A bleak chapter in US history gets uncovered in Idaho

The World

It’s been more than 70 years since the US government relocated 120,000 people of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II.  Families were taken from their homes for reasons of “national security.”

This difficult chapter in American history has been well documented and chronicled. Many Japanese Americans still make pilgrimages to larger camps like Manzanar in California.

But many smaller camps get less attention. And one camp in Idaho was nearly forgotten, the stories of the men interned there unknown—until recently.

The story of rediscovery begins about 15 years ago when Priscilla Wegars, a historian of Asian American studies at the University of Idaho, was attending a lecture by a fellow scholar. The topic was the Japanese internment camps.  After the talk, a woman in the audience said, “What about the Kooskia camp in northern Idaho?”  

Wegars said the professor was stumped. “He’d done a whole lot of research, he’d written a book. He had no idea. He had never heard of it.”

Neither had Wegars.

So she went over to the woman and said, tell me more.

“She had gone down and saw them get off the train," relates Wegars.  "And that is exactly what happened in May of 1943, 104 men had volunteered to get out of the Santa Fe, New Mexico internment camp and volunteered to come to Kooskia, the Kooskia camp to work, and they would get paid.”

All told, 265 Japanese men were paid to build Highway 12, a windy mountain pass that connects northern Idaho to Montana. It was difficult, dangerous work. 

But Wegars also said the work returned a semblance of self-worth to the men. And, she said, under the Geneva Convention, the men were also able to petition for rights given to prisoners of war. 

“They worked probably six days a week, but on Sundays they could do other things. They could write letters, they could listen to the radio, they could do arts and crafts. They could play baseball, they could go fishing, that kind of thing.”

Wegars knows this through interviews, photos and other historical research, but also because archaeologists at the University of Idaho are now excavating the site.

Stacey Camp, who is heading the project, showed me around her lab on campus in Moscow, Idaho, pointing out fairly mundane items.

“We have some glasses here, we have an old toothpaste container, you may be familiar with this, a dental tray, these are no fun.”

It might look like discarded junk, but to an archaeologist like Camp, these relics tell the story of life at Kooskia. The dental items, for example, reveal that the prisoners petitioned to bring a doctor to their isolated internment camp.

Besides toothpaste tubes, Camp and her team have also found porcelain vases and a small rock carving of an otter.

In the lab, students were scrubbing dirt and rust off artifacts with a toothbrush. Senior Taylor Howell was buried in his work, when I suggested that it looked, well, kind of boring.

“It does have its similarities to data entry. But you have to get through this part in order to find the things we have on display over here,” he said pointing at some of the more interesting findings from the site.

It may not be glamorous, but as archaeologist Stacey Camp said, this is how relics make their way into museums.  

“This is one of the processes that kind of gets left behind in the media, often because everyone is attracted to the field and kind of the Indiana Jones-esque aspect of being in the field and doing the physical labor and digging. But that usually only consists of maybe a month or six weeks or eight weeks of time. And then this takes years.”

That said, I still wanted to see the dig. So, we got in the car and drove three hours along the windy and gorgeous Highway 12 to the site. We pulled off onto a small dirt road and drove about a hundred yards to a clearing.

“You can kind of see, this is what the barracks looked like right about here,” said Camp, as she held up an old photo. “And one way that we’re able to figure out where they [the barracks] are located is by looking at old growth trees, and looking for some of the trees that are in historic photographs.”

It’s impressive detective work, especially considering a few years back nobody even knew where the forgotten internment camp was, just that it was somewhere along the highway, miles from any town.

We crossed a creek and got to the site’s old trash dump, a gold mine for the archaeologists – as well as students and volunteers – who’ve tackled the dump with their small trowels.  Stacey Camp lit up when we arrived there.

“The ground we are standing on, there were thousands of artefacts across the entire landscape, about a 50 by 50 meter area, there were whole bottles on the landscape, buttons, gaming pieces.”

Camp wants to explore this area further to understand how the men dealt with the extreme isolation here. But fieldwork costs a lot of money. That’s the less-than-glamorous part of being an archaeologist - a part we never saw Indiana Jones do. 

So before she returns, Camp will spend much of her year applying for grants to keep digging.