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Archaeologists Resurrect Nearly Forgotten WWII Internment Camp

When you drive through the Clearwater National Forest in northern Idaho, you’re surrounded by deep, green forests and wild and scenic rivers. But if you drove through there 67 years ago, signs would have warned you not to stop. 

The woods hid a World War II Japanese internment camp. Through Saturday, archaeologists are wrapping up a dig at that now virtually forgotten site.  A new book about this hidden history is titled “Imprisoned in Paradise.”

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Dr. Stacey Camp (left) directs the Kooskia Internment Camp archaeological excavation.

Tom Banse: So this is paradise?

Stacey Camp: “It is paradise compared to places like Minidoka, Amache, and Manzanar and Fort Missoula where they were desert environments.”

That’s University of Idaho professor Stacey Camp. She directs the archaeological dig at a nearly lost site in the system of World War Two Japanese American relocation camps. This one was called the Kooskia Internment Camp.

Stacey Camp: “You have these beautiful trees. You have a landscape that some internees say looked similar to Japan. That’s not to say the experience was a good experience for them. It was far from it.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage. The Kooskia camp opened in 1943 and operated until 1945.

Historian Priscilla Wegars documented the names of 265 adult men imprisoned there at the edge of Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains wilderness. They included restaurant owners from Seattle, farm hands from the Willamette Valley and cannery workers from Alaska.

Priscilla Wegars: “It was a perception. They were perceived to be potentially dangerous to the United States, perhaps because they made a 50-cent donation to the Japanese Red Cross. Perhaps because they were a Buddhist priest or minister. Buddhism and particularly Shintoism were seen as having close ties to the emperor of Japan, that sort of thing.”

Wegars has just published a book about the Kooskia camp. The title, “Imprisoned in Paradise,” was inspired by a phrase in an internee’s letter.

The Kooskia Internment Camp during World War II

University of Idaho Library, Special Collections

The larger and better known camps, such as Minidoka in southern Idaho, were run by the War Relocation Administration. They held entire families.

Wegars says the Kooskia camp was different. The Japanese immigrants held here were treated like prisoners of war and put to work building what is now the Lewis and Clark Highway between Lewiston and Missoula.

Priscilla Wegars: “Sometimes the head of household, the father, would be picked up and taken to an internment camp run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the Justice Department. Kooskia was one of those camps.”

Wegars says the Kooskia camp was so remote, the government didn’t bother to put up barbed wire or guard towers. There was nowhere to run but wilderness.

Seattle resident Tad Sato took a break from a railroad job to see his incarcerated father at Kooskia in 1943.  Sato preserved his recollections in an oral history made for the Densho archive in Seattle.

Tad Sato: “Well, it was camplike. I went to visit there. They had a great big barracks. And had cots… in a big room. They had their own cooks because I remember eating dinner there. It was better food than we had on the railroad, I remember.”

At the camp location today, student workers carefully excavate research plots with trowels under a broiling sun.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Artifacts found during the Kooskia Interment Camp Archaeological Project

So far, they’ve uncovered a foundation, possibly of the laundry house. A grid search also turned up some broken pieces of Japanese rice bowls.

The excavation work “feels personal” to crew chief Dana Ogo Shew. Her Japanese American grandparents and aunts and uncles were shipped from the West Coast to an internment camp in Utah during World War II.

Shew says she was excited to come to work on this dig even though it reminds her of an unhappy chapter in her family history. She prefers to look at it as a triumph over adversity.

Dana Shew: “We never want people to forget that this was a mistake, a blight as some people would call it in American history. But at the same time, we want to celebrate how the Japanese adapted in the camps.  They were faced with this situation and they immediately started to make things as good as they could with what they had.”

The archaeologists working here want the location added to the National Register of Historic Places and for someone to put up interpretive signs. 

For now, it’s so overgrown, the camp is easy to overlook… just as it has been in the history books.


On the Web:

Kooskia Internment Camp Archaeological Project

Map of World War II Japanese-American Internment Camps