There isn't much left today on the site of a World War II isolation camp in Old Leupp on the Navajo Reservation — rubble, brush, bits of sandstone blocks, rusty cans and twisted metal.
And silence, almost complete silence, where Japanese-American men were held against their will in a fenced camp guarded by armed soldiers.
Leupp was chosen as a Citizen Isolation Camp, along with a camp in Moab, Utah, as part of the United States government's policy of forcibly relocating Japanese Americans inland from the West Coast, where the nation was gripped by war hysteria after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“People forget what a horrible shock that was,” said John Westerlund, a local historian who is researching a book on the Leupp camp. “Americans wondered, ‘What’s next? Is the West Coast going to be attacked?'"
Westerlund’s interest in the Leupp camp grew during his research for his 2003 book, “Arizona’s War Town: Flagstaff, Navajo Ordnance Depot, and World War II,” when he was doing document pulls on bubjects at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The two isolation camps were reserved for men considered to be problem inmates.
“It’s a very interesting story about more than 80 young Japanese-American men who were sent from internment camps from around the West,” said Westerlund, 62, who is also a seasonal ranger with the National Park Service. “These were the quote, ‘troublemakers,’ unquote. They were taken from other camps, where they had demonstrated or protested. I’m sure a bunch of these kids played on the high school teams. I think if I were thrown in that situation, I’d raise Cain too.”
Westerlund said these “problem” inmates were first sent to Moab in early 1943, where they stayed at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at Dalton Wells.
They were moved down to Leupp in April and housed in an abandoned Indian boarding school in Old Leupp, across the Little Colorado River and about two miles from modern Leupp.
Most of the Japanese-American men were transported in buses from Moab, but a few had a more harrowing trip.
Harry Ueno, who had been arrested after organizing mess hall workers at the internment camp at Manzanar, was moved with four other inmates in a coffinlike box on the back of a flatbed truck. The men almost suffocated. ( “Judgment without Trial,” by Tetsuden Kashima, page 152-153).
Ueno, who was born in Hawaii, was interviewed extensively for the 1988 book “Manzanar Martyr,” by Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
“The camp was finally closed in November 1943,” Westerlund said. “Some men went back to other camps, some were released.”
NOT MUCH LEFT
According to a U.S. Department of Interior report, (“Confinement and Ethnicity,” 1999, page 327), there were four guard towers at the camp, a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire and 150 military police to keep order.
The school facility, which belonged to the U.S. Department of the Interior, had been closed in 1942 because it was in the floodplain of the river. The red sandstone buildings had housed 500 Navajo children. Officials with WRA said the school could be expanded to hold 2,000 inmates.
Using a site map from the report, Westerlund and this reporter journeyed to Leupp Thursday to find remnants of the camp, and anyone who might remember what happened there.
“It’s about as far away from civilization as you can get and still have a little infrastructure,” Westerlund said.
At the south end of the 58-acre site, several sandstone blocks remain, what is left of the foundation of the large water tower at the school. In the center of the location is a twisted water tank, slowly uncoiling in the sun.
Crumbling concrete slabs and sidewalks dot the landscape.
“It’s an interesting site; not much there,” Westerlund said at the camp. “You can see the layout, and it’s reasonably small. It’s too bad there aren’t any buildings standing in the school area. In the adminstrative part, we saw one building, maybe a couple, some old remnants and the Presbyterian church.”
ONCE AN ACTIVE PLACE
The superintendent’s house still stands just outside the camp area. Workers are bringing it up to modern standards.
“We took out the old furnace a few weeks ago,” said a young Navajo worker from Leupp, who asked not to be identified. “There’s an old bell still down there.”
The Leupp Trading Post, in use as recently as 1972, stood at the far south end of the acreage. Today, only a high pile of broken cement pieces and green roofing material recalls the business location.
Allen Todeicheehie, a veteran of the Vietnam War, ate lunch Thursday at the senior center in Leupp. He was born in 1943, the year the isolation camp was activated to hold Japanese-Americans.
He said his grandparents used to go out in a wagon to the trading post at Old Leupp.
“They used to get groceries from there,” he said. “They’d sell their wool and lamb to the trader, Mr. McGee. They talked about the concentration camp out there somewhere. There was concertina wire.”
Todeicheehie said when he returned from Vietnam, the trading post was still there.
At a food stand selling roast mutton in Leupp, Lola Bahe, a resident of nearby Birdsprings, remembered what her uncle, Charlie John, told her about the camp.
“He got hired to be there,” she said. “He was to help and not be too friendly. Turned out, he became too friendly. They told him he was going to lose his job. Somehow, they started treating him like a normal citizen. He continued working for them, and some years later, I heard one of those Japanese was looking for him.”
Woodie Smith Sr., 82, was 16 years old when the U.S. government drafted him to serve in World War II. During the Veterans Day lunch Thursday at the senior center in Leupp, Smith told his daughter, Juanita Smith, what he remembered about the war years in Leupp when was assigned to work in the ammunition depot at Camp Navajo.
His daughter translated her father’s words into English for this story.
Smith told his daughter about his service during the war: “That’s when they told him to come over, starting him to be drafted. Because of a lack of knowledge of English, it kept him from going in battle. They were ‘standbys’ — if war got worse, his group was number three. But that never happened.”
He also talked about the isolation camp at Old Leupp: “The camp was very well guarded, security guards and Army. They couldn’t ever come out — no communication. There were guard right there. He couldn’t talk to them or visit. You could only just look. At the bridge over the river, there were security guards taking care of those places. People had to stop at the trading post and have a complete check, and then when they were coming from Flagstaff, they were stopped at night and on the highway, too. That’s about all he remembers.”
Reporter Betsey Bruner can be reached at 556-2255 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Gripped by fear
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to relocation centers.
Many of them were native-born American citizens (called Nissei), whose parents were born in Japan (Issei).
The relocation of Japanese-Americans began in April 1942. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was created to administer the assembly centers, relocation centers, internment camps and isolation camps.
There were 10 hastiliy-constructed internments camps scattered around the West in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arkansas, California and Arizona (at Gila River and Poston).
— Betsey Bruner, staff reporter