Memories of Minidoka
Japanese-Americans revisit southern Idaho's internment camp
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Within months of the arrest, Medrud, her mother and two siblings were sent to a Civilian Assembly Center at the Puyallup County Fairgrounds in Washington State. They lived in a dirt-floored horse stall for four months there. Such Civilian Assembly Centers served as temporary holding sites for the thousands of evacuated Japanese-Americans while the more permanent internment camps were being constructed.
A total of ten camps were eventually scattered throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arkansas. Minidoka, sometimes called the Hunt Camp, was located at Hunt, Idaho, an unincorporated rural area named after Frank W. Hunt, a former governor of Idaho. It officially opened in August 1942, and its population peaked at 9,397, making the camp Idaho’s eighth largest city at the time.
Once at Minidoka, Medrud began writing letters, at least a dozen, she said, to President Roosevelt, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others in authority telling them the United States had no right to keep her father in prison and to release him. “I eventually received a response that essentially said, ‘We’re sorry we had to put your father in prison but there is no way he can be released.’”
In February 1943, all internees aged 17 and older were required to complete a questionnaire designed to separate the loyal Japanese-Americans from the disloyal. Called an “Application for Leave Clearance,” two of the questions asked about their willingness to serve in the U.S. military and whether they’d be willing to deny allegiance to Japan. “Yes” answers to both would indicate their loyalty to the United States. Medrud’s father answered correctly and was reunited with his family in Minidoka in December 1943. The camp closed just under two years later in October 1945.
Today, most of the 33,000 acres that once comprised Minidoka are privately owned farms, with about 73 acres set aside as the Minidoka National Historic Site, managed by the U.S. Park Service. The camp’s original 600 buildings, gardens, playgrounds and swimming holes are long gone, but this hallowed ground still awakens buried memories and strong emotions from revisiting pilgrims.
The bus rolled to a stop in front of an old camp warehouse. Yoshihara smiled and said, “Happy memories are coming back, a connection is here. I don’t really regret being here, except that it was not right. But otherwise, there are good memories.”
We were met by our guide, Mike Wissenbach, a Park Service employee who walked us through the remains of the area. As the camp visitors stepped off the bus, two Buddhist priests in yellow robes beat on Japanese hand drums and chanted a blessing. Wissenbach lead the group through the buildings that remain—a storage warehouse, a firehouse, a root cellar and two of the original barracks that are now kept at the nearby Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum.
Here, the bonds created so long ago again became apparent. Masako “Massie” Endo Hinatsu stooped to share a map of the former camp site with two other Japanese-American women and discovered that the three of them had been childhood friends in Minidoka more than six decades ago.
Hinatsu, 78, had just turned 12 when she arrived at Minidoka with her mother and five brothers and sisters. Stepping inside one of the preserved barracks, she reflected on life inside the cramped box.
“There were seven cots that we had to line up somehow in the room,” she said. “I can remember in the wintertime it was really cold, and we would stuff the pot-bellied stove full of coal, and it would get red-hot. We had no place to hang our laundry, and we would hang strings all across the room. And we had a bare light bulb,” she said, pointing to the one stark light fixture hanging from the middle of the plywood ceiling.
The poorly built barracks were not much more than wooden frames covered in tarpaper. There was no insulation to ward off the brutal winter cold or the stifling summer heat. Inside, they had no running water, no kitchen or toilet facilities, and blinding dust storms blew dirt and grime through cracks in the walls. Hinatsu recalled that when it rained, the mud outside the barracks became ankle-deep, sucking boots right off their feet.
“I remember my mom putting us on her back to take us over to the mess hall, because it was so muddy,” Hinatsu said with a laugh.
When internees first arrived, a sewer system had not been built, forcing residents to brave the bitter Idaho cold and stench of a primitive outhouse. Eventually, toilet facilities were communal, a difficult adjustment for many.
“What I remember of the wash house is it had no partitions between the toilets,” Yoshihara said, adding that it was an uncomfortable setting for him as a shy boy. “There were about 20 commodes, all in a row out in the open, and everyone used it together. The women had the same situation. It is hard to imagine today.” >>>