SANTA FE -- His given first name was Kazuji. He was 11 when the U.S. government ordered him and his mother to a wartime detention camp in Arizona.

Kazuji's father owned a fishing business on Terminal Island, Calif. Because he was a businessman, the government sent him to a different camp in New Mexico. He had to sell his boats and equipment for a fraction of their worth, helpless as his company and family were splintered by political fiat.

This was life in the Western United States for Japanese-Americans in the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Evidence to justify this theft of liberty and taking of property was nonexistent. But fear won out.

President Franklin Roosevelt's men reasoned that it was better to isolate those of Japanese ancestry than risk any uprising in the Pacific United States.

Kazuji's dad died soon after the war. Though Kazuji was born in America, he tried living in Japan.

Feeling unwelcome, he returned to his native America and joined the U.S. Air Force at 18. For the next 21 years, he served the country that had held him in a detention camp for no reason except his ethnicity.

Kazuji later would legally change his name to Mike. That was what everybody in the Air Force had called him.

The story of what happened at home during World War II was not so easily adjusted.

In all, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans were confined by their government during World War II. Most of them were held at 10 sites that were euphemistically called War Relocation Authority camps.

They were built in outposts in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. Amache, the camp on Colorado's Eastern Plains, was the smallest of the 10. But with a population of more than 7,000 at its peak, it became the 10th-largest "city" in its state.

Del Webb, who would become an owner of the New York Yankees, landed the construction contract for the Poston camp in Arizona. It held 17,000 Japanese-Americans.

In New Mexico, smaller camps for Japanese men operated in Santa Fe and Lordsburg.

Prejudice dies hard, if at all. But the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans eventually led to reparation for those held in the camps. Money was paid to them during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

The cash and a formal apology were offered more than 40 years after Kazuji's incarceration in camps far from the pleasant shores of Terminal Island.

For the last six years, Congress has appropriated money to make sure this shameful chapter in American history is not swept aside.

The National Park Service again is accepting applications for grants to preserve and interpret the history of the detention camps.

Congress so far has allocated $12 million for 107 projects. Another $3 million will be spent next year.

Some might complain that the tax dollars could be better spent on roads, schools and medical care instead of painful history. I am not one of them.

Appearances and ethnicity can still manipulate our thinking, causing us to panic. Law-abiding, loyal Americans still face harassment because of acts of war or terrorism.

We are a melting-pot country, but we tend to turn against those of us whose skin color or racial background can be associated with global enemies. For that reason and 120,000 others, the history project is money well spent.

The Japanese-Americans who were herded into detention camps in 1942 are dead or old. Kazuji is 83 now. History and his story should not be allowed to fade from public view.

Kazuji is better known as Mike Miyagishima. You may have heard of his son, Ken Miyagishima, the mayor of Las Cruces.

Ken says his position of power gives him no advantage when it comes to learning the history of the detention camps. His dad does not like to talk about what happened in the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, when some Americans were guilty by suspicion.

 

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.