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A former Japanese internment camp is on track to become a national park

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This weekend marked the 80th anniversary of the executive order that created internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. For four years, more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent were imprisoned in those camps; most of them were American citizens. Now, one of those camps is on the cusp of being added to the national park system. From member station KRCC, Shanna Lewis reports.

SHANNA LEWIS, BYLINE: Derek Okubo's late father was one of more than 7,000 people incarcerated at Camp Amache, a desolate outpost on the dry, dusty grasslands southeast of Denver. He says, for a long time, America didn't talk about what happened at places like this.

DEREK OKUBO: It's a part of American history that, for many years, people wanted to sweep under the carpet.

LEWIS: Especially in the nearby town of Granada. Okubo says his dad went there in 1982 to talk about creating a memorial. The meeting ended in a shouting match. There'd been vandalism, too.

OKUBO: At the time, there was still a lot of mistrust, a lot of prejudice, a lot of suspicion, a lot of shame and pain that was involved.

LEWIS: But in the 1990s, a local high school teacher created a history project about the site for his students, and the community got behind it.

OKUBO: This is an example of where young people change the world.

LEWIS: Now, following bipartisan work on a bill making its way through Congress, the National Park Service is set to make Camp Amache part of its system. On Saturday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the park service, visited Amache and met with families and members of the community. She says Americans need to know their stories.

DEB HAALAND: Our job in the National Park Service is to lift the stories up so that people will learn.

LEWIS: Derek Okubo says his father would be pleased to know that the camp where he was held was on its way to being preserved.

OKUBO: If we're really to grow as a country, we have to face our demons, and we have to be willing to feel things that we aren't willing to feel and to think about things we don't want to think about. And this is one of those tools in which it helps us to do that in order for us to heal as a nation and become a better nation.

LEWIS: Brandon Gonzales, a local high school student, is one of many who for the last 30 years have helped care for the site.

BRANDON GONZALES: If you don't learn, history is bound to repeat itself. So that's the biggest thing for me is we don't want anything like this to happen again.

LEWIS: A thousand Japanese Americans held at Camp Amache volunteered to fight during World War II; 31 were killed and one earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Legislation adding the site to the National Park Service System is expected to be on President Biden's desk soon.

For NPR News, I'm Shanna Lewis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.