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Inside One Man’s Trip to the Idaho Camp Where His Great-Grandparents Were Held During World War II

5 minute read
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On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that allowed the forced removal, internment and incarceration Japanese-Americans. Now, nearly eight decades later, one young man has documented his journey to visit the site where his family suffered.

In total, the infamous Executive Order 9066 led to the rounding up of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens. Signed following the bombing at Pearl Harbor, amid fears that anyone with Japanese ancestry could turn on the nation, the order authorized the military to designate certain regions as “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” That wording led to thousands of Japanese-Americans being removed from their West Coast homes and placed in camps for years.

Directed by Megumi Nishikura, the short documentary Minidoka, from Blue Chalk Media, follows Joseph Lachman, a Seattle-based manager at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, a non-profit Asian-American advocacy group, as he makes his pilgrimage to the Minidoka National Historic Site in South Central Idaho. Though it is now a National Historic Site, decades ago Minidoka served as the camp where Lachman’s great-grandparents were among some 9,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. (What happened during this period is commonly referred to as “internment,” but many people today prefer the word “incarceration” because it covers the experience of both Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals in the U.S.) In the film, Lachman and others are given a tour of the grounds at Minidoka, and he eventually finds his great-grandparents’ names and cell-block numbers as he searches through a registry.

Lachman tells TIME that the main reason he wanted to participate in the documentary was so that he could feel a connection to his ancestors. After watching his great uncle Samuel Shoji’s testimony at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, he said, he felt compelled to learn more about what his family members lived through. But his mission gained a timely aspect, too, as it progressed: Lachman’s journey took place amid debate over whether then-President-elect Trump’s plans to create a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries was ethical, a debate that drew comparisons to Roosevelt’s 1942 move. In December 2015, then-Republican candidate Trump told TIME that he did not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he told TIME. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”

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The film juxtaposes Lachman’s trip with clips of Trump supporters and mentions of his immigration policies, and Lachman says that decision was intentional. At a time when about 50,000 people may be held in immigration detention centers on a daily basis in the U.S., he says, he feels it’s important to remember what happened when the U.S. allowed the incarceration of those perceived as outsiders.

“It’s not really a matter of could these things happen,” Lachman says, “it’s about what is already happening.”

Lachman says he feels it is important to talk about incarceration of Japanese-Americans because his generation is one of the last to have been personally in touch with the nisei generation, the second-generation Japanese-Americans who went through the incarceration period. It is up to the yonsei, the fourth generation Japanese-Americans, he says, to never let the world forget what happened.

“A lot of the issei [first generation] folks are gone,” he says. “I still have relatives that remember the camps but during my lifetime we’re going to see the last folks that remember that period pass away; that means that it’s important we connect with them and learn about their story.

“It is on my generation to learn the stories, a lot of the resources are there now, but really the best resource is talking to your family if they’re willing.” he added.

Although President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 — which offered the first official apology for the internment, 42 years after the last Japanese-Americans were freed, along with $20,000 in reparations to every living survivor — the film makes it clear that the impact of the imprisonments are still being felt to this day.

As he continued to make his way though Minidoka, Lachman marveled at the strength the issei and nisei showed in the face of such indignity. To him, the anniversary of the Executive Order that made the camps possible should be a day of reflection for the country, and a warning of what is possible.

“The day is an important reminder of the resilience our community showed in dealing with a lot of discrimination,” he said. “It’s something we realize is bigger than our own community and is an important symbol of fighting back.”

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Write to Gina Martinez at gina.martinez@time.com