GRANADA, Colo. (CN) — If you’ve never been there before, it’s all too easy to miss the wind-worn sign marking the turn for Amache off Country Road 23 in Granada, Colorado.
On March 23, President Joe Biden signed the Amache National Historic Site Act tasking the National Park Service with preserving the place on the western rim of the Dust Bowl where the U.S. government imprisoned 10,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants behind barbed wire from 1942 to 1945.
Amache held a fraction of the estimated 110,000 people who were forced out of their homes along the West Coast and California's fertile Central Valley under the guise of national security as the nation fought Japan in World War II.
“The sheriff’s department came to our land where we were farming and gave us two weeks to move,” recalled survivor Ken Kitajima, now 91. When he was 12 years old, his family was forced to sell their berry farm and go to Amache.
“You get what you can carry; you cannot take anything else,” Kitajima said. “My father had a lot of farming equipment, a tractor and pickups and so forth. He just about lost everything. They made us dig a hole in front of our yard three feet deep and made us throw away Kodak cameras and any books on Japanese history.”
Kitajima grew up in the Colorado prison camp, befriending military guards and sneaking out to fish along the Arkansas River. Years later, Kitajima enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War.
Given sparse bunks as shelter from inhospitable desert scrub and sand, the people condemned to Amache constructed a small town complete with a hospital, town hall, police station and a co-op store with a shoe department.
The people honored the changing seasons with traditional Japanese festivals. They organized school dances, baseball games and sumo wrestling matches. They planted trees, designed intricate ornamental ponds and printed wartime propaganda in the silkscreen shop.
Over three years in this desolate place, 412 babies were born and 120 residents died. A quarter of the inmates were children, enrolled in education programs designed to teach the democratic ideals of the country that had cast them aside.
Despite being imprisoned by the U.S. Army, 953 men and women voluntarily enlisted and deployed to the front lines. Of them, 105 were wounded and 31 were killed in action.
As an administrative means of sorting innocent citizens from suspected spies, incarcerated adults received a questionnaire asking them to declare their allegiance to the country that had imprisoned them. Most did, but a few objected.
“In the early days you were so afraid, if you were administered that questionnaire, of some punishment because the people had no idea what was going to happen to them, what their future was going to be,” explained Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, an 82-year-old survivor of Amache now living in Long Beach, California.
Tinker was three years old when her parents were forced from their home.
“When Pearl Harbor happened, these people were rounded up in the middle of the night, without any warning and taken away. Some of them didn't return for four years. Given that kind of an environment, naturally you're going to be a little more compliant, you're going to be a little more obedient,” Tinker said.
At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Tinker found her father’s answers to the loyalty questions.
“He was a Yes-Yes,” Tinker recalled, meaning he said he would willingly enlist in the military, and he pledged allegiance to the United States over the emperor of Japan. “Now that I understand that stance, the position that the No-Nos took, and now that I'm a braver person than I was 30, 40, 50 years ago, I probably would have had some objections. I probably would have said No-No.”