Building returned to former WWII internment camp site

Author: Associated Press - May 26, 2018 - Updated: May 26, 2018

In this May 17, 2018 photo, John Tonai watches as crews move the Amache Recreation Hall 11F back to its original foundation at Amache, Colorado’s only Japanese American incarceration site in Granada, Colo. Tonai’s father lived in the camp during WWII.(RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP)

By KEVIN SIMPSON , The Denver Post via Associated Press

DENVER — If buildings could talk, the dusty storage structure that has rested for decades in a park beneath the Granada’s water tower might tell stories about the seventh-graders who giggled and chattered as they assembled floats for the annual homecoming parade.

But the building speaks most eloquently about its function from 1942 to 1945, as a recreation hall at the Granada War Relocation Center — a square mile just outside of town better known as Amache, a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Now, more than 70 years after its 1946 removal to serve as a city utility building, it has been returned to its original foundation at the National Historic Site.

John Tonai, who teaches photography at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, followed the building as it was transported on May 17 and snapped photos throughout the process. His father, Minoru “Min” Tonai, spent three years, from age 10 to 13, at Amache and told his children stories about life in the camp. But they never struck a chord for John until he visited Amache and began chronicling its history, and that of other internment camps, through photography.

“Most Japanese-Americans didn’t talk much about the camps,” John Tonai said, “but my father did. It got to the point where as a kid I forgot about the stories. Then, I came here and I could stand in his era, and all those memories of his stories came flooding back. I could stand in the doorway of a barracks and see my dad as a kid, running down the street.”

The rec hall arrived at its original site after a two-hour trip from town that covered perhaps a mile and a half and featured expert maneuvering around overhanging cottonwoods along crusty crushed rock roads. Workers guided it into place with the painstaking care of a golfer lining up a crucial putt. Here, it adds texture to this living remembrance of a dismal chapter in American history: About 7,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were transported and imprisoned at the camp — and nine others spread across the interior Western U.S. — during the war.

Not so long ago, the windswept range barely whispered the story of the internees herded here from the West Coast as supposed threats to the war effort. A barracks building, guard tower and the original water tower speak with ever more authority about the lives that endured — and sometimes ended — within the camp’s confines.

“Anything we bring back that’s original is a big deal,” said John Hopper, the school administrator whose student-led Amache Preservation Society helps with projects and grounds maintenance and leads tours at the camp. “We’re always looking for ways to interpret the site, and this is another way. Getting back anything original to the site is a plus for us.”

Tonai said his father and many others will arrive May 19 for the annual Amache Pilgrimage, a remembrance of life in the internment camp that also features food and discussion. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Amache Preservation Society.

“My dad is coming for what probably will be his last time,” said Tonai, whose father is 89. “I love hearing their stories. I have a better understanding of what they went through.”

Bonnie Clark, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Denver, leads the school’s archaeological project to further interpret the site. Well ahead of the move, her team flagged potentially sensitive areas so the rec hall’s movers could avoid them.

And while the DU Amache Project deals largely with digging beneath the surface to tell the camp’s story, she notes that the return of original structures — more precisely, the act of returning them after they had been dismantled — is part of the story.

“It wasn’t too long after this whole ball got rolling,” she said, referring to the human roundup and internment, “that lots of people realized this was not a good idea. People said, ‘Let’s put it behind us and forget it happened.’ Not having any physical remains left is one way you do that. It took a long time for the site to get marked.

“When we think about heritage sites, particularly with a difficult heritage, they disappear and have to be reclaimed,” Clark added. “That whole life cycle is an important part of the story.”

It will take some work to recapture the full character of the building, part of which was lopped off so it could fit on the back of a flatbed truck when the camp was scraped to its foundations. The original rolled-asphalt roofing was replaced with metal and now will have to be refitted. But the wood-beamed structure still has some of its original windows and siding bears the stenciled “11F,” denoting its block location on Amache’s grid.

“Just the discovery and seeing that stenciling still there — it’s so powerful,” said Jennifer Orrigo Charles, the executive director of Colorado Preservation Inc. “It was sitting in town this whole time, and now we’re able to bring it home.”

Her organization has been working with partners on grants to restore the site since 2001. Once it has been secured on its foundation, workers will use original construction documents to help them re-create the section that’s missing and restore the interior.

“This is part of a larger plan to interpret the site, showing people how the internees lived,” Charles said. “Part of the grant includes bringing back the historic searchlight and the guard tower, and creating fencing around the water and guard towers. There are already interpretive signs and an audio tour. The cemetery is still out there. We’re taking this landscape that was pretty desolate and starting to bring those important features back.”

Originally, a displaced Amache bathroom/laundry unit was supposed to be returned from the town of Stonington, in far-southeast Colorado. But when plans hit a snag, it was decided to move ahead with the rec hall in order to avoid losing out on grant money, Hopper said. The rec hall building was donated by the city to the restoration effort, but Hopper’s students have promised to use their funds to replace it with either a storage building or a gazebo, as the city chooses.

The transported rec hall served many purposes while it marked time in Granada, like many other structures that found use in new locations after the camp was dismantled. Some have been rediscovered and brought back. The water tower, a guard tower and a barracks building add context to a story kept alive by the gradual reconstruction of the camp’s features.

Hopper remembers back in the 1990s — when he was a seventh-grade class sponsor upon his arrival in Granada — how students used the shelter of the former rec hall to build a cartoon-themed homecoming float. This school year, before Christmas, his students and three maintenance workers cleaned the structure out.

“You had 70 years’ worth of dirt and dust, and some really old stuff you can’t use anymore — stuff an antique dealer would’ve loved,” he says. “And the original window panes are still there. It still has ’11F’ stamped on it. It’s in bad shape, and going to need a lot of TLC for sure.”

In May, members of Colorado congressional delegation introduced the Amache Study Act, which would prompt the U.S. Department of the Interior to assess Amache’s historical significance and determine whether it should become part of the National Park System.

Such a designation would shift much of the workload now handled by Hopper’s current and former students.

“The more buildings and more historical structures we get, my students not only have to do presentations but also take care of the Amache camp itself,” Hopper said, noting that he had nine students this year and anticipates having only five or six next school year. “They’re spread far and few between, and the fewer we end up having, the more work they have to do.”

The return of the rec hall adds to a historical oasis that includes museums filled with artifacts from the internment era. And it definitely counts as one of the bigger additions.

“I was nervous watching this,” said Tonai, recalling the building’s several precarious turns and tight fits along the way. “That building’s in bad shape. But I’m just in awe of the movers, the way they were able to pinpoint its location like that.”

Associated Press

Associated Press