Highway 12 crossing Lolo Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains opens incredible beauty to travelers, snaking alongside the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers in rugged central Idaho.
The route is also rich in history, largely paralleling where the Lewis and Clark expedition bushwhacked its way west in 1805.
It is in the headlines today as a highway of protest as residents and environmentalists object to the state allowing oil companies to transport out-sized mining gear over the narrow and twisty roadway.
Supporters of the so-called mega-loads have trumpeted that Highway 12’s main purpose is to serve commerce. And indeed, it was persistent lobbying for a commercial route through the mountains that swayed the federal government to build the road in the 1940s.
With forced labor.
Road construction began with federal prison inmates. But when America entered World War II, the labor camp was turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to house Japanese internees.
These “alien enemies,” as they were called, continued the highway work deep in the Bitterroots until May 1945.
Priscilla Wegars, author of Imprisoned in Paradise, is more historian than storyteller, so her book is short on narrative and long on lists, dates and footnotes. There are, in fact, a dizzying 101 footnotes in the first 16 pages of the book, which carries the subtitle, “Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp.”
Nonetheless, the racial hysteria that labeled Japanese resident aliens and American-born Japanese as enemies of the state — raided by the FBI, tried in kangaroo courts and stripped of property — is a compelling human drama.
Through photos, letters and detailed research, Wegars introduces us to an almost forgotten story. She reveals the incredible reach of the xenophobic program, which had countries as far away as Peru round up citizens of Japanese ancestry at the behest of the United States and ship them here to be incarcerated.
As a designated labor camp, Kooskia, unlike other relocation facilities, fell under the Geneva Conventions, and the internees fought for their rights using these tools.
Imprisoned is dry but rewarding.