A Federal Prison Camp Was Just Up The Road?

Japanese Americans had once been sentenced to the Catalina Federal Honor Camp between 1939 and 1973. I had not been aware of the camp’s presence, just six miles from my Tucson, Arizona home, till recently. 

Mt Lemmon is in my backyard and years ago the original main road was up the north side of the mountain whereas I live on the south side. In 1933, the idea to build a road from the south side was decided so travel to the mountain top from Tucson was a shorter route. Prisoners from temporary prison camps were relocated to a newly built “Federal Honor Camp” in 1939. Prisoners provided the labor to build the 25 mile Mt Lemmon Highway. When the workers no longer used only picks to break rocks, but had jackhammers, tractors and bulldozers finally available to them the work went faster. Plus the prison was located just off the highway so prisoners quickly got to work each day. Anyone who drives the road today can fully understand and appreciate the amazing work these men had accomplished!

Prisoners were individuals who had been convicted of refusing to join the military for moral or religious reasons, examples: Hopi Indians from northern Arizona and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others broke tax or immigration laws or were protesting the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, such as Gordon Hirabayashi.

But why is this place on the mountain where the prison, Catalina Federal Honor Camp once stood, now called the “Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site”? Today there is a trail head at a hiking trail, a campground and information placards about the area’s history. Here is what I learned.

There is plenty of history to be understood here. While I am no historian, this is my understanding of the facts. Gordon Hirabayashi’s parents were both born in Japan, emigrated to the USA, met and were married. Gordon Hirabayashi was born an American citizen, was an active Christian, and eventually attended the University of Washington. He never had any affiliation with Japan or Japanese individuals in Japan.

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, USA was attacked by Japanese military planes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a proclamation of war with the Japanese empire and issued some executive orders which delegated authority to General DeWitt to issue specific proclamations. One such proclamation he established was a curfew in specific military zones requiring persons of Japanese ancestry to be home between 8pm and 6am and to report within 2 days to a civilian control station as a prerequisite to an assignment to an internment camp. Hirabayashi instead turned himself in at his attorney’s office and stated as a matter of conscience he was refusing to report to the control station. 

So in 1942 a Japanese American, aged 24, Gordon Hirabayashi, who violated a curfew was convicted and sentenced to the Catalina Federal Honor Camp. General DeWitt’s report explained why his internment orders were justified and that they had been unable to quickly determine loyalties of citizens with Japanese ancestry. But in 1987 Hirabayashi’s case was reopened, the US government officially apologized for the mass incarceration of 117,000 Japanese Americans and aliens alike, and President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. There is much more to know of Gordon Hirabayashi’s life so if you are inclined it is really quite interesting history of a man, the US court decisions and governmental actions. 

In honor of Gordon Hirabayashi who questioned the constitutionality of the internment camps, this former site of the prison camp is here to remind us all of the importance in respecting each other so we can live in a peaceful world. As you walk this historical site where most the buildings no longer stand, it is easy to see why it was a good location for an outdoor prison. The camp closed in the 1970’s but I hope the history and lessons learned remain for generations to come.

Two important quotes from Gordon Hirabayashi:

“This is a great Constitution, but if it doesn’t serve you during a crisis, what good is it? We faltered once, but to show how good our constitution is, we were able to apologize and acknowledge an error, and we’re going to be stronger for it.”

“If you forget about it, you’re more vulnerable to having it repeated, and we don’t want to have this ever happen to any citizen again.”

So I walked up the steps and looked out upon the land and thought of all this history. In 1999, the Coronado National Forest named the site: Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site and at the opening ceremony Gordon Hirabayashi was present. In 2012, President Barack Obama presented the highest civil award of the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Gordon Hirabayashi posthumously. It was accepted by family members and in 2014 donated to the University of Washington Library Special Collections.

As I stood on the land and contemplated all the injustices in our world, locally and globally, I can only wonder if problem-solving with pro-active solutions, resolution to conflicts with less hate toward one another, and wanting the best for each other each day and around the world is ever achievable. We are so capable of so much yet we seem so slow. It took 45 years for an acknowledgement of a wrong-doing in Hirabayashi’s case. We need to do better than that on so many fronts!

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