ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nikki Louis had just celebrated her fourth birthday and was in bed after an exciting day when a knock came at her home in Seattle, Wash., that would change the course of her life.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor, marking the entrance of the United States into World War II.
Louis, who now lives in New Mexico, was a second-generation Japanese-American born in the United States, making her a citizen. Her parents were not. They had both been born in Japan and U.S. laws at the time prevented them from becoming citizens. It was the FBI at their door and they had come to take away her father.
Louis is now involved with the Japanese-American Citizens League project “Confinement in the Land of Enchantment: Japanese Americans In New Mexico During WWII.” The project explores the New Mexico prison camps in Lordsburg, Santa Fe, Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch, which held Japanese-Americans during WWII.
The project is particularly timely considering the current national debate about immigration and Syrian and Muslim refugees and the ongoing sensitivity of the subject in parts of New Mexico.
The Lordsburg camp was open from June 1942 to June 1945, located six miles east of town. The 2,120-acre site had more than 280 buildings including barracks, a hospital and a recreation hall. A similar camp was established in Santa Fe and there were smaller camps at Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch.
The project aims to publicize the contents of a recently interpreted diary that was kept by the men at Lordsburg and also raise awareness of the camps in New Mexico. It’s a collaboration between the Japanese-American group and the Public Lands History Center out of Colorado State University, and is funded with an approximately $180,000 grant from the National Park Service.
“In Japan, my father was from a great Samurai family,” Louis said. “He had been well-educated.”
After coming to America, he became an editor at a Japanese-language newspaper and a bookkeeper. Louis said her father was considered a leader of the community, which she believes made him an immediate target.
He was designated an “enemy alien” and shipped to Lordsburg, to a federal internment camp established by the Department of Justice for what the country at the time believed were the highest-risk individuals. All the camp prisoners were men and the majority of them first-generation Japanese-Americans (Issei) who did not have citizenship.
Camps for lower-risk Japanese-Americans, mostly families, were established in California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arkansas by the War Relocation Authority.
The diary was found in the belongings of Lordsburg prisoner Jitsuzo Nakamoto and passed down to his son-in-law Sam Mihara, who now lives in Huntington Beach, Calif. The diary, Mihara said, was written in Japanese and is a collaborative of several prisoners.
Mihara said it was only recently that he decided to have them interpreted and shared with a larger audience. He donated a copy to the League and recently attended several talks around New Mexico about the diary.
The internment camps were established across the country after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the removal of all people of Japanese descent – even those who were American citizens – from the West Coast for fear they would become conspirators.
Mihara said the soon-to-be prisoners were given short notice and told to vacate their homes, sell all property and take “only what you can carry.”
Mihara was 9 years old and living in San Francisco in Japan Town when he, his older brother and parents were given notice.
“It was absolutely frightening,” he said. “They gave us one week to pack and told us where to report and escorted us under armed guard.”
The family spent three months at a temporary holding location and then was transferred to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. Mihara said they were not prepared for the bitter cold.
“We had never been in such conditions and were not carrying the right clothing,” he said. “It was miserable.”
Also shocking, he said, was the racial hatred he and the other prisoners faced from the local townspeople. Growing up in a neighborhood with primarily other Japanese families, he had never experienced racism.
Visits in uniform
Some in the camps had relatives fighting in the war for the United States. Herb Tsuchiya, who now resides in Seattle, Wash., was one of those prisoners. His four older brothers enlisted, two of them earning Purple Hearts.
He was 10 when his family was sent to Camp Minidoka in Idaho. When his brothers came to visit them at camp, they were wearing their military uniforms. It was an irony Tsuchiya didn’t come to understand until later.
“We felt we had to prove our loyalty (to the United States),” he said. “Some of us did it in blood.”
Louis and her mother were also sent to Camp Minidoka in Idaho while her father remained in Lordsburg. They had few supplies for winter so her mother took an Army blanket and cut two holes for her eyes and one for her mouth.
She said she also remembers sitting on the steps of her barracks and opening packages from her father and hearing her mother cry some nights. Despite that, she said her mother never spoke badly of America or complained about their situation.
“She was part of the generation that really bought the American Dream,” Louis said. “She loved America. My real name is Shirley. My mom named me after Shirley Temple.”
The Japanese-American Citizens League is focusing on the diary’s account of a controversial shooting at the Lordsburg camp. According to reports, on July 27, 1942, an officer stationed at the camp shot two Japanese prisoners, Toshiro Kobata and Hirota Isomura, who had arrived that day by train and were being marched to the camp. The official report said the two men were trying to escape. Louis said the diary casts doubt on that assertion.
“We were stunned to hear the rumor because Mr. Kobata had been suffering from the lung illness for a long time,” the diary reads. “He stayed in bed at a hospital in Bismarck, and was transported in a stretcher. Mr. Isomura fell when he tried to move from a pier to a fishing boat, damaged his spinal cord more than 10 years ago, and had difficulty walking, such as walking 5 feet and stop, walking 10 feet and stop. Most of us could not believe the two had attempted to escape under such physical conditions.”
Mollie Pressler, a historian at the Lordsburg Hidalgo County Museum, said the subject of the shootings is still a touchy subject today. Most Lordsburg residents, she said, believe the shooting of the two was justified and that the officer was a hero.
Louis’ group even met resistance when it visited Lordsburg late last month to read passages from the diary. One woman, Louis said, was angry because she said the presentation was disrespectful to local American men who died at the hands of the Japanese during the Bataan Death March.
Albuquerque resident Victor Masaru Yamada, Japanese-American Citzens League board member, said raising awareness of the injustice done to Japanese-Americans during World War II is important and timely.
He cited the recent comments by Roanoke, Va.’s Democratic mayor David Bowers who argued last month that the United States should not help Syrian refugees, praising Roosevelt’s creation of internment campus during WWII.
There was a backlash to his comment from other Virginia politicians, with some calling his comments “offensive and ignorant.” Bowers later apologized.
Even more recently, Donald Trump, campaigning for the Republican nomination for president, has said that he wanted a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in the United States during World War II. In 1988, the U.S. government offered an official apology to internees and paid the 62,000 former prisoners who were still alive $20,000 each. It called the World War II policy the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”