It's much bigger than you might imagine, but then it had to be. Once upon a time, it was home to as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans the rest of us believed fearfully vulnerable to their own inborn nationalism to side with the U.S. of A., during World War II. How could we not lock them up? —some still spoke Japanese.
Seventy-five years ago, a white-hot fear created mass relocation for 130,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children, a relocation that’s blessedly easy to forget. But it happened. We built ten camps, transformed race tracks and other plots of open ground, and filled them with our neighbors.
If some morning you stand on the broad ground of Amache Relocation Center, Granada, Colorado, if you look up and down the almost endless rows of foundations, you can still feel something of the national panic after Pearl Harbor.
I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.So wrote newspaper columnist Henry McLemore.
There were other reasons as well, selfish reasons.
We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.That's what the head of a California agricultural association told the Saturday Evening Post is 1942.
10,000 people in hundreds of rudely constructed barracks, ten thousand men and women and kids who’d lived up and down America’s west coast, herded to places like this by intense fear and racial hatred.
T0day, the absence of people and places have not emptied Amache Relocation Camp of voices, especially if you're alone. Once this was a city, after all. Thousands crowded into its mess halls, worked its gardens, created its newspaper. Children were born; men and women died.
To call Amache a concentration camp may well be going too far. Amache wasn't a death factory. But the images are stunningly reminiscent.
I’ve been listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese Family Caught Between Two Worlds, an exacting memoir of the horrors suffered by a single family rent apart by World War II. After December 7, it’s impossible for Harry, the American brother, not to see grave changes even on the faces of people he’d long considered friends. His neighborhoods feel ghost-like overnight:
Driving through Little Tokyo between gardening jobs, Harry was struck by how quickly the neighborhood was losing its sparkle. Christmas and the New Year normally attracted shoppers, but they had fled the enclave. Once packed eateries looked forlorn with empty tables. “Going out of Business” signs proliferated overnight.A people were summarily taken from homes many had lived in for more than a generation, then sent to places like Amache, a place with walls and gates. The truth is, Amache Relocation Camp never was anything more than a speck in fly-over country, 10,000 invisible people in the middle of nowhere.
Just a few days ago, earphones in, I was burning away what calories I could on an exercise bike, listening to Midnight in Broad Daylight, the memories of a man who never forgot life at a place just like Amache, one of thousands sentenced to listlessness on the dry plains of eastern Colorado, where the summer sun can lift the paint off a Chevrolet.
That’s the story I’m listening to when something close a dozen Japanese students walk into the rec center, start playing pool, and ping-pong--just, as they’d say, hanging out. It’s 75 years later right now, almost to the day; and what’s playing in my ears and mind is a story I’d just as soon not share with them.
Telling them would be scary, not because my father took part in all that injustice. He didn’t. He was nowhere Amache or the entire west coast of America for that matter. When all those Japanese-Americans were trying to find something to do outside foundations still tall enough to emerge from the tumbleweeds, my father was with the Navy in the South Pacific fighting the Japs.
I’m listening to the heartsick memories of a man and his sister, and I’m watching all those Japanese students hanging out, and I can’t help but think about how incredibly understandable a place like Amache was to white Americans who'd just been attacked by planes coming over Diamond Head on a perfect Sunday morning with the singular aim of delivering death.
It’s so easy to draw up differences, and not at all hard to be afraid when we see them. Anger flourishes in that kind of fear and soon enough it will blossom into hate, if we let it. It’s so incredibly easy.
Amache Relocation Camp may well be out in the middle of nowhere, but, truth be told, it’s never all that far down the road.