DENVER, March 25 (UPI) -- The U.S. National Park Service is considering creating a national park from an abandoned internment camp on the southeastern plains of Colorado that once held Japanese residents during World War II.
For more than 40 years, former detainees and descendants of people of Japanese ancestry have made pilgrimage visits to the Granada, Colo., site of the former Amache internment camp, which has been maintained by a local social studies teacher and his students.
The park service's Amache Special Resource Study is gathering citizen input online through May about the proposed park site on 1 square mile, which formerly held 29 blocks of military-style barracks.
Largely vacant now, the site originally was surrounded by barbed wire fence with six watch towers along the perimeter, where detainees lived under armed guard.
Since 1993, local teacher John Hopper and generations of Granada High School students have maintained the abandoned site. With help from the city of Granada, a barracks, water tower and guard tower have been restored on the site. Students run a small museum with artifacts from the camp.
"It's a learning experience because a lot of people still don't know what happened in the '40s," said Hopper, now the school district's dean of students.
Amache, or the Granada Internment Camp, was one of 10 U.S. camps into which 110,000 Japanese residents of California and elsewhere on the West Coast were forcibly relocated in 1942 by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
About 10,000 detainees passed through Amache between 1942 and 1945, some two-thirds of them first-generation nisei, or U.S. citizens of Japanese descent.
"We got off the train, in January of 1943 and it was colder than heck," remembered Kenneth Kitajima, 90, of San Jose, Calif., who was relocated with his family to the camp at age 13. "There was nothing but cactus and debris around, and the climate was all dust storms and hail. All six of our family members shared a single room."
Kitajima, a retired science curriculum specialist for the California State Board of Education, and an Air Force veteran who served during the Korean War, has visited the camp to consult with the museum about the life young people in the camp experienced.
More than 900 detainees from Amache joined the U.S. military, including the 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of many nisei, which suffered a high percentage of casualties.
A monument at the camp cemetery lists the names of more than 30 camp detainees who died in battle.
Since 2008, archaeology field schools from University of Denver, led by Professor Bonnie Clark, have helped excavate the remains of Japanese gardens and building foundations.
"This is a landmark with high physical integrity. There are foundations and thousands of trees planted by [detainees]."
Archaeological crews have found thousands of items lost and abandoned by detainees, many of which are on display in the student-run museum. This collection of artifacts might be the basis of an interpretive center if the National Park System agrees to take on the site, Clark said.
Excavating shards of a broken teacup and meeting volunteers and pilgrims who formerly lived at the camp made the experience real for archaeology field school student Kylie Dillinger.
"When you're doing archaeology work, actually meeting the former [residents] puts everything in perspective," Dillinger said. "It's surreal, not like an archaeological site, but someone's homes, or a place they made their home."
A national park would bring more awareness about Japanese internment during World War II, Dillinger said.
"I hope it helps people remember that this happened," she said.
The National Park Service will likely say the Amache site has unique cultural and historical elements because it was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2004, said Tamara Delaplane, the park service's project manager, who based in Denver.
"We look at feasibility and evaluate what types of experience the public want to have on the site," Delaplane said.
The park service will have to decide whether it wants to add another historic internment location to its more than 400 managed sites, Delaplane said.
The park service already operates the Manzanar National Historic Site in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, which receives more than 100,000 visitors a year. The park service's Tule Lake National Monument in northern California is another former incarceration site.
If Amache meets the park service's criteria, Congress must vote to make the site a national park, which could take three years or more, the park service said.
Educator Hopper believes Granada could attract history tourism from visitors exploring the Santa Fe Trail.
He predicted tourists would include Camp Amache when they visit nearby park service historic sites such as Bent's Old Fort, a reconstructed 1840s adobe fur trading post, and Sand Creek, site of the 1864 U.S. Cavalry attack on an unarmed Cheyenne and Arapahoe encampment.
"National park status would definitely help the economy, and the city of Granada is behind it 100 percent," Hopper said. "This is a site of national historical significance that people can learn from."