Memories of Minidoka
Japanese-Americans revisit southern Idaho's internment camp
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Four internees outside a barrack in 1944 at the Minidoka internment camp in southern Idaho.
Photograph courtesy Densho and the Okawa Family Collection.
Making the Best of it
Despite harsh conditions, internees found ways to rebuild their lives on the Snake River Plain. They collected scraps of lumber and sagebrush to build furniture and shelves and ordered cloth for curtains from mail-order catalogs, which they bought with the small allowance they received each month. They built small parks, a baseball diamond, and flower and produce gardens.
Many living in the camp went to work in camp offices, canteens, mess halls, hospitals, schools and the fields, earning wages ranging from $8 to $16 per month.
Those who were children during the war often say they remember many happy times at Minidoka. Yoshihara recalled learning to swim in the Snake River. “I would jump in, and the current would take me around to the bend,” he said. Others talked about walking to the camp school with friends, playing sports and even going to movies that were occasionally shown in camp. Medrud remembers ice skating on the nearby pond.
The Twin Falls Community:
Acceptance and Rejection
From the camp, the bus took the pilgrims to the Twin Falls Red Lion Hotel for “Talk Stories,” a time set aside for internees, family and friends to share their memories of what it was like to live in Minidoka during the war.
Over the years, as internees died, their stories of imprisonment disappeared with them. Many Issei and Nisei chose not to talk about their experiences, leaving the younger generations of Japanese-Americans uninformed about events that rocked their forbearers’ lives.
“I can only explain it as refusal to accept what really happened,” Medrud said. “There are two Japanese expressions. One is gaman, which essentially means ‘to tough it out.’ The second is shikata ga nai, which roughly means ‘cannot be helped, it is out of my control, therefore accept.’ One conclusion I have come to is that this thing that happened to us, this incarceration, is so demeaning that we will not acknowledge that it happened. It is a form of denial.”
During Talk Stories, Medrud recalled the day a Minidoka administrator gathered the internees around a flagpole and announced, “You people killed my son!”
“I was 18 at the time and was stunned to think someone who ran this camp would have no sensitivity about who we were,” said Medrud.
“Two-thirds of us were American-born citizens, and my parents had lived here for many, many years.”
The greatest irony in this story is that, despite their internment, many young men in Minidoka also volunteered for military service. About 1,000 internees went to fight for the U.S. while their families remained at camp. As one Talk Stories speaker said, “Imagine, your parents are being held in their country of choice, behind barbed wire, behind armed guards, and you are volunteering to go fight for the government that put them there.”
Several local residents, all Caucasian, who had either lived near the camp during the war or were otherwise connected, also shared memories during Talk Stories. They talked of unlikely friendships, of how the internees helped area farmers with their crops, how internees transformed the land and how their incarceration had affected them as neighbors and friends.
As one speaker noted, internment didn’t just happen to the Japanese-Americans, it happened to America. >>>