First Japanese-American Labor Camp From World War II Unearthed in Idaho

Japanese ceramic

A strange and bitter layer of history has returned to the surface in northern Idaho, where archaeologists have excavated the first World War II internment camp that put men of Japanese descent to work as de facto prisoners of war.

Scientists from the University of Idaho have finished their summer excavation of the Kooskia Internment Camp in Clearwater National Forest, where from May 1943 to May 1945 more than 250 men were detained as “enemy aliens” and tasked with building a highway across the Rocky Mountains.

Seventy years after the labor camp was established, few traces remain visible to the untrained eye. None of its wooden structures stand today; the only lingering feature is a concrete slab where a water tower once stood.

But the Idaho archaeologists have found thousands of artifacts that detail the day-to-day of camp life, a history that remains unknown to most Americans today.

“We’ve found a lot of interesting items in the camp that really help tell the story of the people interned here,” lead archaeologist Dr. Stacey Camp said in a press statement. “It’s that story we want to share with the public.”

Hand-painted ceramics (top) and pieces from the traditional Japanese game go are among the artifacts found at the Kooskia Internment Camp site (University of Idaho)

Though the location of the camp was known to historians, archaeologists only began investigating it in 2010, with surface surveys and soil sampling. As the scientists went deeper, they began finding relics that were in many ways as familiar as they were distinctive.

Milk bottles, beer cans and candy wrappers have emerged from the muddy soil, as well as ornate hand-painted ceramics, dental equipment, colored stones used in traditional Japanese board games, and jars of at least three different brands of cold cream.

They may not seem like vestiges of prison life, but Kooskia was by every measure an unusual prison.

Of the approximately 60 internment camps established by the U.S. government to house American residents of Japanese, German and Italian descent from 1942 to 1946, Kooskia was the only one that solely housed men, and because of its remoteness in a rugged, mountain landscape, it was the only one not to have any fences or guard towers.

It also marked the government’s first attempt at using detainees as workers.

Unlike domestic prisons of the day, however, inmates at Kooskia were paid for their labor — as much as $60 per month, twice what young men earned at Civilian Conservation Corps camps a decade earlier.

Japanese-American prisoners from the Kooskia work camp, with Anglo guards, on Idaho’s Lochsa River (University of Idaho)

And while all of the workers had been forcibly removed from their homes, the men at Kooskia were there voluntarily, having requested transfers from other internment centers, likely because the Idaho camp offered paid work and medical and dental care.

Also, as part of a deal struck with the government of Peru at the time, Kooskia detained a small number of Japanese-Peruvian men, adding further complexity and diversity to camp life.

Together over two years the prisoners constructed U.S. Highway 12, which runs from Missoula, Montana, to Lewiston, Idaho.

Kooskia Internment Camp in 1944 (University of Idaho)

By the middle of 1945, many of the men had been either released or transferred, and equipment for the highway project became in increasingly short supply.

The camp was closed in May 1945, with the remaining 104 men being transferred to the Santa Fe Interment Camp in New Mexico.

The government continued to use Japanese-American detainees as a workforce in some locations, such as at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, where prisoners built what’s now the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The University of Idaho’s Kooskia Interment Camp Archaeological Project, which has conducted the excavation, will publish its full results later this year.

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Kooskia Interment Camp Archaeological Project

• “U-Idaho Archaeology Dig Unearths History at Kooskia Japanese Internment Camp” University of Idaho News, July 11, 2013

Kooskia (detention facility), Densho Encyclopedia

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