America’s Concentration Camps


August 10, 1942 – October 28, 1945

“I wasn’t scared. I think our parents did such a good job of telling us: This is what we’re doing, this is what our life is going to be like, just accept it. And perhaps that’s part of the Japanese culture that says shikata ga nai. You take whatever you are given and you work with it.”
—May K. Sasaki

Minidoka was built on 33,000 acres of arid desert in southern Idaho, near Twin Falls. Since it was far from the western “exclusion zone,” Minidoka was considered lower risk, and had lighter security than other camps. The camp had been open for months before the barbed wire fencing and guard towers were installed. Even then, inmate Katsumi Okamoto never saw a guard in the towers. “They didn’t need it,” he said. “They knew they didn't need it.”

Urban Farmers

The population at Minidoka was mostly from urban centers in Oregon and Washington. Nevertheless, many took on farming jobs in various parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah during the fall harvest season, when wartime labor shortages left farmers desperate for help. Groups of friends volunteered, and were granted “agricultural leave” to harvest sugar beets and potatoes. It was hard work, but the pay was often a significant increase over the $16 per month most inmates earned for work in camp. Even if a farming job didn’t yield much of a profit, it was a chance to escape the confines of the camp for a while and enjoy a measure of autonomy.

“A New Freedom”

For many youngsters, the camp itself provided a measure of autonomy — in this case, from the authority of their parents. In the communal dining halls, teenagers ate with friends instead of families. And, because the barrack apartments were so small, teenagers spent more time outside the home, doing what they liked. This had the effect of dismantling family structures, but for many Nisei it was a welcome change.

Helen Amerman Manning, recruited from outside the camp to teach at Minidoka, was aware that her students looked forward to getting out of the camp. But she also remembers them “enjoying a new freedom.”

Quote credits
May K. Sasaki, interview by Lori Hoshino and Alice Ito, October 28, 1997, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Katsumi Okamoto, interview by Richard Potashin, November 7, 2007, Manzanar National Historic Site Collection, Densho.
Helen Amerman Manning, interview by Alice Ito, August 2, 2003, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.

Students preparing to plant rye, Minidoka.Enlarge
Students preparing to plant rye, Minidoka. Barrack apartment of Mrs. Eizo Nishi, Minidoka. Barracks under construction, Minidoka. Community store customers warming hands at stove, Minidoka. Looking westward from Block 44, Minidoka.

Students preparing to plant rye between classroom barrack buildings. National Archives and Records Administration [Electronic Record].