Amache welcomes its first pilgrimage as a National Historic Site

A replica of a guard tower stands near a replica of a barrack at the Amache National Historic Site. photo by Gil Asakawa

The bus has arrived, after picking up passengers from Simpson United Methodist Church in Arvada, a suburb of Denver, then stopping for more riders at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple in Sakura Square downtown. It arrived with a full load of people making the annual pilgrimage to Amache, the World War II Japanese American concentration camp outside of Granada, a small rural town in southeast Colorado.

The pilgrims disembark and cross the dirt parking lot to join the dozens of people already on hand who have driven down on their own, socializing as if they’re at a school reunion. It is a reunion of sorts — a few survivors and more descendants of survivors of the camp, who gather from across the U.S., many from California and many from the Denver area.

There are close to 300 people who eventually fill the folding chairs laid out across what was once a cemetery, with green grass and toward the back, a few remaining markers for forlorn graves of infants who died at Amache much too soon. One stone block is carved with “Matsuda Baby, Dec. 25, 1944.”

Near the entrance to the cemetery is a monument, “Amache Remembered,” which is dedicated to an honor roll of Japanese Americans who volunteered from Amache and were killed fighting for the United States, as well as the over 7,000 inmates and the 120 who died in the camp between 1942 and 1945.

In spite of the somber reminders of the wartime experience — the cemetery is a green oasis among the 10,000 acres of prairie, tumbleweeds and grassland dotted by a few foundations and several reconstructed and recovered buildings, a guard toward and water tower from the camp’s heyday — the mood at the pilgrimage is festive. Like a school reunion. But even more special, because this year, Amache is celebrating its official status as America’s newest national park, having the National Park Service manage it as a National Historic Site.

REMEMBRANCE — The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new National Historic Site on May 17 included various dignitaries, including former U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (L), who was incarcerated at the concentration camp. photo by Gil Asakawa

That’s why more people than in the past have made this pilgrimage, including people for whom this is their first visit to Amache, like Eric Saijo of Oakland, Calif. who came to Amache because his late mother was imprisoned here as a teen. “I was just curious, because when she went into the camp she was 13, and never gave a lot of detail,” Saijo says. “She mostly tried to make it sound like an adventure.”

He thought about joining a pilgrimage to Heart Mountain in Wyoming where his father was incarcerated, but he says he was curious about Amache for its lack of geographical landmark. “The reason I chose Amache over Heart Mountain was mom always complained that no one talked about Amache, because there’s no picturesque view. Heart Mountain had the mountain. And Manzanar had the east side of the Sierras. She always felt like Amache didn’t measure up.”

He didn’t really know anything about Amache before coming. He’s staying at a hotel in the town of Lamar 16 miles to the west from Granada, and spending the day at Amache. He’s impressed by the site, and the work that’s been done to get it to National Historic Site status. “Oh, it’s amazing,” he says. “Just hearing about all the effort that so many different organizations getting it recognized, with the help of all the local people… it’s an incredible story.”

Everyone eventually settles into the folding chairs, or cluster in the shade provided by trees as the Rev. Nari Hayashi, head minister of the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple, chants and gives opening remarks welcoming the travelers.

The Rev. Brian Lee, lead pastor for Simpson United Methodist Church, a historically Japanese American congregation, follows him.

After the ceremony at the cemetery site, the attendees make their way a couple of miles east to Granada, the tiny town — it’s one of the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it destinations — for a lavish and filling potluck lunch at Granada School, which serves kids kindergarten through high school. The high school students and their history teacher, John Hopper, hold a special place in the story of the Amache National Historic Site.

Hopper began teaching in Granada in the 1990s, and knew about Amache because he grew up in the area and his mother was friends with a former inmate. He began teaching students about the wartime incarceration and his students formed the Amache Preservation Society, helping to maintain the camp site (they put up the chain-link fence that protects the lawn-covered cemetery, which prevented the roaming cattle from trampling the site). With Hopper’s guidance, the students also give presentations about Amache to audiences not just in southeast Colorado, but in other states. They managed a museum of artifacts donated by inmates and their families, and have been integral in helping to get the National Historic Site designation.

So during lunch, as speakers go to the microphone and praise the camp’s new status, Hopper’s name comes up often. One speaker, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Johnny Gogo, who was on hand to donate one of the American flags that has been signed by inmates and their descendants, a powerful personal project, to the Amache Museum, compared Hopper to the high school teacher Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”

“Someone needs to make a film about John Hopper!” he said to cheers from the crowd.

After the lunch presentations, many visitors returned by bus and car (the organizers urged people to carpool to limit the environmental impact) to the camp to explore the structures on the site, and to follow guided tours of foundations and even underground outlines of barracks that have been covered over the years using GPS instruments, so they could see where their relatives spent the war years.

A Long Trip to Parkdom
It’s been a long journey to National Historic Site status. Amache, officially known by the government euphemism of “Granada Relocation Center,” was one of 10 concentration camps the U.S. government operated to imprison persons of Japanese ancestry after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

FOUNDATIONS OF THE PAST, FUTURE — Some foundations remain at the former concentration camp. photo by Gil Asakawa

After the camp closed in 1945, the site fell into disrepair for decades. One of its buildings was moved to Granada’s town park to serve as a storage shed for park maintenance equipment. It’s now back on Amache, and being restored as a recreation building.

Preservation efforts began in the 1980s and 1990s by former inmates, their descendants and community members both in Granada.

Because of ongoing efforts by community groups, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Interior designated Amache a National Historic Landmark. The goal has always been to designate Amache as a National Park Service unit so it could receive additional protections and resources.

In March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Amache National Historic Site Act, which a bipartisan group of Colorado congressional lawmakers drafted, establishing the Amache National Historic Site.

It took two years, until this March, before Amache officially became part of the National Parks system. There are already new signs at the entrance and throughout the park identifying landmarks, and in the years to come, the site’s footprint will be restored and improved. A small staff of park rangers are now on hand with an office in Granada in the Amache Museum, and programming is being planned to invite more public visits.

Ann Yoshihara Murphy, whose grandfather, mother and father were incarcerated at Amache, was raised in Denver but now lives in New Mexico. She attended the pilgrimage as she does every year, with her husband Bill and a friend from the New Mexico chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Nikki Oshima, but she is a bit worried about the increased public awareness for Amache.

“I personally, am torn,” she admits. “Because it’s gotten along so well, with the kids from the high school, and all the organizations. You know, they took care of it for all these years, and kept it going. I know it’s important to have the designation because that will get the information out to more people. But, is that the best, to have more people tramping through the site?”

Oshima doesn’t share the same trepidation. “This could explode, yes, but still, are you gonna go out of your way to come here?” she asks. It’s true that Amache is so out of the way that it’s not exactly a raging tourist destination. Yet.

Bob Fuchigami, who came to Amache with members of his family, turned 94 a couple of days before the pilgrimage. He was a teenager in the camp during the war, and he’s been an outspoken advocate for both the preservation efforts and historic site designation for years. He helped the History Colorado Center in Denver with its permanent Amache exhibit.

He’s happy that the site designation has come to pass. “I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” he says. “It’s just incredible that it happened now, when you have such a split in Congress.” And in the country at large. But it turns out that the bipartisan spirit does still win out sometimes. Amache is living proof of that.

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