Teacher makes sure dark time in U.S. history is remembered
The Japanese-American internment camp near Granada opened in 1942.
granada» For more than 20 years, John Hopper has worked quietly in a remote corner of southeast Colorado to help ensure that the world doesn’t forget.
Months after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor — which marks its 75th anniversary this week — the onset of World War II delivered about 7,500 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to a hastily assembled internment camp beside this rural hamlet on U.S. 50.
The Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, represented the smallest of 10 facilities built in response to fears that Japanese immigrants, and their American-born relatives, might collaborate with the enemy. It occupied 1 square mile just southwest of town and operated for three years before it was closed in 1945 and
Soon after being hired as a social studies teacher at Granada High School, Hopper asked his superintendent if anyone had incorporated the camp into a “living history” activity.
“I think it’s important that the younger generation understands what happened,” Hopper says of what’s now regarded as a dark period of American history, “so it doesn’t happen again.”
Having grown up just an hour away, he was familiar with the story — in fact, his mother had worked for a hospital administrator who was a former prisoner at the camp. And so Hopper and another teacher in 1993 launched a program to challenge some of the school’s gifted students. What started as a fact-gathering exercise expanded into efforts to help take care of the grounds, particularly the camp’s cemetery, in preparation for a pilgrimage of Amacheans and their relatives who return to the site each May.
“When they saw that,” Hopper says of the visitors, “they started pumping more money into our organization, to actually make the cemetery look presentable.”
Since then, the Amache Preservation Society — a name coined by one of those students — has become a part of the curriculum for select sophomores, juniors and seniors. Along the way, Hopper and his students helped procure historic designation and obtained grants to help restore a site that had been reduced to little more than the foundation outlines where barracks and mess halls and other structures used to stand.
With help from several organizations, including the Amache Historical Society and the Friends of Amache, Hopper and his students aided the cause of restoring elements of the camp that had all but disappeared — while also preserving its story.
Early on, the students found a reunion register from the 50th anniversary of Amache and sent questionnaires to the addresses on the list. One of the recipients telephoned to find out more about what the class was doing.
Word spread. Soon, former prisoners were contacting the group to offer their memories and observations about the three years the camp was operational. Now, those remembrances total 32 hours of taped interviews.
“When we first started, we didn’t know a whole lot of anything,” Hopper says. “But with personal interviews, we started to get the insights.”
And gradually, the organization began to amass not only personal stories, but artifacts from that era. Today, one of the largest private collections on the subject occupies the old city hall building in the middle of town, with still more research material spilling over into another nearby structure.
Students pitch in to maintain what is now a full-fledged museum. As Amache residents have aged or passed on, many families have donated items ranging from an original letterman’s sweater from the Amache school, circa 1944, to the original text of a student’s 1943 commencement address, to the work of renowned painter Koichi Nomiyama, who taught art classes while detained at the camp.
Hopper keeps an eye on online auctions for items that may come up for sale and has purchased some at his own expense — such as the wooden Army cot that was standard issue at Amache.
But the heart of the project remains the story.
“I think it’s important to preserve the history,” says Tarin Kemp, a 16-year-old junior at the high school. “If we don’t preserve the camp site and allow people to come out and see what actually happened, then there’s a good chance if something catastrophic like that would happen again, history could repeat and we’d have wrongful imprisonment.”
Now, a barracks building, a guard tower and the original water tower rise at the southern end of the site, while informational signs throughout the acreage help visitors re-imagine the sprawling, self-contained detention camp. The students, usually around 10 in any given year, regularly conduct tours. Some have lived with host families and given presentations in Japan, as well as all over Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.
“You can’t believe how much research we’ve done on it,” Hopper says. “We invite people from Amache to our presentations to make sure we’re doing it correctly. That gives us credibility. Over the years, kids see how important it is to get that information out to their peers, more than anything else.
“That’s our ultimate goal, to keep their memories alive.”
All of them pitch in mowing the grounds, trimming trees and bushes around the cemetery, staining the guard tower, maintaining the grid of dirt roads that crisscross the property. Eventually, Hopper hopes the camp site can be designated a national park.
Meanwhile, the tradition of the Amache Preservation Society has been handed down as class after class of students has passed through Granada High School. Some find their involvement something they’re reluctant to leave behind.
“We have people who’ve been in the class four or five years past,” Kemp says, “and they still come back and help. I plan to do that, because I think it’s important.”
In 1942 during World War II, about 7,500 JapaneseAmericans were held at an internment camp near Granada, about 18 miles east of Lamar.
Japanese-Americans board buses at the Granada railroad station for transportation to Camp Amache in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the forced relocation, almost exclusively from the West Coast. Camp Amache opened Aug. 27, 1942. Denver Post file