Minidoka National Historical Site marks the location of one of ten relocation centers in the country that were built to imprison Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. Minidoka was the largest of the forced relocation centers in America, holding approximately 13,000 people over the course of three years. The site, threatened by development, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, became a National Monument in 2001, and then a National Historic Site in 2008, which federally acknowledges its historical significance. Today, the site includes a 1.6 mile interpretive trail with signs that point out some of the ruins of the relocation center and its history. One of the buildings is used as a visitor center where it is possible to pick up brochures and maps of the site.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the War Department to establish military zones. While this executive order did not specifically authorize the imprisonment of Japanese and Japanese Americans, it was, according to the National Park Service, “intended to apply to them exclusively.”1 During this time, numerous Congressmen and the Secretary of War considered the mass removal of Japanese a valid measure for preventing espionage. However, there never were, and never would be, any convictions of espionage via the Japanese in the United States.
Roosevelt’s executive order led to the creation of ten relocation centers, including Minidoka. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was established in March 1942 and forced over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans to leave their homes and move into makeshift camps that were operated like prison camps. Prior to the actions of Adolf Hitler, relocation camps were referred to as concentration camps owing to the large concentration of people that were held inside. There is still debate today over the most appropriate terminology.
Minidoka Relocation Center was established in August 1942, covering 950 acres in the Idahoan desert. At its peak population, Minidoka held 9,397 Japanese Americans from Washington State, Oregon, California, and Alaska. Detainees lived in group barracks, ate meals in a mess hall, and shared bathrooms and laundry services. Over time, Minidoka, grew to resemble a city under armed guard with schools, grocery stores, salons, parks, a library, and a fire station. However, these amenities did not change the fact that thousands had been forced from their homes into primitive barracks. Imprisonment was demoralizing and perpetuated the discrimination against Asian Americans. Jobs at the camps were scarce, with the average detainee being paid only a fraction of what they were making prior to the war. Detainees at Minidoka organized strikes, protests, and a labor council called the Fair Play Committee, which demanded better pay for their labor and equal pay to white staff. Conflicts between the detainees and administration slowed or stalled projects such as construction of the gymnasium, which was never finished. Under these oppressive conditions, detainees strived to create a sense of normalcy. Baseball became a popular outlet for detainees at Minidoka seeking community and physical activity.
A number of detainees also joined the U.S. military, partly to prove their loyalty to the United States and partly as a way to escape the relocation centers. A number of Japanese Americans applied to serve in the military at the outbreak of war; some were accepted while some were denied due to their ethnicity. Some joined the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit composed of men from the relocation centers. This segregated unit saw heavy action in France and Italy. Two soldiers from the Minidoka camp were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor. Minidoka, along with almost all of the camps, had an Honor Roll that recognized military service, including women of the Women’s Army Corps and the Red Cross.
The camp operated from August 10, 1942 until October 28, 1945. The War Relocation Authority was transferred to the Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Harold Ickes, who disapproved of internment and began dismantling the camps. With Japan’s weakening and eventual surrender on August 15, 1945, the United States military could no longer enforce internment. Closure of Minidoka and the other centers was still a difficult process for detainees as they awaited freedom, struggling to find food and other amenities as camp buildings closed around them. Most detainees returned to their hometowns on the West Coast. Though the war was over and the centers were closed, prejudice and violence towards Japanese in the United States persisted, making it hard for the freed detainees to find housing and work as they rebuilt their lives.
In the following decades, freed detainees and their descendants have advocated for restitution from the federal and state governments. In 1988, President Reagan publicly apologized to the Japanese Americans for their maltreatment and signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided limited financial redress to the detainees and their families. Furthermore, sites like Minidoka gained more widespread recognition as historically significant places worthy of preservation.
Minidoka was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, which federally recognized its significance but did not legally protect it from destruction. In 2001, President George W. Bush declared Minidoka a National Monument via executive order, which protected the site more quickly than other historical designations that must pass through Congress. Yet the National Monument designation covered only part of the historic site, with the rest threatened by agricultural developers. Citizens of Jerome County and others continued to petitioned to protect the site. These threats received national attention when Minidoka was named one of eleven Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2007. In May 2008, President Bush’s Consolidated Natural Resources Act converted Minidoka from a National Monument to a National Historic Site, which encompassed more land and further recognized its historical significance.
Through the efforts of the National Park Service, the Friends of Minidoka nonprofit, and dedicated volunteers, Minidoka is being preserved and interpreted for the public so that all visitors can learn about this moment in history. Reconstructing an original baseball field, complete with a scoreboard, benches, bleachers, and exhibit signs, is not only preserving history but inviting visitors and communities to connect with this history on a personal level. Minidoka has also become a site of annual pilgrimages among former detainees and their loved ones. To learn more about the effort to preserve this site, please visit National Park Service and Friends of Minidoka websites below.