UM professor reveals history of Missoula's WWII detention center
The story was lost for a long time, but it goes something like this:
During the buildup to World War II, the U.S. government seized 1,200 nonmilitary Italians. They were merchant seamen, World’s Fair employees and cruise ship workers. In the early months of 1941, the prisoners were whisked away to scenic western Montana, which happened to have a largely unused military base called Fort Missoula.
The young, fit sailors spent their time improving the camp, attending church, performing plays, building model ships and trying to woo Missoula’s female population.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, more than 1,000 Japanese joined the Italians. These men were resident aliens allowed to live in the U.S. but barred by law from becoming citizens. With an average age of 60, the Japanese were prominent leaders in their communities and among those the U.S. government feared would be most influential in any plan to stir up sabotage and insurrection during the war. The U.S.-born sons of some of these internees would later fight for the nation that had imprisoned their fathers.
The Japanese elders generally avoided the Italians, crafted vases, built a nine-hole golf course and played softball. They were joined by 123 Japanese Latin and South Americans, as well as 23 German resident aliens — though most Germans were imprisoned at another Justice Department Alien Detention Center near Bismarck, N.D.
The Missoula and Bismarck centers were a precursor to what would follow. In March 1942, the government decided to move 120,000 Japanese Americans to 10 War Relocation Authority camps across the West. This time U.S. citizens were fenced in.
The Immigration Service officially closed the Missoula detention camp on July 1, 1944, and there never was a documented case of sabotage or insurrection by any Japanese in America during the war.
Carol Van Valkenburg never knew any of this. Back in the ’80s when she was a UM graduate student in interdisciplinary studies, hardly anyone cared to recall the detention center at Fort Missoula. Then she read an interesting article about how the government had spied on the Japanese in America before World War II, and her journalism dean mentioned how there was a wartime internment camp at Fort Missoula. The subject piqued her interest, but when she searched through books about U.S. detention camps, nothing was mentioned about the Justice Department camps in Missoula and Bismarck.
“I realized nobody had written anything about it, and for research purposes that was a gold mine,” Van Valkenburg says. “I was amazed nobody had written about something so important.”
She filled the void by crafting a master’s thesis about the Fort Missoula center that eventually became a book titled “An Alien Place,” which was published in 1996 and reprinted in 2009 with updated information. Van Valkenburg went on to teach journalism at UM for three decades. She now finds herself a professor emeritus sliding toward retirement after one final semester advising the Montana Kaimin student newspaper.
When she first started her research, Van Valkenburg learned all the alien center files had been boxed up and shipped to Washington, D.C. When she contacted the National Archives about reading the files, she learned they were still top secret.
“Nobody had asked for them before,” she says. “That prompted them to go and declassify the files. So I learned I would be the first to see these declassified files, and that really sparked my interest.”
At the time, Van Valkenburg was a married grad student with two young children and little money, but she couldn’t resist traveling to Washington to view the files — a journey that would make her the leading expert on Missoula’s WWII internment center. She took along a heavy, early generation laptop borrowed from her brother — black screen with green letters — and stayed in D.C. with the sister of a Montana friend. At the massively pillared National Archives building, she was checked into a cavernous room, where a helpful archivist assigned to her would bring the files on a cart. Then she would plug in her laptop and spend days copying away.
“They didn’t make you wear white gloves or anything,” she says, “and suddenly you are holding letters from (former FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover and all that kind of stuff. It was very cool.”
Amazing stories were buried in those pages. In one instance, Van Valkenburg learned of Masuo Yasui, a Japanese “alien” from Hood River, Ore., who had started a mercantile store with his brother. Hard work made the business prosper, and he served many Japanese immigrants, selling them goods on credit. The Yasuis then bought farmland and orchards in the area, clearing timbered lots by hand. He and his wife raised nine children as Methodists, seven of whom survived to adulthood. But after Pearl Harbor, Masuo was imprisoned in Missoula as a threat to national security.
All Japanese aliens detained in Missoula were granted hearings. (Interestingly, the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent later detained in the WRA camps by executive order were not granted hearings.) Yasui’s son Minoru, a prominent attorney, later wrote, “The hearings were a complete farce.” At one point authorities produced children’s drawings taken from the Yasui home of the Panama Canal with drawings of how the locks worked. Masuo Yasui claimed they were his children’s schoolwork, but authorities challenged him to prove he “didn’t intend to blow up the Panama Canal!” Authorities also thought it suspicious he had returned to Japan to visit relatives, among other supposed evidence.
Van Valkenburg says it’s one of the chief disappointments of her life that many of the files she wanted to read, the Alien Enemy Hearing Board Files, were lost by the Justice Department. She saw some files piecemeal, but she never got to read the bulk of the evidence the government used to detain the aliens.
“I filed a Freedom of Information request and threatened to sue the Justice Department,” she says. “Then I got the worst-possible answer: We can’t find the files. If they had them, I could sue to get them. But if they are lost … it was just the worst. I know the government saves everything, and they don’t throw stuff like that out. I don’t think they looked very hard, and I have to believe they are out there somewhere.”
Van Valkenburg’s research revealed that one of Montana’s most admired statesmen, Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving U.S. Senate majority leader and an ambassador to Japan, had been a member of the hearing boards in Missoula while working as a UM history faculty member. Van Valkenburg wrote Mansfield, an Asia expert revered by the Japanese, to get his recollections, but he never responded. When Mansfield’s biographer asked about the hearings, Mansfield said he couldn’t remember them.
“I have to believe that he didn’t care to recall them, because that wasn’t like him,” Van Valkenburg says. “But because we don’t have the transcripts, we don’t know what his role was with the hearings. We don’t know whether he stood up for the Japanese or not.”
Because most Japanese in the Missoula alien camp were older and she didn’t start her research until the ’80s, Van Valkenburg never was able to interview any of the detainees. But she interviewed the children of the men and once attended a reunion of Japanese Americans who were detained at a WRA camp in Wyoming.
“I got only a few stories from people who remember their fathers being taken away,” she said. “But mostly they knew nothing because their fathers wouldn’t talk about it. It was never spoken about, as if it were shameful. In that culture, you don’t talk about such things — you just bear it in silence.”
Many WWII concentration camps in Europe are maintained and visited by tourists, but the WRA and similar camps in the U.S. largely have disappeared. The alien detention center at Fort Missoula is the most intact — many of the buildings used for the center are still in use — and the historical museum there recently restored the hearing courtroom in what was the center headquarters. Efforts also may be made to return former barracks buildings, which were dispersed to places such as the UM Golf Course, Flathead Lake Biological Station and the Missoula County Fairgrounds.
“I think it’s important to have the camp restored as much as possible, because I think it’s historically significant,” Van Valkenburg says. “I know it would be of great interest to a lot of people, especially the Japanese.”
She has given many talks to various community organizations about the alien detention center over the years, and she often heard comments that “something like this could never happen again.”
“But I think after 9/11 the cycle might be starting again,” Van Valkenburg says. “There’s now a controversy that the New York City Police Department is keeping lists of Muslims and watching people because they are Muslim. That’s how it started with the Japanese before World War II.
“When you look at the current college-age generation, they are completely unaware of what happened in World War II in terms of the detention camps. And that’s sad, because I think if you are unaware of it, it’s easier for history to repeat itself.”
— By Cary Shimek
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UM Professor reveals history of Missoula's WWII detention center