Multicultural group brainstorms memorial idea for tribal history, WWII DOJ camp


BISMARCK, N.D.— The United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) hosted more than 50 people from 15 states to discuss an appropriate memorial commemorating the various World War II Department of Justice (DOJ) camps interwoven with the history of tribal America.

The UTTC, the nation’s leading tribal college, was the former site of Fort Lincoln, a World War II DOJ camp that imprisoned people of Japanese, German and a handful of others of European descent.

Two different Nikkei groups were incarcerated at Fort Lincoln. The first group consisted of Issei rounded up by the FBI shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The second were Japanese Americans who had renounced their United States citizenship.

In referring to the Nisei renunciants, UTTC President Dr. David Gipp said, “I come from the tribe of people called the Hunkpapa Lakota, one of the greatest, we feel, in the nation. There is a fellow by the name of Sitting Bull, and he was accused of renouncing. He would fit very well with the renunciants because he refused to accept America, if you want to call it that at that time, on its terms and conditions, and said ‘if I’m going to accept America, it will be on my terms and conditions.…’ Our view may not be accepted by my friends. But it is the telling of that story that is so critical. If we are not allowed to tell the story, then we do not live in a democracy.”

A broad spectrum was represented at the conference, including former Fort Lincoln internees, Japanese and German descendants of internees, Japanese and German Latin Americans, and various North Dakota tribes.

Barbara Takei with the Tule Lake Committee voiced her amazement over UTTC’s welcoming atmosphere.

“It took a group that had suffered — the Native Americans, who had suffered for generations and centuries and endured so much pain at the hands of the U.S. government — it was this group that recognized the pain suffered by the German Americans, Italian Americans and Japanese Americans,” she said. “This is the group that acknowledged and honored the stories of the renunciants, a group of people who has been written out of Japanese American history. It’s so extraordinary that it is the Native Americans who are the ones that have the understanding, compassion and generosity to help us tell this story.”

Dennis Neumann, UTTC’s public information director, said there was no resentment from UTTC staff or students for the idea of creating a memorial on campus. “Once the students and staff understand the story, they automatically identify with it because tribal people have this parallel experience,” said Neumann.

In addition to Neumann, conference planners were John Christgau, author of “Enemies: World War II Alien Internment”; Karen Ebel, daughter of Max Ebel, former Fort Lincoln internee; Satsuki Ina, daughter of Itaru Ina, former Fort Lincoln internee; Wes Long Feather, UTTC chief of staff; and Ursula Vogt Potter, daughter of Karl Vogt, former Fort Lincoln internee.

Former Nikkei Internees

Before discussions of a memorial took place, former internees or their descendants shared their experiences.

Former Tule Lake, Calif. renunciants Junichi Yamamoto, 89; Arthur Ogami, 88; and Hitoshi “Hank” Naito, 84, had all been at Fort Lincoln in 1945 and transported to Japan on the USS Gordon in December 1945.

Yamamoto, a Kibei who never reclaimed his U.S. citizenship and travels with a Japanese passport, had not returned to Bismarck since 1945. Yamamoto felt that he received better treatment at the DOJ camp than at the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.

“In the WRA camps, you’re an American but they treat you like a Japanese,” said Yamamoto. “That’s why you get mad. But here (Fort Lincoln), we became Japanese and they treated you like a Japanese.”

Yamamoto was never ashamed about his past but not everyone shared his view. He talked about one incident at a community basketball game.

“I went over to him and I said, ‘Hey, remember me? We were in Bismarck together,’” recalled Yamamoto. “He says, ‘Oh, don’t say that.’ He was ashamed to mention that, I think, so he took me into a back room.

“All these years, I never thought that way. I don’t brag about being here, but I never felt ashamed about being here. I thought I did the right thing, but some people, I guess, feel kind of ashamed that they were here.”

Yamamoto, whose family farmed in Salinas, Calif. before the war, had been imprisoned at the Salinas Assembly Center, Colorado River’s (Poston, Ariz.) Camp 2 and Tule Lake. Yamamoto had bitter memories of Poston, where his father had passed away while awaiting travel permission to visit his regular physician in San Francisco.

“Poston was hell,” said Yamamoto.

In contrast, he fondly recalled the German internees’ welcoming party at Fort Lincoln.

“We were pleasantly surprised when the welcoming speech was made in Japanese,” said Yamamoto. Yamamoto also placed first in a swim meet between the Japanese and Germans. Although Yamamoto was born in landlocked Salinas, the Kibei learned to swim in Hiroshima.

Ogami, who had not seen Yamamoto in 65 years, remembered Yamamoto’s swimming expertise.

“When I saw his face, I imagined him at a younger age, and I distinctly remember him demonstrating how when a drowning person panics, they grab you, and he showed us how to flip them on their back,” said Ogami.

Like Yamamoto, this was Ogami’s first time back to Bismarck since 1945. He choked up as he shared that coming to the UTTC campus felt “like coming back home.”

“I had renounced my citizenship to keep the family intact,” said Ogami. “And when I renounced, I left the United States in 1945 with the idea that I would never return.”

The Ogami family had been incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp in California, but were transferred to Tule Lake after Ogami’s father applied through the Spanish embassy to have the family used in a civilian exchange between Japan and the U.S. Spain, as a neutral country, served to communicate between the two warring countries.

Ogami had never been to Japan, but once he renounced, he threw himself into learning the Japanese language at Tule Lake and then at Fort Lincoln. His father was sent to the DOJ camp in Santa Fe, N.M., while his mother and younger sister remained imprisoned at Tule Lake.

At Bismarck, the FBI questioned Ogami one last time before he was shipped to Japan. “They (FBI) tried to influence the young ones that had petitioned to go to Japan to change their minds,” said Ogami. “But there was no promise of having our American citizenship reinstated.”

For Naito, this was his second time back to Bismarck since 1945. He had also attended the 2003 opening of a Fort Lincoln exhibit titled “Snow County Prison: Interned in North Dakota.”

Unlike in 2003, Naito was more open about his incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyo., Tule Lake and Fort Lincoln. He described this Bismarck meeting as “more productive.” While there were stories of German internees swimming naked in the Fort Lincoln pool, Naito laughed that the “Japanese weren’t all that modest either.”

Takashi Tsujita, another former Fort Lincoln internee, did not ship out to Japan. He was incarcerated at the Turlock Assembly Center, in California, Gila River, Ariz. WRA camp, Tule Lake Segregation Center, and the DOJ camps at Fort Lincoln, Santa Fe, and Crystal City, Texas.

Tsujita had a difficult time recalling his time at Fort Lincoln. “I’m trying to fill a gap, a blank,” he said. “You know, after the war, you have to make a living. You can’t just sit still and be bitter about it. You got to forget and go on.”

Tsujita thought he recognized the brick buildings but couldn’t be sure which one he was held in.

“I remember I went to Japanese school,” he said. “I had interaction with the Germans when they built an ice rink, but I don’t remember who I borrowed the skates from.”

Bill Nishimura, 90, was not imprisoned at Fort Lincoln but at Santa Fe. Unlike at Bismarck, where several wartime buildings still stand, Nishimura said the only indication that there had been a Santa Fe DOJ camp is a plaque.

In addition, while the UTTC administration welcomes a campus memorial, Nishimura said placing even a plaque at the former Santa Fe DOJ camp had caused a national furor because many survivors of Japan’s Bataan Death March lived in Santa Fe and objected to what they mistook as a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

“The atmosphere at Santa Fe is different,” said Nishimura. “It isn’t as welcoming as at Bismarck, so creating a monument that would represent all the Department of Justice camps is most important at Bismarck.”

German American Community

Kimberly Contag had several family members forcibly taken from Ecuador and sent to Nazi Germany in a prisoner of war exchange between the U.S. and Germany.

Some of Contag’s family were transported to the Crystal City DOJ camp, while others like her father, his three brothers and grandfather were sent directly to Europe.

After the end of the war, Contag’s grandfather was able to locate three of his four children, and they walked from Berlin to Paris, where they were placed in a political refugee camp.

“Can you imagine how it must’ve been like for these children, who grew up in the middle of the Andes Mountains and were suddenly taken out of Ecuador?” said Contag. “These children had been brought up in a very different society in a very different way, and they experienced some very extraordinary things for reasons that really were somebody else’s politics.”

Contag said a major difference between her Latin American family and those from the U.S. was the sense of justice.

“The Ecuadorian notion of justice doesn’t exist,” said Contag. “Things happen because people with money and power make choices for you. In this country, we have the feeling that we have rights as citizens, but in Ecuador, they didn’t grow up with that sense of justice and retribution.”

The Lechner family had also been used in a prisoner of war exchange between the U.S. and Germany, but their case included two American-born children.

Karl Lechner, a German immigrant living in the U.S., had been picked up and held at Ellis Island, the 4800 S. Ellis Building in Chicago and Fort Lincoln, before being reunited with his family at the Crystal City DOJ camp. From there, the family was placed on the Gripsholm exchange ship.

Sisters Elizabeth “Suzy” Lechner Kvammen and Lori Lechner Johnston were mere toddlers when they arrived in war-torn Germany with nothing but the clothes on their back. All their luggage had been stolen during the trek.

After the war, the father decided to remain in Germany, while the mother, Eleanor Schiller Lechner, returned to the U.S. with her two American-born children.

Elizabeth, then 6, spoke no German when she arrived in Germany, but when her family returned to the U.S. three years later, she had forgotten her English. It was, she described, “a very difficult and confusing time.”

Randy Houser grew up knowing bits and pieces of how his grandfather had been picked up and held at various prison camps, including at Fort Lincoln.

“In my family, we were never supposed to talk about this,” said Houser. “And I was only told about

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