Japanese American Roots—DOJ Prisons, the Crow Baptist Church, WRA Internment Camps

While this Sojourn is all about skiing, it is also about rooting around for my roots. As a kid, I wasn’t all that interested in my heritage—frankly, sometimes I wanted to wish away my differences and be an All American White Bread kid like most of my classmates. I grew up in the melting pot era, when melting in the pot really meant accepting and adapting to the European immigrant version of America. I did that pretty well, and my mom definitely studied up on the topic to make our home as apple pie as possible. But that being said, food being the link to culture, we had lots of Japanese foods, and Mom was great at serving up all kinds of ethnic foods that she would read about in cookbooks.

Only now, retired and having more time to think that worry about fitting in, I have the time to dig into some of the questions I grew up with but never explored. One of those areas is the Japanese American relocation during World War 2. My parents were part of that round-up, and my book 2 is about their experience.

There are several levels of incarceration that happened. Right after Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, many leaders in the Japanese communities virtually all immigrant males on the West Coast were taken and put into Department of Justice jails. Later, after Executive Order 9066, my own grandfather Kubo, mom’s dad, was taken along with most all the remaining male Japanese immigrants. These men were generally non-US citizens, since naturalization was denied these first generation Japanese. For my grandfather, the FBI came in the middle of the night and arrested him, giving the family minutes to collect what they could before they marched the issei men to the Guadalupe Legion Hall, some in bare feet and pajamas. These men—thousands of them across the West Coast—were taken to DOJ internment sites at Ft. Lincoln (Bismarck, ND), Missoula, MT, Santa Fe, NM, and Crystal City, TX. Grandpa Kubo was sent to Ft. Lincoln.

Later there were Assembly Centers where the remaining Japanese women, children and younger men who were still living in the West Coast exclusion zone were taken before being sent to the larger concentration camps. In total there were 12 assembly centers in California, one each in Washington, Oregon and Arizona. My parents were put into Tulare, California, south of Fresno. Most of these Assembly Centers were at horse racetracks where the horse stalls were cleared for the Japanese (remember, most of these people were American born citizens) to live. My mom and dad were newlyweds, and they were put into a stall with my Grandma Kubo.

The Assembly Centers were meant to be temporary housing until the larger concentration camps were completed. These camps, always called concentration camps while I was growing up, are now referred to as Internment Camps, a terminology change that took place in the 70s, to make the concept more palatable, and also to distinguish from the German Concentration Camps. My parents were moved from Tulare Assembly Center to Gila Rivers Internment camp. They spent about six months at Tulare.

I have driven through Bismarck, North Dakota, it feels like a million times, as I have gone from Minnesota to Montana and back. Only three years ago did I take the time to find the location where my Grandfather had been imprisoned. Ft. Lincoln is now United Tribes Technical College. This trip I stopped and met Brent Kleinjan the UTTC College Relations Director. Brent shared with me a grant proposal which is funding a memorial on the college grounds to commemorate the incarceration of the Japanese on their land. A sad but salient parallel can be made between what happened to the Japanese and what has happened historically to the Native Americans. This isn’t lost on the memorial.

In my hometown of Hardin, Montana, I finally made contact with the Crow Agency Baptist Church where there are pews with engraved nameplates, three of which have names of prominent Japanese families that settled in the Little Big Horn Valley. Mikami, Nayematsu, Shirasago. I had heard of these pews, but wanted to document them before too much time had passed. Check that off my ToDo list.

And finally, I visited two War Relocation Authority Internment sites: Heart Mountain, Wy, and Minidoka, Idaho. Heart Mountain is very near Cody, Wyoming, where millions of tourists visit on their way to Yellowstone Park. Few realize they are within 20 miles of a dark scar on American history. Minidoka is near Twin Falls, Idaho, a place I always associated with Evil Kneivel’s legendary attempt to jump the Snake River.  I had been to both sites before, but every time I stop and see the desolate, wind-swept landscape—this time covered in snow and freezing temperatures—it reminds me of how shocking it must have been for the California, Oregon and Washington Japanese Americans who were shipped here during the War.

Interspersed in this journey is some incredible skiing, so stay tuned to read about some scenic turns at Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

To everything, there are highs and lows. It is humbling to see the crumbling ruins of the WW2 camps, and the next day humbling in another fashion to ski in the vastness of the Rocky Mountains. We are but blips on the radar screens, temporal and fleeting. Yet I feel drawn to the history, hoping to be able to make the moments in time last even a millisecond longer.


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