If you're an American, it's part of your history,” Haaland said. “Whether you're Japanese American, whether you live in Colorado, whether you live across the country in another state, this is all of our history and all of us should know that.”

As Haaland, the first Native American to serve as the Interior Secretary, toured the camp and spoke with the families, she recognized how Amache descendants shared an experience of generational trauma similar to her own ancestors. She said the pain of their families is one of the reasons making the site part of the National Park Service is significant.

“Our job at the Department of the Interior is to lift the stories up," she said, "so that people will learn.”

Okubo said Henry first returned to Granada in 1982 to talk with local officials about building a memorial at the site. 

But the initial meeting ended in a shouting match. 

“There was still a lot of mistrust, a lot of prejudice, a lot of suspicion, a lot of shame and pain that was involved,” he said, noting that there had been vandalism at the site.

Then, in the 1990s, local high school teacher, John Hopper, created a history project about Amache and got his students involved. 

“The more it grew, the more people got behind it,” Hopper said. “The school kids do a lot of the heavy lifting, but the community has been behind us.”

The vandalism stopped and the town leaders worked to help preserve the site. 

“This is an example of where young people changed the world,” Okubo said. “Absolutely changed the world.”

Local high school junior Brandon Gonzales is among the many students who have helped restore and care for the site during the last 30 years.

“If you don’t learn history it's bound to repeat itself,” he said. “We don’t want anything like this to happen again."

Some of the buildings and other facilities have been restored or rebuilt, like the the guard tower and water tower. The cemetery for infants and others who died at the camp is now surrounded by mature pinon trees.

There’s also a memorial for the 31 people who were killed in World War II, including Private First Class Kiyoshi K. Muranaga who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000. Those 31 U.S. military service members were among 1,000 Japanese-Americans from Camp Amache who volunteered to fight during World War II.

“You get a sense of how resilient our democracy can be and how resilient this country can be,” Sen. Bennet said. 

“Even when we're locking people up like this, completely violating their civil rights, they're still volunteering to serve our country. And it's that image that's in many ways, the most important thing that people can take away from this, other than the fact that obviously this should never happen again anywhere.”

Bennet, who co-sponsored the Senate Bill with fellow Colorado senator John Hickenlooper that will make the site federal land, invoked the words of camp survivors last week on the senate floor when GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah threatened to block Amache’s passage into the National Park Service, despite the other 99 senators approving the move.

“During World War II, we were forced to live as prisoners in our own country. Along with our parents, we were forced from our homes, tagged like animals, and sent to the desolate prairie of southeast Colorado, where we lived in trauma.”

Rep. Neguse, who co-sponsored the House Bill along with Republican Congressman Ken Buck, hopes moving Amache to the National Park Service will help provide more resources to Granada and ensure the site is preserved for future generations.

“As I think about our shared history as Americans, it's important that we find an opportunity to tell the story about Amache.”

Those stories and memories are painful for many families. 

Mitch Homma’s father was only seven when Homma’s grandfather died at the camp, but Homma’s dad never talked to his children about it — until they visited Amache together.

When Homma saw his father weeping upon his return to the camp, Homma thought making the trip might have been the biggest mistake of his life.

“But he said, ‘We should have talked about it,’” said Homma. “It's hard being here. I can't imagine what my dad went through. Growing up in Southern California. You have a nice house, and your dad's got a thriving dental practice. All that's taken away. [Then] living here behind barbed wire, [your] father dies.... What kind of memory is that?”

Homma said despite the difficult history, he's glad the site will be preserved. 

Legislation adding the site to the National Park Service system is expected to be signed by President Biden soon.


By:  Shanna Lewis
Source: CPR