Imprisoned in Paradise [Review]

reviewed by Alison Perry

Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp
Asian American Comparative Collection Research Report, Number 3
Priscilla Wegars
Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-89301-550-3, Soft cover
53 pages, $19.95

Priscilla Wegars, Ph.D., an historian and historical archeologist, details the two-year history of an internment camp near Kooskia, Idaho, in the 1940s. Before World War II, the camp was designed to house those involved in building the Lewis-Clark Highway (U.S. Highway 12) connecting Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In the book’s introduction, Wegars explains the difference between this camp and another World War II camp outside of Minidoka, Idaho.

The Minidoka camp in southern Idaho was handled by the War Relocation Authority as one of ten “concentration camps” (later called “incarceration camps”) created to hold Japanese-American citizens. The Kooskia camp, in contrast, was an Immigration and Naturalization Service/Department of Justice site designed to hold “aliens” identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as potentially dangerous to national security due to our state of war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. These aliens, for the most part, were first-generation immigrants to the United States. As a “prisoner of war” camp, the Kooskia camp internees were accorded rights and privileges designated by the Geneva Convention. They could work for wages and had better living quarters, food, and medical attention than those in incarceration camps. In many instances, the Kooskia internees were first-generation Japanese immigrants who were relatives of second-generation Japanese-American families interned at the incarceration camps, including the one in Minidoka. The title of the book, suggested by a line in one of the internee’s letters to a relative, illustrates the irony of the camp’s beautiful mountain location.

Until reading this book, I was not aware of a World War II-era camp in northern Idaho, nor did I know about the different levels of camps that were created to handle those considered enemies of the United States during World War II. Imprisoned in Paradise describes the progression of the Kooskia camp from a Civilian Conservation Camp (CCC) to a satellite work camp for federal prisoners, and then to a camp for detainees seen as POWs during the war. The Bureau of Prisons needed to close some of its work camps due to lack of appropriations and, coincidentally, the government was looking for places to house “enemy aliens” identified throughout the United States by the  FBI. To my surprise, I learned that some of the “enemy aliens” even came from Mexico, Panama, and Peru due to U.S. treaties with other countries! Latin American Japanese internees were removed from the countries to which they had relocated years before World War II and brought to the United States,where they did not even know the language.

Wegars provides details of the lives of certain internees before the war, during their internment, and in the years following the war. She traces, when possible, which internees were sent back to Japan in prisoner-of-war exchanges. In many cases, these were men who chose to leave Japan and live in the United States or other nearby countries from the late 1890s to the time immediately preceding World War II. They had established their identities in their new country and, as with many immigrants, might not have had many ties with their “old country.”

Imprisoned in Paradise documents an unpleasant period of wartime America. Pictures and footnotes illustrate extraordinary research into government documents, newspaper articles, letters, diaries and detective work to seek out stories of specific men held in the camp. The author interviewed families of the internees as well as those of the Americans in charge of the camp, including directors, guards, and other employees from local Kooskia families. This is an enlightening study of the Kooskia internment camp, and I appreciate the effort involved in bringing a little-known piece of Idaho history to light. It is a must-read that provides further understanding of what can occur, especially during a period of national emergency, when those from seemingly different cultures are targeted as threats to a society.

This book would be useful to anyone interested in studying Idaho or American history during World War II, or for those interested in Asian-American history. It could be used for high school and higher education courses.

Alison Perry is the librarian at the law firm Hawley, Troxell, Ennis & Hawley, LLP, in Boise.

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