Physician Birth in Gila River Detention Center

Over a decade ago as a faculty member at Nebraska I was working on a birth origin project. I was mapping the physician birth origins in the AMA Masterfile data on 900,000 physicians. Some were easy to map by city and state to a county location or zip code of birth. Others were more difficult as their towns of origin no longer existed. 

Two physicians were listed as born in 1942 at Rivers, Arizona. My search for the town of Rivers came up empty. This was not unusual, but I dug deeper into the past. 

The trail led to Gila River and finally to a visit to the place where these two physicians were born and where dozens of others spent time in the 1940s.

Birth Origin Project Summary

Generally those with exclusive, most urban, or foreign birth have a much greater chance at becoming a US physician. Rural origin, lower income county birth, birth in a county without a medical school, and birth in the US all decrease probability of becoming a physician. Ethnicity is often related to admission, but it is difficult to tell as ethnicity also translates into social determinants and geographic locations.  The powerful have many advantages and the powerless have few, or none.

Those of humble origins tend to fall behind in higher education and in medical school admission. 

Detention center birth would seem to be an overwhelming obstacle.

This is Rivers, AZ at least as it existed according to the post office. This city only existed for a few years. The hospital where these two physicians were born is noted on the map on the monument plaque (below 4 pictures). 

Rivers was once the fourth largest city in Arizona. 

It was built from scratch in a matter of months. The "camp" was designed to hold 9000 in barracks for 4 families, but sources indicate over 13,000 were interned there. The two physicians were born in Rivers. They overcame limitations to graduate from UCLA as physicians. The two should be 75 years old in 2017.

Given the numbers, dozens of physicians were born or raised in these humble origin places across Colorado, Arkansas, California, Wyoming, and other relocation centers. Schools were present, but those in the camps were largely responsible for such efforts. Some teachers were hired to serve in camps, but were unable to cope with the conditions and situations (quote from teacher in Wyoming). 

In 2018 we are also seeing the impacts in our modern version of detention centers. These are also indicated as "camps" for children. The historical replication of the same language is revealing. Some have empathy and moral capacity. Others appear willing to suppress these foundation blocks of civilization.

The Powerful Vs the Powerless

Gila River Detention Center was built on sacred land confiscated from the Gila River Indian Tribe. This was a pattern seen in other detention sites in Arizona and other states.

The people of the new town of Rivers, AZ, had to adjust to the relocation, dust, scorpions, rattlesnakes, sparse conditions, confinement, and more. 

It does not take much reflection to consider morbidity and mortality from mental health issues, valley fever, stings, snakebites, injuries, and environmental exposures. 

Gila River seemed to have a reputation as not being as punitive - although this is a small gain compared to massive loss. 

Despite the treatment, the contributions of displaced Japanese American people to each other, the nation, and the war effort are well-documented. 

The Opportunity to Visit Gila River

I now work not far from the camp in Maricopa - the town that is about 30 miles south of Phoenix, not the Maricopa County that contains Phoenix, Scottsdale, and the East Valley cities.

The research continues even though my official 30 year academic career is past.  It is sad to see the way people have been treated in the past and even worse to see such treatment continued and even justified. 

It is hard to see the way increasing proportions of Americans are treated now. There are degrees of differences, but there are still differences by design. Perhaps if our nation understood the situations in Red Counties and the 60 counties that are rural and minority - election outcomes would be different. This is not likely as long as their is blame rather than understanding. Republican, Democrat, and CMS designs have all been hard on these counties via

  • slash and burn cutting billions and 
  • via billions diverted away from health care and education to do measurements - leaving less for health care, education, and social determinant impacts. 

There is hope that awareness can help our nation to make a change. People can make a difference in their own lives, but this is difficult to do when the designs are set up to prevent their best results. This is most dramatically seen in concentration camps, wars, and ethnic conflicts - but other divisions separate people including designs for health, education, economics, and other areas.

The visit to Gila River has been part of this research. 

Mapping technology aided my visit to the site. It is a bit unsettling to hear the gunfire in the area although given the dove and quail around and a few shooting ranges, this would not be unusual. There were high security fences, electronics, and armed personnel in jeeps - but this was about corporations trying to protect their latest technology secrets.

Gila River farms is a huge employer at this locationThe drive includes desert landirrigated crops, dairy farms, and hay for the livestock. The border is 180 miles but Border patrol planes moved above spaced about every 20 minutes. 

I stumbled on the camp almost by accident. I saw a likely spot for some pictures noted below. I decided to hike up a nearby hill.

I returned to the car and advanced a few hundred yards more.  The mapping grid indicated that I should be seeing roads to the left, and there were none. The surface does not indicate what the satellite and map images reveal. The desert has covered up much of what man attempted. When I turned around to the left, I saw the monument.


It was up on a hill surrounded by an immediate area not suitable for agriculture. 

The road up the hill was not well maintained - probably a good thing given some beer cans and shotgun shells at the monument. 

I was overwhelmed during the approach. There were many past, present, and future reflections to ponder. A small vase contained some flowers as a memorial. It was a sobering reminder of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial that I was privileged to visit in 2011. My thanks again to Masatashi Matsumoto for his generous support and also to Tamaki Tojo for sharing his family and rural practice with me.

During the visit I could just make out some music in the distance. It was a haunting melody when the wind was just right. I never was able to track down the source of the Native music... 

The Butte Camp Site

According to wiki, Butte camp contained a 6,000-seat baseball field, a theater for plays and films, playgrounds, a hospital, schools, and 821 buildings with 627 residential barracks. These barracks were made of wood and fireproof shingles said to block out the desert heat – but this was before air conditioning and in a place where dust penetrates everything and everyone. 

The overcrowding compounded the problem. “Some families resorted to living in the mess hall or recreation buildings and used blankets as makeshift walls. Water shortages also plagued the camp, and poisonous rattlesnakes and scorpions kept Butte Hospital extremely busy.”(top of maps)

Side to side now and then map
Each grid had about 16 buildings for 64 families.

Canal Camp had 404 buildings with 232 barracks and 24 separate schoolhouses located 1.5 miles east of Butte Camp.

Still visible at Butte Camp are some concrete slabs and pylons overgrown with creosote bush, iron brackets, a few ceramic shards, cisterns, some leftover shingle fragments, and the remains of rock and pond arrangements. 

Notable Gila River Internees from wiki

The most notable would be Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (1932–2005), an American actor known for roles on Happy Days and in the Karate Kid movies. He was also interned at Tule Lake. He would have been age 10 - 12 during internment. He was also in the movie of the Battle of Midway.

George I. Nakamura was a lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II and a recipient of the Bronze Star.

Kazuo Otani (1918–1944) was a United States Army soldier and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, posthumously as with nearly all. At the monument there seemed to be as many sergeants as privates who died. As with African Americans, the highest military awards were upgraded years to decades after the war.

The accomplishments are not limited to those in print. They include include dozens of physicians and other professionals born or raised at the camp.

Paul Terasaki (1929–2016), organ transplant scientist and Professor Emeritus of Surgery at UCLA School of Medicine

Michi Nishiura Weglyn (1926–1999), author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.

Wiki lists others of note:

  • George Aratani (1917–2013), an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
  • Harry K. Fukuhara (1920–2015), inducted in the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame The hall is administered at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
  • Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a professor of Gender & Women Studies and of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and founding director of the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Also interned at Heart Mountain.
  • Masumi Hayashi (1945-2006), an American photographer and artist.
  • George Hoshida (1907–1985), a Japanese American artist who made drawings of his experience during his incarceration in three internment camps. Also interned at Jerome
  • Dale Ishimoto (1923–2004), an American actor.
  • Yuriko Kikuchi (born 1920), an American dancer and choreographer.
  • Jay Kazuo Kochi (1927–2008), a physical organic chemist.
  • Tatsuro Masuda (1916-1991), Oakland, California storeowner who displayed the "I AM AN AMERICAN" sign in an iconic 1942 photograph by Dorthea Lange
  • Tomoko Miho (born 1931), a designer and recipient of the 1993 Aiga Medal.
  • Ken and Miye Ota (born 1923 and 1918 respectively), a married couple known for teaching martial arts, ballroom dancing, and social graces at their cultural school.
  • Reiko Sato (1931–1981), an American dancer and actress.
  • Miiko Taka (born 1925), an American actress.
  • Nao Takasugi (1922–2009), an American politician.
  • James Takemori (1926–2015), an American judoka and World War II veteran.
  • Kenichi Zenimura (1900–1968), a baseball player and manager. He designed the baseball field at the site and organized a 32 team league.

Gila River Relocation Center site at wiki

Notable Sacrifices of Those Who Died in Service to the United States

The 442nd Infantry Regiment became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Other Japanese American units also included the 100th Infantry Battalion, Varsity Victory Volunteers, and the Military Intelligence Service.

The all-Nisei 522nd Field Artillery Battalion was organized as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; but towards the end of the war, the 522nd became a roving battalion, shifting to whatever command most needed the unit.[7] The 522nd had the distinction of liberating survivors of the Dachau concentration camp system, from the Nazis on April 29, 1945.[4] 

Detention and Death Camps

Nisei scouts west of Munich near the small Bavarian town of Lager Lechfeld encountered some barracks encircled by barbed wire. Technician Fourth Grade Ichiro Imamura described it in his diary:

  • "I watched as one of the scouts used his carbine to shoot off the chain that held the prison gates shut .... They weren’t dead, as he had first thought. When the gates swung open, we got our first good look at the prisoners. Many of them were Jews. They were wearing striped prison suits and round caps. It was cold and the snow was two feet deep in some places. There were no German guards. The prisoners struggled to their feet .... They shuffled weakly out of the compound. They were like skeletons - all skin and bones ...."
What a journey - from a detention camp in the United States to see "the final solution" Detention Death Camps in Nazi Germany. It is hard to imagine the reaction of Mr. Imamura who was in a detention camp not that many months before.

Military Intelligence Contributions

“Approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).[13] The first class received their training at the Presidio in San Francisco, but in June 1942 the MIS Language School was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, which offered larger facilities, removed the complications of training Japanese American students in an area they were technically prohibited from entering, and had less anti-Japanese prejudice. In August 1944, the language school was moved again to Fort Snelling.[14] Most of the MIS Language School graduates were attached to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) as linguists and in other non-combatant roles, interpreting captured enemy documents and interrogating prisoners of war. (At the end of the war, MIS linguists had translated 18,000 enemy documents, created 16,000 propaganda leaflets and interrogated over 10,000 Japanese POWs.) However, MIS servicemen were present at every major battle against Japanese forces, and those who served in combat faced extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, sometimes coming under friendly fire from U.S. soldiers unable to distinguish them from the Japanese and often encountering former friends on the battlefield.

Japanese American MIS linguists translated Japanese documents known as the "Z Plan", which contained Japan's counterattack strategy in the Central Pacific. This information led to Allied victories at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, in which the Japanese lost most of their aircraft carrier planes, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. An MIS radio operator intercepted a message describing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flight plans, which led to P-38 Lightning fighter planes shooting down his plane over the Solomon Islands.”

Harry K. Fukuhara (1920–2015) was inducted in the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. The hall is administered at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.(worth a visit if you are in
Cochise County in the southeast corner of the state).

Staff Sergeant Kazuo Otani eventually received the Congressional Medal of Honor.


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