Victor Sudo, left, and Al Barth, center, spouse of a nurse at the camp, place flowers at the base of the monument Saturday, April 20, 2002.
Justice Camp Remembered in Santa Fe
Descendents of internees and workers brave dust and wind to dedicate a historical marker at the site of the Justice Department's WWII prison camp.
By BRIAN MINAMI
SANTA FE. April 20, 2002—Memories swirled with the New Mexican dust as descendents of prisoners and camp staff ventured to the former internment camp to commemorate the wartime experiences of their ancestors.
Opened sixty years ago by the Department of Justice, the camp held 4,555 Japanese men during World War II. Although mostly from the west coast, camp denizens also included Alaskans, Hawaiians, and South Americans.
The FBI labeled them "dangerous enemy aliens." However, evidence to support that claim never materialized. History shows that the men were mostly Buddhist and Christian ministers, Japanese language teachers, journalists, businessmen and artists.
"The government really starved us in Santa Fe," remembered Bill Nishimura, 82, of Gardena, CA, one of two internees who returned to the site Saturday, April 20, 2002. "Not from the food—we starved for female companionship," Nishimura explained.
Nishimura was a prisoner during the final phase of the internment camp when kibei who were branded troublemakers at the Tule Lake Internment Camp were moved to Santa Fe.
The detention center holds a special place in the former workers' hearts as well.
With an emotional voice, Patricia Benoit recounted the story told by her mother, Nadine Kinchen Benoit, of her first assignment out of college as a nurse at the camp: "The girl [she replaced] told her the Japanese will never harm you."
Where lies the danger for a young woman in a prison camp? "It's the townspeople," Benoit relayed through tears.
According to Joe Ando, the driving force behind the campaign to commemorate
Bill Nishimura, one of two former internees present at the dedication ceremony, remembers youthful days when branded a "troublemaker," he was ejected from Tule Lake.
The granite boulder overlooks the former internment camp site in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood. [MAP]
the detention center, many family members have come to Santa Fe to search for the site "expecting to find closure in the place they heard about but never knew.
"They left empty handed."
Traces of the camp disappeared in the fifties when developers replaced barracks and old buildings with new homes.
Historians today will find a six and 1/4 ton granite boulder with a descriptive plaque above the site of the former concentration camp.
Located two miles northwest of the city center, the marker sits on a quiet hill in Frank Ortiz Park overlooking what is now the Casa Solana residential subdivision.
The notion to place a monument to the camp caused a stir when first proposed. A local member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars who survived the notorious Bata'an death march, provided initial resistance.
Mistaking Japanese civilians residing in America for his captors in the Japanese military, the veteran felt that honoring the internees was tantamount to slapping the faces of the vets according to local media reports.
The October 1999 city council meeting at which the stone marker was approved nearly erupted in fisticuffs. Mayor Larry Delgado, then in his first term, cast the deciding vote.
"I never thought it was a matter of having courage or any of that. I thought it was a matter of doing the right thing," Delgado remarked.
Following the short dedication ceremony, family members and historians met into the night to share information. According to Ando, history gets pieced together at these personal encounters.
Ando recalled a previous impromptu meeting: "This young man told me that for years he has been trying to locate his grandfather's grave site. I told him, 'I only know of two grave sites in Rosario Cemetery—a Yoshikawa and a Sudo.'
"After a dead silence he looked at me.
"He said 'My name is Victor Sudo and that is my grandfather.'"