Even before Japan launched an air attack on American military forces stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. government was prepared to round up and imprison Japanese nationals as a precautionary national security move.
Among them was the Rev. Tamasaku Watanabe, who was arrested in Hawaii the same day as the attack. After being placed in a series of internment camps in Hawaii, California and Texas, by 1943 he ended up in a large internment camp in Santa Fe — one of four such camps in the state of New Mexico during World War II.
In the beginning, life there was fraught with tension and unrest. Santa Fe citizens were up in arms over news about the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, the Bataan Death March and its aftermath, which took the lives of more than 800 New Mexican soldiers.
“There was a great deal of anger vented at the Japanese in the camp who had nothing to do with what was going on in the Pacific,” said Watanabe’s granddaughter, Gail Okawa.
For Santa Feans today, the only sign of the camp, which overlooked what is now Frank S. Ortiz Park in the Casa Solana neighborhood, is a stone monument erected in 2002. But thanks to a federal grant, several state historians plan a website and educational publication to draw attention to this dark chapter of New Mexico history.
This month, the National Park Service announced it is offering 21 grants totaling nearly $3 million — including $189,864 to New Mexico — to preserve the history of these camps. The matching grant requires the recipients to raise a dollar for every two dollars in the grant. Over the past six years, the National Park Service has granted about $15 million to this project. This year the service received 36 applications for the grant money, said Kara Miyagishima, program manager for the grant.
Okawa’s grandfather survived the experience, as did the others in the Santa Fe camp. Stripped of their rights and isolated from their families, the Santa Fe internees passed the time publishing a newspaper, writing poetry, playing baseball, cooking, petitioning the government to regain their rights, and eyeing the women who passed by the camp. An image in the state photo archives indicates they also performed Kabuki theater pieces.
Over time, life in the camp in Santa Fe became mundane. “Boredom at day, boredom at night,” one internee wrote of the experience.
Watanabe was not alone in his plight. Over the course of the war, several thousand Japanese American community leaders — immigrant businessmen, journalists, educators, ministers and the like — ended up in two large internment camps in New Mexico, while two smaller, little-known camps in the state held Japanese Americans caught up in the larger government “evacuations” that ultimately disrupted the lives of at least 110,000 people around the nation.
“The wartime confinement of Japanese Americans has wider implications for Americans concerned about civil liberties and civil justice, and all the rights that we cherish under the Bill of Rights. It illustrates how fragile those rights become in a crisis situation,” said Andrew Russell, an instructor at Central New Mexico Community College and one of several historians using the grant to preserve the memory of the camps.
At the time, Japanese nationals could not become American citizens, adding to the injustice. “They were considered aliens,” Okawa said. “As soon as the war was declared against Japan, they became alien enemies. That’s the only reason most of these men were arrested, because of their immigration status, not because of any wrongdoing.”
According to a National Park Service history of the camps, early in 1942, the Department of Justice expanded a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Santa Fe into a holding center. Russell said the government began sending Japanese Americans from various cities in the West to that camp as early as January of that year. Initially, its population was somewhere in the 750 to 800 range, but by the summer of 1945, it held more than 2,000 men. (Over time, more than 4,500 men passed through the gates of the camp.) That National Park Service history notes that at times German and Italian aliens also were interned at the camp.
Tensions flared at the Santa Fe site in March 1945, when camp officials decided to relocate some of the leading pro-Japanese inmates to Fort Stanton. Other inmates gathered in protest, and camp guards used tear gas to disperse them. The event led to the incarceration of about 350 men in the camp’s stockade.
Still, daily life at the Santa Fe site may not have been as bad as some of the other incarceration pens, where racism, violence and even the killing of prisoners sometimes occurred. Russell said the Santa Fe camp was overseen by the Department of Justice, and thus the guards may have been more sensitive to the needs of the internees.
Richard Melzer, a history professor at The University of New Mexico, said the Department of Justice did follow the guidelines of the Geneva Convention when it came to treatment of the Santa Fe internees. “Given the circumstances, they were treated pretty well,” he said. “But nobody wants to be imprisoned or separated from their families like that.” He said camp officials respected the culture and religion of the Japanese American internees in Santa Fe.
Okawa said that is fairly accurate. She said one of the camp’s commanders, Ivan Williams, was humane in his treatment of the prisoners there. But she said Department of Justice memos from the spring of 1942 indicated that camp overseers were not treating the inmates by the mandated tenets of the Geneva Convention in the first few months of that year.
A sad irony undercut the Santa Fe experience. Many of the Japanese American internees there had sons who were fighting for the United States in the war, primarily in Europe. These uniformed men would spend leave time visiting with their fathers at the camp. “So many of the next generation wanted to join the U.S. Army and prove that they and their families were loyal,” Melzer said of these American servicemen. But that patriotic act in itself did not buy their fathers freedom, he added.
In contrast, Russell said, Camp Lordsburg in Hidalgo County was run by the Army, and they “were more regimental down there. There was an incident there where two old men got shot and killed because they were supposedly running away. It appears to be a case of an overzealous Army guard just shooting these guys.”
Watanabe spent about a year in the Lordsburg camp, his granddaughter said. It was “particularly brutal” and typical of more militant camps where “you had commanders who were far more racist and mean-spirited about this group of people because they had very little knowledge of who these people were.”
The Fort Stanton Internment Camp in Lincoln County was also home to German prisoners of war and run like a prison camp. The government sent Japanese men whom it considered troublemakers there from some of the larger relocation centers. “They called it The Stinker Camp. Those guys were treated like prisoners,” Russell said.
The fourth internment site, known as the Old Raton (Baca) Ranch Camp, was isolated and barren but had no fences keeping residents in. It housed about 35 Japanese American family members, all of whom were “evacuated” out of Clovis in the dead of night to protect them from outraged citizens. “There was no place to run to and no inclination to run,” Russell said of that site. “Conditions were rough because it was an old abandoned CCC camp, so there was an infestation of bed bugs and the septic system overran. … It was pretty weird to be taken out of their homes and a very comfortable life in Clovis and stuck up there in the mountains, but it was not like a prisoner-of-war camp.” By the end of 1942, however, the government relocated all of those internees to larger relocation centers in Utah and Arizona.
Though the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945 and the war in Japan ended by that August, the Santa Fe camp remained open until the spring of 1946. Many of the men returned to broken homes, lost jobs and hostile communities. Some were afraid to leave the camps for fear of what awaited them. Steve Togami, president of the New Mexico Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said many of the internees were reluctant to talk about their experiences, even to their friends and family members.
Over the ensuing decades, the Santa Fe camp buildings were demolished or simply fell apart, and the area was developed into a residential subdivision.
With the exception of a few foundation ruins of the Old Raton (Baca) Ranch Camp and the Lordsburg Camp, there is little physical evidence to remind people that these camps once existed in New Mexico. Russell said he and his colleagues will use the National Park Service grant to preserve their memory with a 50-page informational publication that will include a chapter dedicated to each of the four New Mexico camps as well as the history of Japanese American communities within the state. The historians also plan to build a website and erect signs at all the sites. The historical publication will ideally be distributed to all schools, he said. Future plans, dependent upon more funding, could include a traveling exhibit about the camps.
This chapter of history, Russell said, “reminds us that New Mexico is not immune to outbreaks of racism and hysteria.”
Historian Thomas Chávez, former director of the Museum of New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors, played a prominent role in creating the Santa Fe internment camp marker in 2002. He said that for a long time Santa Feans did not acknowledge that the camp existed. (There was a contingent of people, including New Mexican veterans, who tried to stop the marker from being put up.) He welcomes the news about the National Park Service grant and the potential to educate the public.
“We shouldn’t bury it or ignore it or try to change it, especially in a free country,” Chávez said. “It’s part of our history, part of what makes us us.”
Okawa harbors concerns that, whether we remember the camps or not, they could return. Reading recent news articles about immigrant children being stuck in small fenced cells by U.S. immigration officials, she hears “echoes of the same kind of attitude dictating policy. I think one of the big problems is that this can happen again. It is happening again … in different forms.”