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Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp (review)

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 14, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 312-314 | 10.1353/jaas.2011.0022

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The fruit of over ten years of research, Imprisoned in Paradise brings to light the story of the Kooskia (Koos-key) Internment Camp in Idaho during World War II. Priscilla Wegars presents a well-documented comprehensive account of the camp with many photographs and accounts of camp life. Unlike the more well known War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camps, which are commonly referred to as internment camps, Kooskia Internment Camp actually fits the formal definition of internment because the camp held men of Japanese ancestry classified as "enemy aliens." Unlike the people of Japanese ancestry in WRA concentration camps (many of whom were American citizens), the internees at Kooskia and other internment camps were treated according to the 1929 Geneva Convention. As a result, the internees had better living conditions and food than those in the WRA concentration camps. The exclusively male internees at Kooskia volunteered to transfer to the camp from their imprisonment in Ft. Missoula, Montana; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Ft. Meade, Maryland; and Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Formerly Canyon Creek Prison Camp housing federal prisoners (1935–1943), Kooskia Internment Camp was thirty miles away from the town of Kooskia and was opened in order to continue the construction of Highway 12, designated a "First Priority Military Highway," connecting Lewiston, Idaho, with Missoula, Montana. The northern Idaho internment camp operated from May 1943 to May 1945 and held 265 men—some who had been rounded up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) following the attack on Pearl Harbor from twenty-one states and the territories of Alaska and Hawai'i, some who had been transferred to internment camps from WRA concentration camps, and others who were kidnapped by governments in Latin America and Mexico and sent to the United States for imprisonment. Although the land in northern Idaho now owned by the Clearwater National Forest bears little mark of the internment camp's presence beyond leveled ground and a concrete slab used for sports, Wegars combines two interviews with former internees and multiple interviews with family members with archival research—censored internee correspondence, employee's memoranda and letters, diaries, local news coverage, and Clearwater National Forest interviews with former employees (1982)—to construct a portrait of the camp and the conditions for internees during World War II. Adherence to the Geneva Convention prevented ill treatment and forced unpaid labor and dictated clean and heated accommodations for the prisoners, regular access to medical and dental care, access to recreation, provisions for regular communication with people outside of the camp, "self-governance" for the internees, and food of equal quality to that available to troops.

Following the successful opening of the camp, there was a substantial drop in quality of the internees' treatment due to management difficulties caused by the transition of the camp from the Bureau of Prisons to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a part of the Justice Department. Unhappy with their treatment, internees from Kooskia wrote to the officer in charge at Ft. Missoula to petition for better treatment according to the Geneva Convention. Conditions gradually improved due to the internees' demands and fear that noncompliance would be discovered. Site visits by vice-counsel Antonio Martin of Spain, a neutral country that acted for Japan in diplomatic capacity in the United States, and representatives from the International Red Cross assured that the internees were receiving proper treatment. Internees at Kooskia were able to request for their case to be examined or reexamined by an Alien Enemy Control Unit Hearing Board, which could determine if they were to be released (usually to a Caucasian employer), paroled to a WRA concentration camp, or transferred to another internment camp. Repatriation to Japan was another option for internees—some chose that option, and several others were forced to repatriate against their will; Japan exchanged American citizens held in Japan for Japanese citizens who repatriated.

Internees at the Kooskia camp either worked in the camp or on the highway: highway workers were paid $55 per month while the other workers were paid $20 per month. In general, the men worked six days a week for eight hours a day. The men volunteered for transfer to the work camp for a variety of...

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