As It Happens

Japanese Americans planted a rose bush at a WW II internment camp. Now it's blooming again

Ten years ago, Bonnie Clark and her team of researchers from the University of Denver discovered a rose bush across the remnants of a barracks doorway at the Amache National Historic Site. When Clark returned on Saturday, she was "ecstatic" to discover the bush in bloom.

'It’s a beautiful sort of metaphor of the people who were there,' says University of Denver archeologist

A rose blooms on a decades-old rose bush at the Amache National Historic Site. The Colorado site was an internment camp that held 7,000 Japanese Americans during the Second World War. (April Kamp-Whittaker/University of Denver Amache Research Project)

Ten years ago, Bonnie Clark and her team of researchers from the University of Denver discovered a rose bush clinging to life on the remnants of a barracks doorway at the Amache National Historic Site.

When Clark returned on Saturday, she was "ecstatic" to discover the bush in bloom.

"It was planted 80 years ago or so and has not been cared for since 1945. And yet it has survived and actually spread," Clark, an archeologist from the University of Denver who leads its Amache Research Project, told As It Happens guest host David Gray. "I think it's just a beautiful sort of metaphor for the resilience of the people who were there."

Formerly known as Camp Amache, the Amache National Historic Site was the site where more than 7,000 Japanese Americans and non-citizen Japanese people were held during the Second World War. The American government, under a 1942 executive order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, forcibly relocated them there with the goal of preventing espionage during the war. It's believed that one of the people being held there planted the bush. 

Clark says the plant's survival also reflects the resilience of the site, she added, which "laid dormant for many years and is now an active heritage site."

She described the rose bloom she saw there as a "beautiful, delicate pink" the size of her thumb.

Clark called the timing of the discovery "auspicious" as well. The buds were found during a recent pilgrimage to the site where survivors of Camp Amache and their descendants joined students and researchers for a commemoration event — the first since 2019. 

It was also their first visit since the passing of the Amache National Historic Site Act in March, which officially designated the camp as a national historical site.

Some were unable to visit the site themselves this year, so Clark made an effort to send photos of the bud to survivors who were not present. 

"I sent [a photo of the rose bud] to Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, who is a longtime volunteer with the archeology crew," said Clark.

"She was just absolutely ecstatic to see the rose bloom. And she put it so wonderfully about how it was as if it were saying to those survivors who had come back to the camp, 'Welcome home.'"

The foundation of barracks at the former Camp Amache, seen in May 2021. The site was designated a federal historic site managed by the National Park Service in March 2022. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post/The Associated Press)

A story of survival

In a 2021 op-ed in The Washington Post, Tanigoshi Tinker, a survivor of Camp Amache, recalled the "shoddy barrack bathtubs" exposed to the "wretched" climate, and lining up for meals outside of mass tents while her father would shield her from the sandstorms. During their time there, her family was forced to pick sugar cane and shovel coal for the war effort.

"While other children were sent to daycare, when I was three years old, I was sent to a Japanese American prison," Tanigoshi Tinker wrote. 

One hundred and twenty one inmates of the internment camp died, including a Japanese American man who, Tanigoshi Tinker wrote, was shot by a guard as he rushed to capture his dog who had burrowed under the fence out of the camp.

This Jan. 18, 2015, photo shows a gravestone for an unknown detainee at the former Camp Amache. (Russell Contreras/The Associated Press)

Tanigoshi Tinker, now in her 80s, survived — as did the rose bush, which Clark says was planted by one of the Japanese Americans interned at the camp decades earlier. 

"Those roses … saw life in the camp. They were there because of someone's desire to make this a somewhat more pleasant place to be, and to bring some beauty into otherwise pretty stark lives," Clark said. "The fact that they remain helps us make that connection between now and the past."

Clark hopes to find out who planted the rose in the camp in the first place by going through historical records of who lived in the nearby barracks. She plans to reach out to the families who may have memories or photographs of the rose bush and who brought it there.

Horticulturalists at the Denver Botanic Gardens are working on growing the rose bush from cuttings they took from the plant in the camp. Clark has already received requests for the roses from survivors and their families, and hopes to plant a rose bush at the University of Denver as well to recognize the work her students have done. 

The Denver Botanic Gardens are growing rose bushes taken from clippings of the one at the Amache National Historic Site. (Erin Bird/Denver Botanic Gardens)

While she's keen to also grow them in her own backyard, she recognizes that she may run into some challenges. 

"Denver has a problem with — ironically — Japanese beetles who are very attracted to roses," Clark said. "At least at this point, I might leave it to the professionals."


Written by Aloysius Wong. Interview produced by Kate McGillivray.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's executive order as 1992. The story has been updated to include the correct year, which was 1942.
    May 26, 2022 11:22 AM ET

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