Stories of Japanese internment camp recovered

By Kathaleen Roberts

Albuquerque Journal

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 12:05 a.m. MST

Bill Nishimura was held at the World War II Japanese internment camp in Santa Fe because of his involvement with Hoshi Dan, a pro-Japanese movement based in California. During World War II, the U.S. government detained more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps spread throughout the West. From 1942 to 1946, the Santa Fe camp held 4,500 of those men behind barbed wire at a site two miles from the Plaza in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood.

courtesy of Neil Simon via The Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — One entrepreneur ran a gambling den beneath the camp barracks. Another published a newspaper called the Santa Fe Times. Some men brewed sake. Others grew their own vegetables to trade for meat with the hospital and the state penitentiary.

During World War II, the U.S. government detained more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps spread throughout the West. From 1942 to 1946, the Santa Fe camp held 4,500 of those men behind barbed wire at a site two miles from the Plaza in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood. The Department of Justice and the FBI labeled them "the worst of the worst." Educated and successful leaders, they were powerful men whom officials deemed the most likely able to assist the enemy if they chose to, Simon said.

Neil Simon's DVD "Prisoners and Patriots: The Untold Story of Japanese Internment in Santa Fe" is the first documentary to fill the void of silence surrounding the World War II incarceration of Buddhist ministers, businessmen, teachers and journalists from the West Coast, Hawaii and Latin America in New Mexico. A journalist who worked for KOB-TV in Albuquerque as well as in stints in El Paso and in Washington, D.C., Simon has based the film on 20 hours of exclusive interviews with Santa Fe survivors and their families, previously classified government documents and private photographs.

It's a story many fathers never told their own children. Some of the prisoners recalled the cruel irony of being locked up at the camp while their sons donned U.S. Army uniforms. Simon will screen the movie at the Museum of International Folk Art on Sept. 9. In the meantime, the DVD is available at www.kickstarter.com/projects.

Now working for the 56-country Organization for Security and Cooperation, Simon learned about the New Mexico camp while he was working as a journalist in Albuquerque but could find no information about it. Awarded a congressional fellowship in 2002, he assumed he could research the subject at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

"When I did that, I realized there was nothing," he said in a telephone interview from Kazakhstan, where he was overseeing parliamentary elections.

Simon started scouring the Internet for camp artifacts and reunion yearbooks on eBay. He discovered a photographer had posted photographs online on Flickr, then traced her to a California Japanese calligraphy class. Two women in the class were the children of survivors.

That connection led to Bill Nishimura, who was interned in Santa Fe for being a member of the pro-Japanese group Hoshi Dan in Tule Lake, Calif., and for declining to answer the government's loyalty questionnaire. Nishimura was the only surviving Santa Fe internee to speak at the site during the 2002 dedication of the historic monument at the camp.

Simon estimates that about 20 camp veterans are still alive. He talked to five of them and their families, including the son of the camp doctor.

He fully expected to encounter bitterness and resentment when he talked to the survivors. He discovered the opposite.

"They had a good time," he said. "They played baseball. They brewed sake; they grew vegetables. They did wood carving and stone polishing. They did acting."

Although some have traced their post-camp silence to shame, Simon credits it to a traditional Japanese term called "shouganai."

"It means letting it roll off the body," he said. "It's, 'Let's move on; let's not hold a grudge.' "

The men didn't want to burden themselves or their families, he added.

Nishimura spoke of "playing baseball and ogling women when they rode their horses past the camp," Simon said. "One started a gambling ring under his cabin. He had a whole gambling thing going on. There was a poetry club. And they did some hiking."

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