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Behind the Scenes: The Idaho Homefront: "Of Camps and Combat"

Last year I put together a show called The Idaho Homefront: "World War II." While I was doing research, people kept telling me about the old relocation center out near Twin Falls called Minidoka. It was known as the Hunt Camp and housed more than 9,000 Japanese men, women and children who were moved from their homes along the Pacific Coast. The US Government thought those people might pose a threat to our country, thought they might be sympathetic to the Japanese. I also heard about and met men who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This unit was put together later in the war. The Army needed more troops and the idea of an all Japanese-American fighting team appealed to the government.

I included a bit on the camp and the 442nd in the first program, but it was clear that this was something that deserved its own show. The station came up with the resources and production began.

Now it's September and the show is done. It airs September 20th all across the state. I can't help but wonder what people will think when they watch it. Our first program, The Idaho Homefront: "World War II," was nostalgic. This program is not. It's just not a topic that lends itself to warmth and fond remembrances. This is a show about what happens to people when people are afraid. Americans were terrified after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As far as I can tell, they were SO scared that they didn't really mind the idea of locking up other Americans they thought might prove to be a threat. Keep in mind that we didn't lock up Italians-Americans or German-Americans. We only locked up Japanese-Americans. It was said that these people were being locked up for their own safety. But as several of the people you'll see in the program say, the guns were pointed inside the fences, at them, so they didn't feel they were the ones being protected.

One of the things that struck me when working on this project was how so few people feel bad about what happened to the Japanese who were locked up. As you'll see in the program, most feel that locking them up was the right thing to do. One dissenting voice was Bethine Church. Her father was Governor of Idaho at the time. She says it was one of the hardest parts of his career. "My dad never talked much about it because it happened when he was governor. And he said some things he probably regretted his whole life through, because everybody was really very awful about it. But I know, I know that his way of making it up was when he was Federal Judge. He never liked anything more than making Japanese-Americans citizens. And the best pictures I have him are with little Japanese children of the parents he'd just made a citizen in his office. So I think it was his way of trying to give back."

It was another time. America had not been through such an attack as Pearl Harbor. And yet for Bethine Church, there is concern that the lessons have not been learned. "Well you had guilt, but, at that time they didn't because they thought they were protecting the country.  And you know we did do dreadful things, thinking we're going to protect the country. Look at all of the awful things that are being done now and, and it doesn't always work."

The comparisons between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been inescapable while working on this program. Time and again the people I've talked with have linked them and the way our country has treated "suspected threats." While we didn't get into that in the program, I think it is one of the unintended common threads running through the production.

This program took director Alberto Moreno and me all over the country. It started out with a lot of in-state travel.

We talked to people like 442nd veteran Hero Shiosaki who spends a lot of his time talking to school kids about World War II. He's a kind, gentle man who drives way too fast, according to his friends. Talking to Hero is an honor in itself. It is difficult to avoid the easy pun because this is a man who lives up to his name.

Hero Shiosaki
Hero Shiosaki at the Memorial Day service in Pocatello, Idaho

We also headed to Twin Falls where we talked with Roy Gikiu. He is a Silver Star and Purple Heart winner. He's a gracious man who doesn't flaunt his medals. He told me his unit was also awarded the Bronze Star, but that he never got his. I asked him why and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders, "Just didn't, I guess. Doesn't really matter to me." He has the certificates honoring his heroism hanging on the wall of his front porch. You'll find them right next to some golfing trophies and plaques. "I'd rather have another hole in one than another medal," he laughs.

Roy Gikiu
Roy Gikiu with his service portrait from the 442nd RTC

Al and I spent some time with Professor Bob Simms from Boise State University. I have to say he was one of the first people who really got me interested in trying to tell this story. Each year Bob is one of the people who helps put together a pilgrimage to what's left of the old Hunt Camp. Many who were in the camps come back to Minidoka each summer. They bring family members and memories. I heard a lot of laughter and watched tears roll down the faces of those who looked out at the barren landscape they were forced to call home for a time.

Fumiko Hayashida
Fumiko Hayashida returns to Minidoka for the first time in 65 years

Fumiko Hayashida was a young woman when she left Bainbridge Island, Washington with her children, headed for the camp. There is a wonderful, wonderful picture taken of her, holding her toddler daughter, the day she left her home for internment. She told me she didn't even know the picture was taken. Thank goodness it was, for it is a tangible reminder of what she went through.

Fumiko Hayashida and daughter 1942
Fumiko Hayashida and daughter in 1942

In June, on the way to Los Angeles to talk with Toshi Ito and attend a memorial service for the 442nd . . . we had a blowout. We weren't too far from Death Valley. Al changed the tire in the 117 degree heat as semis roared past.

Stopped by a flat tire
Director Alberto Moreno and the blowout on the way to Los Angeles, 117 degrees

It was worth it to talk with this elegant woman. She spoke of being forced into the camp and her anger at the time. Toshi wrote a book called Endure which tells the story of a young girl who is forced to leave her home and live in a relocation camp. She told me she wrote it for her granddaughter who started asking questions that were hard to answer. It is a novel. She said writing an autobiography was too difficult. For her, putting her story to paper required taking a step away from it. It's a marvelous book.

Toshi Ito
Toshi Ito left her home in Seattle for internment at the Hunt Camp at Minidoka

The day of the 442nd reunion was the hottest of the year in Los Angeles. I felt bad for these old veterans, sitting proudly in the blazing sun as speaker after speaker detailed their soaring accomplishments. Again we found ourselves surrounded by heroes. Again we found ourselves in awe of what these men did for our country.

Names at Los Angeles Memorial

The names of Japanese-American servicemen at the memorial in Los Angeles

Veterans at Memorial service

Our Veterans in the heat at the memorial service

Filming the memorial
Al capturing the event

Everyone who travels has to eat. Sometimes we end up in some pretty odd spots on these production shoots. This show actually meant some good food. A big step up from Ramen in the dirt. Now anyone who knows me knows I like to eat. While I love sophisticated restaurants with complicated dishes, I also have a special place in my increasingly clogged heart for small, classic joints. Traveling the way we do, it's tough to carve out the time for a fancy meal, let alone pack a suit and tie without having it demolished in the course of the journey. But we do manage to fit in some of the smaller spots. I grew up in Los Angeles and I could go on and on about where to eat. I won't. But I will point out two spots not to be missed if you can help it. One is Pink's. It's on La Brea at Melrose. Hands down the best chilidogs in the world. Trust me, I know. I am partial to the bacon chili cheese dog, but you need to make these decisions for yourself.

Another is Philippe's. It's famous for its French Dip, but try the Lamp French Dip and have them add blue cheese. Oh my.

Pink's bacon chili dog
The best chilidog in the world, the bacon chili cheese dog at Pink's in Los Angeles

Alan chowing down on his hotdog

Al sinks his teeth into heaven

French dip on bun

Lamb French Dip with bleu cheese at Philippe's

July was the hottest on record in Idaho. And, of course, we were in Idaho.

Our final trip was to Washington, D.C. in August. We gathered hours of archival footage and hundreds of still photos from the National Archives and the Library Of Congress. I guess we brought the heat with us again. We were there for the hottest day of the year and the hottest week of the year. Lucky, lucky us.

We found some great images for the show but were disappointed with the memorial to those interned in the camps and the Japanese-American veterans. It's a lovely memorial not too far from the Capitol. But it is surrounded by construction. That meant shooting it during the day was out because, frankly, it was impossible to get a meaningful shot without cranes and orange cones. So we went back late at night to catch it in darkness, lit by all the lights embedded in the concrete. When we got there we were amazed to find that more than half the lights were burned out and there wasn't enough light to shoot with. Such a meaningful tribute to these men and women, and we couldn't get any decent shots. One shot you will see is the word MINIDOKA carved into stone with what looks like a spotlight moving across it. That was my goofy idea. It's my small flashlight in the darkness trying to make something from little. Ah well.

Minidoka memorial stone
The Japanese-American Memorial in Washington, DC lit by flashlight

Okay, one last shameless plug for a place to eat. Ben's Chili Bowl. I used to go there when I was a little kid and I still love it. It's famous for the "Half Smoke." Basically that's a smoked sausage covered with chili. It's SOOOOO good. The people are friendly and it is a spot where you will mostly find locals. You'll see maintenance guys from the Metro station across the street eating at the counter next to elected officials. If you want my advice, just walk up to the counter, when they ask you what you'll have, "A smoke and a coke." Again, just trust me on this one.

Smoke and a coke

Jim with his "smoke and a Coke" at Ben's Chili Bowl

Finally it was back to Idaho to put this show together. As I sat and watched all the interviews and wrote the script it kept hitting me how at peace all these people seemed. If any group has a right to feel bitter it would be this one. They were Americans who were forced from their homes and put into rugged barracks in the middle of nowhere. They had to find a way to live day to day. They had to find a way to raise their children. They had to find a way to be Americans locked up by Americans.

I was told it would be hard to find people from the camps who would be willing to talk with me about this on camera. It was. A lot of the people I called politely said, "No." But it wasn't impossible. Those I did talk with were generous with their time. They were honest and gracious and often quite direct about how they felt. But I cannot say I found bitterness. They seemed to have found a way to forgive, while never forgetting.

Some told me they wouldn't have talked about it years ago, but that now . . . now that they are getting older . . . they want their stories told. Over and over I heard how important it is that people understand what happened so that it doesn't happen again.

So now the show is done and our bit of story telling is over. You can never tell all the stories there are to tell. You can never get it all in a television program. But those stories are out there. You should go find some yourself. I've now done two shows on the years surrounding World War II. One thing I have learned is how much there is to learn from those who lived history. Television shows and books and movies are great, but they are no substitute for hearing the tales first hand. Our veterans are still with us, so are those who lived in the camps. I encourage you to talk with them. Actually I encourage you to listen to them. I promise it will be time well spent.

-Jim Peck
September 2007

Funding provided in part by the generous support of WETA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.