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An Interview With
Priscilla Wegars

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Imprisoned in Paradise
Imprisoned in
By Priscilla Wegars
An Interview
With Priscilla Wegars
Author of
Imprisoned in Paradise

Japanese Internee Road Workers at the
World War II Kooskia Internment Camp

Interviewed by Leonard D. Chan

Priscilla Wegars is the volunteer curator of the University of Idaho's Asian American Comparative Collection (AACC). The AACC is a resource center of artifacts, images, and bibliographical materials that help people learn about the history, culture, and archaeology of Asian Americans in the West. Dr. Wegars is also a renowned historian, archaeologist, and author of the Chinese and Japanese experience in the Northwestern United States.

Here's is the description of the book from the publisher's website

The long-awaited account of Idaho's World War II Kooskia Internment Camp is now available. Titled Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp, it describes a unique, virtually forgotten, World War II detention and road building facility that was located on the remote, wild, and scenic Lochsa River in north central Idaho at the site of an earlier CCC camp and a former federal prison camp above Lowell, Idaho. Between mid-1943 and mid-1945 the Kooskia (KOOS-key) camp held an all-male contingent of some 265 so-called "enemy aliens" of Japanese ancestry. Most came from 21 states and 2 territories, but others were from Mexico; some were even kidnapped from Panama and Peru. Two alien internee doctors, an Italian and later a German, provided medical services; 25 Caucasian employees included several women; and a Japanese American man censored the mail.

Despite having committed no crimes, but suspected of potential sabotage, these noncitizen U.S. residents of Japanese descent had been interned elsewhere in the U.S. following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They volunteered for transfer to the Kooskia Internment Camp and earned wages for helping build the Lewis-Clark Highway, now Highway 12, between Lewiston, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, supervised by U.S. Bureau of Public Roads employees.


I'm going to assume that most of the readers of our newsletter know a little bit about the Japanese American World War II internment and incarceration camps in America.

You start your book in the Preface by telling about a Japanese American World War II internment lecture you attended and how the lecturer was stumped when asked about the Kooskia Internment Camp. Had you heard anything at all about the Kooskia Camp before this lecture and did a light bulb immediately flash on that this was something you wanted to learn more about? Tell us a little bit about your journey between that lecture and the completion of your book.
No, I had never before heard anything about the Kooskia Internment Camp. I was very intrigued, and asked the questioner if she could tell me more. All she remembered was that when she was in high school, she and others went down to the train station, in the town of Kooskia, and saw a group of Japanese internees get off the train. (The camp wasn't actually at the town of Kooskia, but about 30 miles away; it was named for Kooskia, the closest real town.) Shortly afterwards, I confirmed with a colleague that there was such a camp, at the site of the earlier CCC and federal prison camps, and found references to it in regional newspapers. I then applied for, and received (1997), a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund grant to research the camp and to prepare a report on it titled, "'A Real He-Man's Job': Japanese Internees and the Kooskia Internment Camp, Idaho, 1943-1945" (1998).

In the years following the CLPEF grant, I received an Idaho Humanities Council Research Fellowship (1999) and a California Civil Liberties Public Education program grant (2001). The first allowed me to visit the National Archives in Washington, DC. The second funded both research at the National Archives in College Place, MD, and a trip to California to give several talks on the Kooskia Internment Camp. I also prepared a booklet about the camp for lecture attendees, Golden State Meets Gem State: Californians at Idaho's Kooskia Internment Camp, 1943-1945 (2002). After spending several years writing the book (self-supported), I learned that, at nearly 1,000 pages, including notes, it was too long to interest a publisher. I then spent the next several years revising and condensing it.

Wow, that's quite a bit more than what is in the final version of the book. Are there things that you regret not getting in the book? Could you mention a few?
The original manuscript had a chapter on the CCC camp, two chapters on the prison camp, a chapter on the German and Italian camps in the vicinity, and a chapter on medical and dental care at the Kooskia camp. Other chapters had more information on individual internees, particularly men from the East Coast, the West Coast, Alaska, Hawai'i, and Latin America, and that information was condensed.

The medical and dental chapter is the one that I most regret dropping, but it and the other omitted chapters will find a home in my next book, tentatively titled, As Rugged as the Terrain: CCC 'Boys;' Federal Convicts; and Japanese, German, and Italian Internees Wrestle with a Mountain Wilderness. (That's a mouthful!)

I wish I could have included more information on Reverend Hozen Seki, founder of the New York Buddhist Church, and author of the diary in English that was so helpful to me, however, I have written a nice article on him that may become part of the next book whether or not it is first published separately elsewhere.

Tell us about the title of your book Imprisoned in Paradise, why "Paradise" and could people get the misperception that life in this camp was good? What was life like? Whenever I think of prisoner road building crews, I think of deplorable conditions as portrayed in movies like Cool Hand Luke and Bridge on the River Kwai. One of the descriptions of the book mentioned how the internees used the Geneva Convention to garner improvements to their conditions. Could you expand on this?
The title, Imprisoned in Paradise, comes from a letter that Tommy Yoshito Kadotani wrote shortly after arriving at the camp. He called it " a paradise in mountains," saying that it reminded him of Yosemite National Park. From Kadotani's perspective, as a landscape gardener from California, it was a scenic paradise compared with the Santa Fe internment camp that he had just left. Since the internees had volunteered to go to the Kooskia camp, they accepted this difficult and sometimes dangerous working environment. They were not harshly treated, and if they did not like the work, and some did not, they could transfer to another Justice Department internment camp. However, in those camps there was nothing to do, so the time dragged, whereas at the Kooskia Internment Camp the road workers received wages of $55 to $65 per month, depending on the skill required for the job that they did.

The 1929 Geneva Convention was an international agreement governing the treatment of prisoners of war. The warring parties agreed that its provisions could be extended to people in internment camps. In the U.S., it applied only to people held in Justice Department camps, not to those in War Relocation Authority camps. Each chapter of Imprisoned in Paradise begins with a quote from a relevant section of the Geneva Convention and the chapter itself illuminates how the internees used that section to their advantage. For example, when conditions fell short of their expectations, they petitioned, successfully, for improvements such as better medical care and a more sympathetic superintendent.

Did the internees have a good sense of what they were in for when they volunteered to work at the Kooskia Camp? Generally, what were the conditions like at their prior locations? Enlighten our readers a little bit about the differences between the camps that were run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for the Justice Department and those run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA).
Yes, the internees were well aware of what to expect at the camp, at least in terms of the road work or the camp support duties, such as cooking and laundry. They came mostly from Justice Department camps in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico. These camps were surrounded by barbed wire; were primarily in dry, dusty, desert areas; and there was nothing for the men to do but to wait out the war. Although the War Relocation Authority camps were similar in location, the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention required that the INS provide the internees with specified conditions of food and housing, ones that were equal to what a U.S. soldier would receive at his base camp. This surpassed what the WRA inmates received in the WRA incarceration camps because no similar document governed their treatment.

Highlight a few of the more interesting interviews you had with those that were at the camp and any of the second hand accounts.
When I began working on the Kooskia Internment Camp project, I located just two internees, both from California, and two employees, both from Idaho, who were still alive. All are now deceased.

Former internee James Isao Yano impressed me with his statement that he volunteered for the Kooskia camp because "I wanted to do something for my adopted country" despite being forbidden by law to become a citizen.

Former employee Cecil Boller described how he came to relish Japanese food as prepared by the internee cooks.

Former internee Koshio Henry Shima (previously Koshio Shimabukuro), a Japanese Peruvian, shared how the U.S., in collusion with the Peruvian government, kidnapped Japanese Peruvian citizens and permanent resident aliens and brought them to the U.S. Further reading on this topic confirmed that the U.S. wanted to "exchange" the unwilling Japanese Latin Americans for American citizens stranded in Japan.

Reverend Hozen Seki, a Buddhist minister, kept a diary in English for the second year he was at the Kooskia camp. It proved invaluable in understanding life there from the perspective of an internee, and humanized the experience as compared with the government documents.

Did Reverend Seki let you see his diary or was it publicly available? If it's not readily available to the public, are the heirs of Reverend Seki in possession of the diary and are they interested in making it available? I would imagine that a lot of people might be interested in seeing this primary source material.
Reverend Seki is deceased, but his wife is still alive; either she has the original diary or one of her sons has it. The younger son, Hoshin, gave me a photocopy of the diary, but I don't know if the family is interested in publishing it. To do so, it would need to be transcribed and annotated, all very time-consuming. When the Kooskia camp closed in May 1945 Reverend Seki transferred to the Santa Fe internment camp and continued writing in his diary, so yes, it would be of great interest as primary source material. If it is published eventually, the proceeds should benefit the American Buddhist Study Center in New York City, which he founded after his release from internment. Similarly, all proceeds from Imprisoned in Paradise benefit the AACC.

So why did a Buddhist minister volunteer to work on a road building crew?
The diary doesn't begin until Seki had been at the Kooskia camp for about a year, so it doesn't say why he went there. A biography about him, A Spark of Dharma: The Life of Reverend Hozen Seki, by Kocho Fukuma, ed. Hoshin Seki (New York: American Buddhist Study Center, 2001), p. 79, simply states that he was sent from Fort Meade, Maryland, to the Fort Missoula, Montana, internment camp and that he transferred to the Kooskia camp a month later.

Documents in his Closed Legal Case File in the National Archives indicate that he and some 34 other Japanese internees left Fort Meade at the same time. This involuntary transfer, in late May 1943, removed them from U.S. Army control. In Montana they came under the jurisdiction of the INS, which administered Fort Missoula as an internment camp for the Justice Department. Some of Seki's group transferred to the Kooskia camp right away. He may have missed his friends, and/or he may have seen this as a way to earn money to help support his wife and sons.

What happened to the Kooskia internees and camp workers? Are there any notable after experiences?
The Kooskia Internment Camp closed in May 1945 and the internees still there were all sent to the Santa Fe internment camp. Little is known about most of them after that. However, the U.S. tried to deport one man, Toraichi Kono, who had been an employee of movie comedian Charlie Chaplin prior to World War II. ACLU attorney Wayne Collins saved Kono and many other people of Japanese ancestry from deportation to Japan. A film about Kono's life is in progress; see a trailer at

Reverend Hozen Seki, the pre-war founder of the New York Buddhist Church, later co-founded the American Buddhist Academy in New York City. Additionally, I feel privileged to be able to share information about deceased Kooskia internees with family members who know little or nothing of their relative's experience there.

What were some of the most interesting things you learned in creating this book?
For me, there were several profound learning experiences. Of course, I knew that racist U.S. laws prevented permanent resident aliens of Asian ancestry from becoming citizens, but it was heart wrenching to see how this divided families.

Second, I was incredulous that the U.S. government could so betray the principles of the U.S. Constitution by imprisoning both citizens and non-citizens without affording them due process of law - for the Kooskia internees, "Kangaroo-court"-type hearings, defense lawyers not allowed!

Third, I was impressed with the massive amount of U.S. government documents that are available on the camp and on the individual internees.

Fourth, I was inspired by the courage of the Japanese internees who exercised control over their own lives by volunteering to come work at the Kooskia Internment Camp, and then, once there, successfully protesting unfair and unpleasant conditions of their internment.

What remains of the Kooskia Internment Camp - was it in one location or multiple places? Did you do any archaeological onsite research and can people go to see any of it?
The Kooskia Internment Camp itself was at one location, where Canyon Creek enters the Lochsa River. A housing compound for the Caucasian camp employees and the Japanese American censor/translator/interpreter was about one-half mile to the east, at Apgar Creek; this wasn't a town, just a wide spot in the road.

During the summer of 2010 there was an archaeological excavation at the Kooskia Internment Camp site; Dr. Stacey Camp from the University of Idaho directed the excavations under an award from the National Park Service's Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. The excavators even found some false teeth that must have been made by Keiji Kijima, an internee who was a dental technician and who is known to have made false teeth for internees who needed them. The excavation website is at

Yes, people can visit the former Kooskia Internment Camp; it is at Canyon Creek near Milepost 104 on U.S. Highway 12 between Lewiston, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana. Apgar, the employee housing area, is now a public campground. However, following closure of the Kooskia Internment Camp, the buildings both there and at Apgar were all removed. There is not yet an interpretive sign in either place.

I see you have a few locations where you will be giving slide presentations (Moscow, ID, Portland, OR, Los Angeles, CA). Are there any plans for more visits like to the San Francisco area or for posting a video of the presentation on the Internet?
I would be delighted to give presentations about the Kooskia Internment Camp in the San Francisco area! However, since all royalties from the sale of Imprisoned in Paradise benefit the Asian American Comparative Collection, not me, I do need sponsorship for the costs of transportation, meals, and lodging. If any group makes a video of my presentation, and wants to post it to the Internet, that would be wonderful.

I hope someone reading this helps to sponsor more events for you or at least gets the presentation on video. Please keep us informed about additional visits and videos.
Thanks! Will do.

Last question - so what's next? Do you have any interesting projects that you can clue us in on?
My next book will be the one I described above, As Rugged as the Terrain, which will tell "the rest of the story." Once it is published I can turn my attention to a full-length, non-fiction biography of Polly Bemis, expanding on my book for fourth grade and up, Polly Bemis: A Chinese American Pioneer (Backeddy, 2003) and on my chapter about her, "Polly Bemis: Lurid Life or Literary Legend?" in Wild Women of the Old West, edited by Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, 45-68, 200-203 (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2003).

Thank you very much Priscilla.

Editor's Notes

Hello Everyone,

Happy Holidays to you all! Hope you're not over stressing yourselves and taking time to enjoy the season.

For those of you that may have noticed the omission from our schedule - we're not going to have a poetry day in January 2011. Sorry about that. If you're still interested in having your poetry presented, send me samples of your work and we'll try to include it in our annual January poetry newsletter.

A reminder - if you're thinking about going to see the Shen Yun Performing Arts Company, please use the code "aacp" when you order your tickets. If you use this code, 10% of your ticket purchases go to AACP.

Thank you once again to Priscilla Wegars for letting us know about your new book and for doing the interview with us. We really appreciate it.

Thank you to all of the people that helped us out this year. May your generosity to us be returned to you many times over.

Last Editorial Comment
At this time of the year, with all the incivility that we witness around us and in the news, I'm reminded of something that was said be one ordinary American, 18 years ago. Here's an excerpt of his heart felt message to the press and all Americans -
"People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It's just not right. It's not right. It's not, it's not going to change anything. We'll, we'll get our justice... Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."
- Rodney King

Love and peace to you all and best wishes for the New Year!

Leonard Chan
Executive Editor

PS: come visit us at our store. Books make great gifts and best of all, most items are 20% off through the holidays.

Up Coming Events

Here are some events that AACP will soon be attending.
Events that AACP will be Attending or Hosting
Jan 30
Families with Children from China - N. CA
16th Between Two New Years Celebration!
Marin Co. Day School
Corte Madera, CA
Feb. 1 Library Materials Fair Exhibit/Sales SC County
Office of Educ.

Santa Clara, CA
Feb. 20
The 31th Annual San Jose
Day of Remembrance 2011
Betsuin Bud. Church
640 N 5th St.
San Jose, CA
Mar. 6
Chinese New Year's Celebration Stockton Civic Aud.
525 N. Center St.
Stockton, CA
Mar. 19
1pm & 7pm
CSM Asian Pacific American Film Festival College of San Mateo
San Mateo, CA
Other Event of Interest that AACP May Not Attend
Dec. 11 San Francisco Parol Lantern Festival
San Francisco, CA
Dec. 28-30 Shen Yun Dance and Music Company World Tour
Perform Traditional Chinese Dances and Music
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
Jan. 12-14 Assoc. of CA School Administrators
Every Child Counts Symposium
Portola Plaza Hotel
Monterey, CA
Mar. 4-6 California Council for the Social Studies Conference Doubletree Hotel
Sacramento, CA

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The following books are discounted for subscribers to our newsletter. The discounts on these books end January 7, 2011.

Imprisoned in Paradise
Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp

By Priscilla Wegars
Foreward by Michiko Midge Ayukawa
2010, 323 pages, Paperback.

One to three weeks for delivery.

See the interview with the author above.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3627, Price $19.95 ... for newsletter subscribers $15.96

The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights

By Kenji Yoshino
2006, 282 pages, Hardback.

Watch a video of the author at the Cambridge Forum. Once you see it, you'll want to read his book.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3628, Price $24.95 ... for newsletter subscribers $19.96

The Lucky Ones
One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America

By Mae Ngai
2010, 288 pages, Hardback.

One to three weeks for delivery.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Item #3629, Price $26.00 ... for newsletter subscribers $20.80

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