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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Just When You Think There's Nothing to See

Layout of Camp Amache
We decided to take an alternate route from Colorado to Kansas City. We drove from Colorado Springs to Pueblo where we picked up Hwy 50. Fair warning that this is a two-laner most of the way. The other side of the coin is that it is the "Auto Tour" highway on the old Santa Fe Trail - and parts of it were the Oregon Trail. I mused about the differences in travel then and now.

We ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant in downtown La Junta, a nice little town that lays claim to a huge wind farm to the south. It was a hot and windy day. Didn't take long to notice the difference in altitude from Colorado Springs.

Eastern Colorado quickly turns into large ranches and this route is home to many cattle feed lots. As the pasture lands lasted for miles I was almost lulled into not paying attention. Thank God I didn't succumb because we sped right past a small sign on the right side of the road just before we reached the little town of Granada.

The sign that caught my attention? I only saw three words but they were enough to quicken my heart rate and to make us turn around. "Japanese-American Relocation..."

Let me preface this by saying that our cousin, Kim Hooper, had just loaned me a book she loves, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." It is a story based on the Japanese-American relocation program in WWII. What a co-incidence that I finished the book the night before I saw that sign on a long stretch of highway (a good book, by the way).

We turned in at the sign that read "Camp Amache, Japanese-American Relocation Center, 1942-1945."

Monument in Camp Amache
Mental images hit me before we even reached the first informational signs. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be an American of Japanese descent - a patriotic citizen like most other Americans in the early days of 1942. Although most of us - unless we have a Native American heritage - can look back one, several or many generations to when our ancestors came to America, few of us faced a climate where our heritage struck fear in the hearts of our fellow citizens.

Guard Tower site
It's difficult today to understand decisions based on a totally different set of circumstances when the world was at war and the enemy had recently destroyed our Naval fleet and killed our young men at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were conquering one target after another in the Pacific. Our troops were fighting and dying under horrible conditions. One can understand the fear of all things Japanese.

On the other hand, I pictured young Americans of Japanese descent who were American citizens being educated in American schools and living American culture. To many of them, their Japanese heritage was a compilation of stories and photographs about parents and grandparents - much like my Irish heritage.

Foundations - all that's left today
As we drove through this ghost town that once housed more than 7,300 men, women and children, I thought about the fear and frustration - and I'm sure in some cases, anger - that must have enveloped their lives. These folks were living their lives - supporting their families, beginning careers or getting an education - when in a matter of days or weeks, they were forced to abandon their homes, dispose of their belongings and move into camps that became their prisons for the next three years. Most were kept in temporary quarters while "towns" like Camp Amache were built to house them. I stood in the burning sun with the hot wind that didn't cool and imagined an involuntary move from the West Coast to this wide-open, dry and lonely corner of the Plains. Their adaptation covered the physical as well as the mental and emotional.

31 residents KIA with 442nd Inf Reg
It's a piece of our history that has fascinated me for some time. This unexpected ghost-town tour gave me incentive to dig deeper into how a war-time culture affects all of us.


Camp Amache 1942 (from website)
During the spring and summer of 1942, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were moved to 10 camps across the western half of the US.

Many second-generation Japanese fought in WWII. Wikipedia states: "The 442nd Infantry, formerly the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army, was an Asian American unit composed of mostly Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during World War II.[1] The families of many of its soldiers were subject to internment. The 442nd was a self-sufficient fighting force, and fought with uncommon distinction in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The unit became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients."

* On May 18, 1994, Amache was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was designated a National Historic Landmark on February 10, 2006.

For more information and photos of the camp, check out http://www.amache.org/, http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/wwcod/granada6.htm and www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/relocbook.html. If you google, Camp Amache, you'll find other sites too.

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