GRANADA, Colo. -- Fifteen miles from the Kansas border, Prowers County Road 23½ comes to a dusty end, surrounded by sagebrush and prickly pear cacti and dead junipers. A place The Denver Post called, eight decades ago, "as bleak a spot as one can find on the western plains."
In one of the more shameful moments in American history, the federal government removed 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals from their homes on the West Coast between 1942 and 1945 and imprisoned 10,000 over that timespan in far southeast Colorado, at a concentration camp it euphemistically named the Granada Relocation Center.
The inmates called it Amache.
"No charges were leveled against us. No trial, no hearings," recalled Bob Fuchigami, who was 11 years old when he was imprisoned there. "We were loyal, patriotic, law-abiding citizens."
The story of Amache is one of despair, desolation and, for 121 inmates, death. But it's also a story about what came next, about a generation who rebuilt their lives and even thrived, all the while keeping quiet about the trauma they carried. It's a story of bigotry and hate worth revisiting as the U.S. witnesses a new spike in anti-Asian violence and Colorado congressmen move to make Amache part of the National Park Service, preserving the site for generations to come.
"You try to make sense of what is being done to you and part of your thought process is to return to the idea that you deserved it somehow, even though you know you didn't," said Calvin Hada, an Amache descendant and president of the Nikkeijin Kai, or Japanese American Club, of Colorado.
"They were not saboteurs or fifth columnists or spies. They were just people trying to make a living."
Eyeballs and grit
In 2004, while cleaning out his late grandmother's possessions, Mitch Homma came across a trove of documents he had never seen or heard of: arrest warrants, letters, photographs of Amache. They revealed three generations of his prominent Japanese American family were locked up for being Japanese, nine people in all. His grandfather and the camp's dentist, Kyushiro Homma, died there of a heart attack after losing 30 pounds.
"My father and his siblings, they didn't talk about Amache," Homma said. "My grandmother certainly didn't talk about it."
Homma's father, Hisao, returned to Amache for the first time in 2008, telling stories of his childhood Homma had never heard. When Hisao entered a nursing home in his later years, more stories came out.
"I probably learned more about Amache in those last three years than I did my whole life growing up," Homma said.
In Japan, Homma's family had been members of the samurai class, nobles who lived by a code that said to never surrender. With imprisonment at Amache came embarrassment and shame.
"In Japanese culture, we're very sensitive to shame," Hada said. "A friend once told me that the Japanese are as sensitive to shame as an eyeball is to grit."
Hada was raised in a middle-class Lakewood home with no inkling of Amache or his grandmother's time there. One day, his father dropped a book on his desk and said, "You should read this."
It was "Nisei: The Quiet Americans," a history of Japanese Americans in the West by Bill Hosokawa. Hada read nearly all of it in one sitting, his first lesson on internment.
Kirsten Leong's introduction to Amache was similar to Homma's, cleaning out her late grandmother's belongings in 2011. She found a photo, flipped it over and saw on the back, "In Amache concentration camp." She had been repeatedly told none of her family had been imprisoned during World War II. But four great-grandparents and two great-uncles were at Amache.
"Our family's experience of not talking about it was really similar to a lot of people in our community," Leong said.
"If you look back at our family pictures from the 1950s, they look like 'Leave It to Beaver,' they look like 'Father Knows Best,'" she said. "It was always about trying to be as American as possible and playing up how American you are, because they got locked up for looking different and not being American enough."
Even the most famous inmate didn't tell his daughter until she was a junior in high school.
Fred Korematsu refused to be imprisoned and challenged the constitutionality of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which created the concentration camps -- 10 overall in remote parts of the country. In Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the executive order, a ruling it has since condemned. (Korematsu was imprisoned in Utah.)
"Culturally, the Japanese keep everything inside," said his daughter Karen Korematsu, who first learned of her father's defiance during a high school class presentation. "They're not ones to be boisterous and loud and to complain. It's a part of their culture."
Robin Lawrentz, president of the Japan-America Society of Southern Colorado, said he knows several people who only recently learned their family was placed in Amache or the other camps.
"One of them was born at an internment camp in Arkansas and didn't know that until much later," he said. "Those older generations were less likely ... to make it known."
But it's a story that must be known now, said Korematsu, whose Korematsu Institute works with K-12 teachers to educate children about America's concentration camps. She believes ignorance of Asian Americans' experiences is partly to blame for an uptick in anti-Asian violence.
Thirty-two percent of Asian American adults told Pew Research Center pollsters last month they have feared physical threats and attacks, a higher percentage than any other racial group, and 81% said violence against the Asian American community is increasing.
President Joe Biden signed a bill that aims to expedite the reporting and review of anti-Asian hate crimes.
"The Amache story is not over," Fuchigami told a congressional subcommittee last month from his home in Evergreen. "Asians in America, including some of the most vulnerable, are still discriminated against, treated as invisible and suffer from hate crimes to this day."
The stories they told
Amache was constructed on land once belonging to the Southern Cheyenne tribe, which was stripped of its land and removed by the federal government. The smallest of the 10 concentration camps and lesser known than California's high-security Tule Lake or Arizona's Gila River camp, Amache's construction required 1,000 workers, several months and $4.5 million (about $74 million in today's dollars).
It provided a brief boon for the nearby towns of Granada and Lamar, but the government's purchase of private land angered locals.
After a journey of several days, Japanese Americans usually arrived at night and stumbled into one of 348 barracks. The barracks were divided into six apartments no bigger than 24 feet wide and 20 feet long, empty except for a coal-burning stove, military cots and a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. Bathrooms were communal and had no doors, so many women waited until nighttime to use them. Days were spent working in the fields or a silkscreen shop.
As a kid, Mike Honda would ask his mother about dreams in which he was at a camp. His mother would explain over the dinner table they had been imprisoned at a place called Amache. His father and grandfather, free-thinking and defiant, discussed internment, too.
"It upset (my father) because he felt like he was an American and his rights were being curtailed. His father was even more upset because all the things he had been able to accrue [were lost] -- a gas station, a pickup truck, his guns and his radio, things like that," recalled Honda, who went on to become an eight-term California congressman.
His grandfather went so far as to push his truck into the Sacramento River to ensure the government didn't take it.
As a twentysomething, Honda spoke to a junior high class about the camps. Afterward, the parents of one Japanese American student invited Honda to their home.
"I thought I was in trouble, but I went and they asked me to sit down with them, to tell their story more fully with their children. They brought out a box of photos and they shared the story with their kids, with me there adding to it and validating what had happened," Honda recalled. "I think that was the first time I realized there were parents who did not talk about it."
Honda's father left Amache to work for the Military Intelligence Service, one of the few pathways inmates had to get out. About 950 Amache inmates volunteered for the U.S. Army to escape and 31 died fighting in Europe with the 442nd Regiment, a highly decorated combat unit.
Marcia Yonemoto's uncle died fighting in France as his family was locked up in Amache.
"I asked my mother, 'How did you feel about that? I mean, here you are, your family is jailed in the United States for being Japanese and your brother gets killed defending the U.S. in Europe. Did you think that was unfair?'" said Yonemoto, a University of Colorado-Boulder history professor. "And she said, 'Oh, yeah.' She was maybe 13 at the time, but she remembered feeling it was not right."
Fuchigami, who was a preteen in Amache, later served in the Korean War. Hisao Homma joined the Marines, in part because his family had lost everything and couldn't afford to send him to college. One of Leong's uncles also worked for the Military Intelligence Service. The father of Derek Okubo, executive director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights, left Amache, enlisted in the Army and was sent to occupied Japan.
A wrong atop a wrong
This year, Coloradans in Congress have introduced two bills meant to turn Amache into a national historic site, a designation three other former camps have. That would bring National Park Service money and resources to a place that has, for 25 years, been maintained by Granada High School teacher John Hopper and his students. A guard tower, water tower, mess hall and barrack have been restored at the site. Concrete foundations, along with the original roads, remain intact.
"Preserving and protecting the Amache site presents a valuable opportunity to better our country, our state, our history and most importantly our future in the spirit of justice, equity and inclusion," Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wrote in supporting the quest for a designation.
Midori Takeuchi, Japan's consul general in Denver, also supports the designation. She said the legislation in Congress "would provide an educational chance for future generations to learn the history of Japanese Americans, and hand their stories and lessons down to posterity."
Amache's namesake was the daughter of a Cheyenne sub-chief murdered in 1864 at the Sand Creek Massacre, 35 miles northwest of Camp Amache as the crow flies.
It wasn't until the 2000s that Sand Creek became a national historic site, thanks to a push from Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Growing up in California in the 1930s and '40s, Campbell knew some of the Japanese Americans who were forced to sell their belongings for cheap before being loaded onto trains and buses and sent away.
"I wish like hell that I would have included language for (preserving) Amache when I introduced my Sand Creek bill," he said.
Okubo, whose father and grandparents were at Amache, said it's a history that cannot be forgotten.
"It's one of the biggest stains and darkest periods in our nation's history," he said. "When you're talking about this country that's supposed to represent freedom and equality and equity -- what they did was counter to every one of those values. It's important to remember the history for the full purpose of not allowing it to happen again to any people."