A concentration camp memorial exists in Pinal County: Regulated visiting is possible

Timothy Rawles

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Gila River War Relocation Center MemorialWikipedia

By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

In 1942, concentration camps were erected across America just after the beginning of World War II. Over 120,000 people, mostly of Japanese ancestry, were removed from their homes and forced to live in these guarded encampments. One of them is right here in Pinal County.

It was called the Gila River War Relocation Center, and the site still exists today in the form of a memorial. However, unless you’re a member of the Gila River Indian Reservation or get a special permit, you may never get a chance to see it.

This camp was one of two in Arizona, the other in Poston. The Gila River site had dual camps called Butte and Canal. Between 1942 and 1945, over 13,000 Americans, and those with Japanese ancestry, had been interned at the Gila River location.

These camps were made under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive orders signed in 1942. Fearing sabotage from the Japanese community after the recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt authorized the Secretary of War and other high-ranking military authorities to detain Americans they deemed threatening. The orders didn’t specifically name Japanese citizens, but because of the war, they were targeted.

This operation affected people living in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.

The decree, titled Executive Order 9066, read in part:

“The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary.”

Although not interned at the Gila River camp, Japanese American actor George Takei has become the voice of experience during the internments. He has written books and even a play about this time in history.

Takei was only five years old when he and his family were taken from Los Angeles to an assembly center in Santa Anita, Calif. A few months later, they were moved across the country.

“We were loaded onto trains headed east, but not before being ‘tagged’ to keep track of us like cattle,” writes Takei in his graphic novel They Called Us Enemy. “To my parents it was yet another dehumanizing act.”

This seems to be the protocol that most people endured during the operation, but despite the circumstances, incarcerees at the Gila River War Relocation Center were given some leniency.

The Gila River camp was known to be the least oppressive of all the facilities. People were allowed to form a supervised democratic system and encouraged to play sports and create other forms of entertainment. They built a theater and playgrounds and were even allowed to plant trees to shade them from the desert heat.

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Gila River War Relocation Center MemorialWikipedia

The Gila River Indian Tribe was against building the camp on their property which they considered sacred. Today, little remains of the camp itself, and the tribe has limited its access to the public.

Although there is a memorial overlooking where the camp used to be, neither can be accessed unless you are a member of the tribe or get permission.

Many unauthorized visitors have reviewed the site on travel apps, and they warn future explorers that it’s on strict Native American land and the consequences for being caught might result in fines and vehicle impoundment.

Due to its geological location, and lack of upkeep, the memorial has fallen into disrepair. Graffiti is present on some of the memorial pillars, and Mother Nature has not been kind.

There are no buildings or other structural remnants, but people have reported seeing the remains of a road grid and some concrete foundations along with empty cisterns.

If you can get a permit and see the monument, it’s a place to honor and pay respects to the Japanese people who were held against their will during one of America’s darkest times. The roads are a bit rough, and there are no signs, so the use of GPS is advised.

You can apply for a permit by emailing: info@gilariver.org or contacting the tribal office in Casa Blanca.

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Timothy Rawles has been a journalist for over 20 years. He has written for global publications in San Francisco, San Diego, and Phoenix. His favorite stories are features, interviews, entertainment news, and local stories.

San Tan Valley, AZ
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