October 15, 2021
Amache was one of ten War Relocation Authority camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated following the forced removal from the West Coast in 1942. Located in southeastern Colorado, it held the smallest population of any WRA camp. But it was notable in other ways as well. To commemorate the anniversary of its closing on October 15, 1945—as well as recent efforts to gain National Park Service recognition of the site—here are some of the more unique elements of Amache concentration camp.
Built on Privately Owned Land
Amache was the only WRA camp that was built on privately owned land that had to be purchased. All other camps were built primarily on public land. The bulk of the land at Amache was purchased from the American Crystal Sugar Company and from a private landowner. A good portion of this land had been previously cultivated, which gave the Amache agricultural program a head start. But the purchase of various smaller parcels resulted in the eviction of about fifty local farm families, which fed some local resentment towards the camp and its inmates. The government sold off the land after the war, with the largest parcel going to the City of Granada.
The two Arizona camps could also be viewed as exceptions, since the land they were built on was owned by tribal organizations. However, that land was effectively controlled by the Office of Indian Affairs. Read more about that history, and the impact on local tribes, in the Densho Encyclopedia articles on Poston and Gila River.
Unique Block Numbering
The block numbering system at Amache was different from all other WRA camps in that it consisted of a row number and a column letter, the rows going from 6 to 12 moving to the south and the columns going from E to L moving to the east. Thus, 6E was the northwestern-most block and 12K the southeastern-most. Blocks in all other camps were simply numbered.
Amache was the only WRA camp built on ground that had a significant slope, as it sloped upward from the entrance. This led to a number of unique problems. One was that due to “insufficient grading,” some barracks were higher than ground level on one end and below ground level on the other. The slope also led to some buildings being prone to flooding and being filled with debris from windstorms.
The grade also added a geographical factor to the relative desirability of different blocks and barracks within blocks. Amache’s inmate population came from the Merced and Santa Anita Assembly Centers, with the Merced group arriving first. Whether by design or not, the Merced group ended up in blocks that were closer to the administration area, hospital, and school block, while the Santa Anita group were placed in the more distant blocks that required walks up and down hills to get to these areas. This situation contributed to tensions between the two groups.
Brick Floors — and Bugs
Amache had unique barracks that were beige or sand colored rather than black and that mostly had red brick floors, rather than wood. (Some did have concrete floors.) The reviews for the brick floors were mostly negative, with inmates complaining that they were difficult to clean, that they let in bugs and moisture, and that they were easy to trip over.
Local Ties with “Free” Japanese Americans
Amache was the only WRA camp built in an area in which there were substantial numbers of “free” Japanese Americans living at least somewhat nearby. Denver’s substantial prewar Japanese community (which was about 220 miles from Amache) grew larger during the “voluntary evacuation” period due to the relatively welcoming stance of Colorado Governor Ralph Carr.
There were also Nikkei farmers in places like Pueblo or Rocky Ford to the south that were much closer to the camp. Since Colorado was outside the restricted area of the West Coast, Japanese Americans living in Colorado were not forcibly removed and incarcerated. In the summer and fall of 1942, large numbers of Amache inmates did agricultural work on the outside to aid local farmers hit by wartime labor shortages. In some cases, these outside farmers were fellow Nikkei, which must have created an awkward situation.
Over 2,000 Amache inmates left the camp for destinations in Colorado. While most moved to destinations in and around Denver, a good number settled in communities closer to the camp, including sixty-two who left for the town of Granada, located just outside the camp. Several opened businesses there, the best known of which was Granada Fish Market, opened in February 1943 by Frank Tsuchiya, who had run the Santa Monica Fish Co. prior to the war. The new market did a brisk business with Amache inmates.
A Stable Administrative Staff
Amache had the most stable staff of any of the WRA camps, with many of the key staffers holding their positions for most of the life of the camp. Camp Director James G. Lindley held that post for Amache’s entire life, making it one of just two camps to have just one director. (The only other camp to have just one director was Rohwer. Heart Mountain, Jerome, Minidoka, Poston, and Topaz each had two directors, Tule Lake had three, and Gila River and Manzanar had five each.)
Two of Lindley’s three assistant directors also held their positions for essentially the entire life of the camp, Henry F. Halliday, the assistant director of administrative management and W. Ray Johnson, the assistant director of community management. (The latter oversaw areas such as education, health, and recreation that involved the most contact with the inmates.)
Project Attorney Donald C. Horn held that position for most of the camp’s life (October 1942 to the end of March 1945) as did Reports Officer Joseph C. McClelland (July 1942 to April 1945). Horn’s long tenure is particularly noteworthy, since the unique pressures of the project attorney position seemed to lead to quick burnout, as few other project attorneys at other camps lasted even one year. Though it is hard to say for certain, the stability of the WRA staff might have been a factor in the relative lack of drama or unrest at Amache.
A “Good” Camp
From the perspective of both the WRA and Japanese Americans, Amache was viewed as perhaps the “best” of the WRA concentration camps. Amache had both the fewest “disloyal” inmates sent to Tule Lake—just 215—and the fewest as a percentage of peak population, just 2.9%. While there was some labor unrest at Amache, as well as a significant draft resistance movement that saw thirty-five men ultimately convicted, it also had the second highest number of volunteers for the army despite being one of the least populous camps.
What is perhaps more interesting is the apparent positive reputation Amache enjoyed by inmates at other camps. In the history of the WRA camps, there were two large transfers of inmates from one camp to others. One took place in the fall of 1943, when large numbers of inmates were transferred to and from Tule Lake as part of the segregation process. The other came in June 1944, when the WRA shut down the Jerome, Arkansas, camp, distributing its inmates to other camps. In both cases, administrators at Tule Lake and Jerome polled inmates as to which camp they’d prefer to be sent to. Of the five camps “loyal” Tule Lakers could choose from, Amache received the most votes, with many more hoping to be transferred there than the camp could accommodate. The situation was similar at Jerome. While Rohwer was the obvious choice for most due to its proximity, Amache was the clear winner among the other options. Clearly, word through the inmate grapevine favored Amache over the other camps.
Before the development of a vaccine in the 1950s, polio was a much feared communicable disease that saw regular outbreaks in the U.S. through the first half of the 20th century. Such an outbreak occurred in southern Colorado in the fall of 1943 and affected Amache. As of September 18, camp officials stopped issuing short-term leave and shopping passes to Amacheans, barred visitors from the outside, and canceled public gatherings such as church services in the camp. Four Amache inmates were stricken with polio, all of whom recovered. However the sister of two of the inmates who had contracted the disease died in a Pueblo hospital on September 24 after a visit to the camp. After no further case, the various bans were lifted at the end of October.
The Shitara Sisters Scandal
It has become almost a cliche to say that Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast despite there not being a single instance of sabotage, treason or any other vaguely similar crime committed by one. While the notorious treason cases of Iva Toguri d’Aquino and Tomoya Kawakita involved alleged acts committed by Nisei in Japan, the trial and conviction of three resettled Amache inmates, sisters Tsuroko “Toots” Wallace, Florence “Flo” Otani, and Misao “Billie” Tanigoshi (née Shitara), for conspiracy to commit treason hit much closer to home. See Eric Muller’s fascinating Densho Encyclopedia article for more on this unique case.
An Inmate Recreation Support Group
Amache was the only camp to have an inmate recreation support committee—first the Amache Recreation Committee, succeeded by the Amache Recreation Association—that raised money for recreational programs and equipment. Much of the revenue came from admission fees from movie screenings. In part because it raised its own money, the ARA seemingly had greater autonomy in planning recreational activities, for instance putting on Japanese language and culture based activity for the Issei against the wishes of the administration.
By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director
[Header image: Two people walking past barracks on a dirt road in Amache concentration camp. Photo courtesy of the George Ochikubo Collection.]