Japanese Americans living in New Mexico during World War II had vastly different experiences. That is particularly true when comparing Gallup and Clovis, where one town forced out its neighbors and another defied that impulse.
In January 1942, there were 15 Japanese immigrants and their 17 American-born children in Clovis living in a segregated community called “Jap Camp,” according to Nikki Nojima Louis, the community curator for the New Mexico stories in the Courage and Compassion show at the Albuquerque Museum. Roy Ebihara told StoryCorps about the night officials came for them when he was 8.
“And one night, vigilante groups formed in town. We saw the men were holding the oil torches coming across to where we lived. They were going to burn down everything. The state patrol came roaring in and told us quickly to gather up what we can in pillowcases and whatever can fit into the trunk of the car. I remember my sister Kathy, my sister Mary, and my brother Bill and I — the four of us were squeezed into the back seat of the sedan, and we left in the darkness of the night. We were all crying. We couldn’t stop. It was just terrifying.”
They were taken first to Fort Stanton (35 miles north of Ruidoso) but protested they would be held with German POWs, so they were taken to Baca Camp, also known as Old Raton Ranch, an old Civilian Conservation Corps site, where they were they joined relatives at the Topaz detention camp in Millard County, Utah.
It was quite a different experience in Gallup, Louis said, which had the largest Japanese American population in the state before World War II. According to the book Confinement in the Land of Enchantment (produced by the Colorado State University History Center and the New Mexico chapter of Japanese American Citizens League), they were well integrated into the community, which was already accustomed to many different ethnicities.
When WWII began, the sheriff at the time, Michael Mollica, who was Italian American, pledged that Japanese American residents would be treated like his own family. Nearly every Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) of age served in the war, including perhaps their most famous son, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, who went on to win a Medal of Honor for his service in the Korean War.
In one telling of the story, the Gallup City Council held a meeting to vote on whether it should follow the example of Clovis. The vote failed. As the authors of Confinement in the Land of Enchantment note, the persistence and power of the story is important, even if it’s a legend, because “it speaks to the degree to which the community of Gallup, including its Japanese American residents, has adopted an identity of inclusiveness.”
But the Clovis story is also one of redemption. The history was largely unknown until a Clovis native, Adrian Chavez, who learned about it in a class at Central New Mexico Community College, reached out to Ebihara and to politicians and educators to bring the story to light. In 2014, during the Pioneer Days celebration, Ebihara, and two others whose families had been forced out, Fred Kimura and Lillie Kimura Kiyokawa, served as grand marshals in the parade. They received a formal apology from the town and keys to the city.