A former El Paso TV reporter hopes to illuminate a little-known shadow in New Mexico’s past through a documentary film that debuted Saturday night.
The film examines two internment camps — one in Lordsburg and the other in Santa Fe — that held captive about 4,500 men of Japanese heritage during World War II.
They were part an estimated 120,000 Japanese-American men, women and children who were rounded up from their homes and imprisoned in remote encampments across several states, as public mistrust burgeoned because of the war. Most were never accused of any crime.
Though not featured in the film, two of those Japanese-American detainees were the grandfather and father of Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima.
Former reporter Neil Simon, native of Portland, Ore., learned about the existence of the New Mexico internment camps when living in Albuquerque. The topic caught his interest. Later on, he moved to Washington, D.C., and checked the national archives to find records about the camps. He was surprised at how little there was.
Simon, 34, said he felt moved to try to document the stories of survivors from the New Mexico camps before they died.
“I put my journalism hat on and started tracking down as many of them as I could,” he said.
That launched in 2005 a years-long project for Simon, who worked on the documentary in his spare time. He tracked survivors of the New Mexico camps and their family members for interviews through multiple states. The result is the 91-minute film, “Prisoners and Patriots: The Untold Story of Japanese Internment in Santa Fe,” which aired Saturday and Sunday on KRWG-TV in Las Cruces.
“For me, it’s important to preserve the story, but it’s also important for the stories of the past to raise awareness today about how minorities are treated, especially in wartime,” Simon said.
What differentiated the New Mexico camps from the others was that they were used to hold male inmates who were considered by the federal government to be the highest risk for stirring unrest, according to Simon. The names of Japanese-American men who were perceived as leaders in a slate of categories were on a watch list compiled by the federal government, even prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he said.
“It was all men,” he said. “The government really targeted these people as leaders and as teachers, newspapermen, community organizers, farmers … .”
The Santa Fe camp opened in February 1942, but its detainees were soon moved to Lordsburg — a rural, southwest New Mexico border town known for its Wild West history. The Lordsburg camp would hold Japanese-American detainees until the spring of 1943, when they when they were moved back to Santa Fe.
The Lordsburg camp, located near the railroad tracks that run through town, featured some incidents of violence, what Simon characterized as a “blemish on what’s already a sad story.”
Two elderly men were shot in the back by a guard as they walked near the camp. Simon said they may have left the trail to use the bathroom, but it’s unlikely they were trying to escape, as was claimed.
“The prisoners had been trying to rally for better conditions,” he said. “It had a chilling effect.”
Simon said he was surprised, when carrying out research for the film, to discover the breadth of life that happened in camps, ranging from art to golfing to writing. And he was surprised by the attitudes of the survivors and family members he interviewed. There was little in the way of grudges, he said.
“I went into it thinking everybody would be bitter and angry for what the U.S. government did,” he said.
After the departure of the Japanese-Americans, the Lordsburg camp was then converted to a prisoner of war camp for Germans and Italians, Simon said.
Barracks, concrete and foundations of the Lordsburg camp have survived.
“It’s unique in that so much of the camp, until recently, was still visible,” he said.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima said his father, Mike Kazuji Miyagishima, 82, and his family were detained from their home near San Pedro, Calif., in 1942.
“We told me one day he was walking home from school, and he wondered why all the police were there,” said Ken Miyagishima. “Within 48 hours, they had to sell everything they owned.”
Ken Miyagishima said his father might have been held at the Lordsburg camp briefly. That was before being transferred to another internment camp in Poston, Ariz.
Also, Ken Miyagishima’s grandfather, Rikizo Miyagishima, was interned at the age of 42. Prior to that, he’d run a shipping business. He died shortly after being released from the internment camp.
The last dozen detainees departed the Santa Fe camp in May of 1946.
Decades after the internment camps closed, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged the injustice done to Japanese Americans during the war, and victims were awarded reparations, according to PBS.org. However, many have continued to experience mental and physical problems because of their internment, according to the website.
“I hope it’s something we never do again,” said Simon.
Simon held reporting jobs at TV stations in El Paso, Albuquerque and Washington, D.C. He now lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his wife and works as director of communications for the 56-country Organization for Security and Co-operation in the Europe Parliamentary Assembly.
Timeline of Japanese American Internment
Aug. 18, 1941 – U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan suggests incarcerating 10,000 Hawaiian Japanese-Americans, as incentive to promote “good behavior” by Japan.
Nov. 12, 1941 – Fifteen Japanese-American businessmen and leaders in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo are rounded up in an FBI raid.
Dec. 7, 1941 – Japan attacks Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. Local authorities and the FBI begin rounding up leaders from Japanese-American communities. Within two days, 1,291 people are in custody. They’re held without formal charges. Family are forbidden to see them. Most wound up in internment camps.
Feb. 19, 1942 – President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, which lays groundwork for the imprisoning of Japanese-Americans.
Feb. 14, 1942 – The first wave of Japanese-Americans arrives at Santa Fe internment camp.
May 13, 1942 – Los Angeles gardener Ichiro Shimoda, 45, is shot to death by guards while trying to escape from Fort Sill, Okla., internment camp. Shimoda had suffered mental illness and had attempted suicide twice since his detention on Dec. 7, 1941.
July, 27 1942 – Private Clarence Burleson, a guard, shoots and kills two 60-year-old internees while they are walking to Lordsburg Camp and stopped to urinate outside. A court martial clears Burleson of any wrongdoing.
September 1942 – The Santa Fe camp closes, and 523 detainees are transferred out.
March 23, 1943 – The Santa Fe internment camp reopens. Japanese-American detainees are transferred from Lordsburg to Santa Fe, which makes room for German POWs in Lordsburg.
May 7, 1945 – German surrender ends the war in Europe.
Aug. 6, 1945 – An atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Shortly after, the second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.
April 1946 – The Santa Fe internment camp closes and reverts to being a state penitentiary.
May 1946 – The last 12 detainees depart the Santa Fe camp.