Minidoka internment camp, which imprisoned over 9,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, lies just 17 miles from Twin Falls. Few Idahoans know of its existence.
Andy Dunn wants to change that.
The history graduate student is writing his thesis about the camp and drawing attention to an under-recognized period of Idaho’s history.
“It’s a pretty ugly part of our nation’s history that makes people uncomfortable, because it was the wrong thing to do,” Dunn said. “It’s one of the only times that the United States government actually apologized for anything.”
In his research, Dunn looks specifically at Minidoka’s agricultural impact on the surrounding area. The Japanese population contained at Minidoka provided much-needed farm labor and helped sustain food production in a nation at war. In studying the topic, Dunn found that workers from Minidoka largely cultivated sugar, rather than staples such as potatoes or corn. Why would they place an emphasis on sugar, which seemed like a luxury item, he wondered.
Dunn soon discovered that sugar can not only be used as a calorie supplement, but makes up the main ingredient in nitroglycerine, which is used to make gunpowder for bullets and explosives for bombs.
Japanese Americans imprisoned at Minidoka, then, contributed substantially to the war effort.
“It’s just a different way of looking at the same topic, through food,” Dunn said.
Dunn was first introduced to the place he’d make his research focus when his professor at College of Southern Idaho wrote a book about Minidoka.
Though he considered himself well-versed in history, he didn’t yet know about the camp, even though it was nearby.
Wanting to get more involved in history, Dunn began working at the Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome County. He worked there for over three years, and when he transferred to ISU, he maintained a research interest in the camp.
Written records are hard to find, so Dunn scours historical archives for newspapers, diaries and the like. Since many internees hailed from the Seattle area, he’s had decent luck at the University of Washington special archives and National archives there.
Dunn also incorporates oral history into his research. Since the internee population is aging, there’s a level of urgency in talking to sources.
“The oral histories are the most important thing to be focusing on right now because they’re getting older and dying,” he said. “That’s an expiring source. Unless we get their stories now, those stories are going to be gone for good.”
Each year, former Minidoka incarcerees participate in a pilgrimage to the camp, offering an opportunity for their stories to be shared with each other and with people like Dunn.
When Dunn speaks with a source, he records and videos the conversation. Once he meets with more people, he hopes to post the videos online for other scholars to access.
The accounts Dunn is collecting are part of a greater narrative about race, prejudice and patriotism during World War II.
The camp at Minidoka helped end the Great Depression in southeast Idaho and sustain local farms still in operation today. And many internees, taken to Minidoka simply for having Japanese ancestry, enlisted in the United States Army from the camp.
“I don’t see it as about me,” Dunn said of his project. “I see it as about getting word out about what happened, because most people don’t know.”