While searching for the spot in New Mexico where I ran out of gas, I stumbled across a murder at an internment camp.
Sometimes I’ll take the back roads and pick out a few small towns to visit along the way. Gila Bend. Cloverdale. Dateland. Sometimes it turns out that these towns are dead or dying, which is always an alarming discovery. Especially when it means there aren’t any gas stations. While doing a bit of research last night, I noticed a reference to Cotton City, New Mexico, and thought, “Hey, I ran out of gas somewhere over there.”
At three in the morning, I leaned into my screen, searching for the exact spot where I barreled across the New Mexican state line, heading towards El Paso. I zoomed deep into digital maps, looking for the place where my Hyundai rental car sputtered and quit, leaving me to walk under the desert sun to a rusty old filling station where an old man in overalls laughed at me. I looked for the exact location where I entered every nightmarish scene in American road trip cinema: the scary drifter or murderous trucker, the wild-eyed kids swinging a tire chain from the back of a souped-up jeep. But it worked out okay: the old guy in coveralls gave me a hard time and had a good laugh, but he also gave me the red plastic container. Man, I know that red plastic container too well.
I peered into the monitor glow of my laptop, tracing my path. Route 9 towards Animas. Then I headed towards Lordsburg and hooked a left on Country Road B003, also known as Pow Road. Odd name, so I looked it up. POW Road. As in prisoner of war. An internment camp was built here.
From 1942 until 1943, two thousand Japanese-Americans were detained in Lordsburg, followed by 1,400 Italians and 5,500 Germans. At one point there were more Germans in the Lordsburg camp than residents of the entire county. But it’s the Japanese we need to remember. They were our citizens and we’ve developed an amazing case of national amnesia when it comes to what the American government did to them.
It gets spooky dark in the Chihuahuan desert. When you’re out there in the dead of night, it’s like you’re on the moon. That’s when arriving prisoners were marched two miles from the railroad station to the camp, so as not to alarm Lordsburg’s residents. A 1978 dispatch from New Mexico’s Office of the State Historian describes one of these night marches:
One elderly internee broke into a run across the fields, and although his friends were cautioning him in Japanese and the guards were calling “Halt!”, he kept running in apparent panic until he was shot and killed.
Until he was shot and killed. I keep staring at this clever phrase, admiring the clinical language that anonymizes the man who pulled the trigger and suggests the shootings were an inevitable outcome.
On a warm night in July 1942, a procession of 147 Japanese-Americans arrived from Bismarck. They silently marched down the middle of the road beneath a full moon. Gravel crunched. Unable to keep pace, two elderly men named Toshiro Kobata and Hirota Isomura lagged behind. They sat down. They argued with each other. At one point they veered off the main road. A soldier ordered them to halt before shooting them in the back with a twelve-gauge shotgun. The coroner found nine pellets lodged in each man’s back. Were Kobata and Isomura attempting to escape? Could they even run? Sources confirm that Kobata suffered from tuberculosis, and Insomura was afflicted with a spinal disease that caused him to stoop. The Office of the State Historian continues:
The soldier that did this shooting was hailed as a hero at first, and some people in Lordsburg took up a collection for him and treated him to free drinks and meals. An army officer gathered the shells as souvenirs, saying the boy deserved a medal, but headquarters didn’t take light of this.
The shooter was Private First Class Clarence Burleson. The prisoners demanded an investigation and, to keep the peace, PFC Burleson was initially charged with “willfully and lawfully” killing Kobata and Isomura. “Willfully and lawfully” was not a prosecutable offense and the charge was revised to two counts of manslaughter. Tetsuden Kashima’s Judgment Without Trial attempts to provide a coherent account of a seventy-year old court martial. Only a few ‘sanitized’ documents remain today. The case ultimately hinged on whether the two men were capable of running. “Isomura was always bent and had to take short quick steps,” said a witness. “When he stood still, his whole body would tremble.” There was also speculation as to why the two men wandered off the road; initial interviews suggest both men previously asked PFC Burleson for permission to relieve themselves and perhaps stepped off the road for this reason.
In 1997, Jack Hertzig visited the National Archives and obtained the coroner’s photographs of the corpses:
The wounds were in the middle left portion of the men’s backs. Since the weapon used was a shotgun, the wounds indicated that they were shot at close range. They were not at some distance when they were hit since the shot pattern would have been much wider than their wounds showed.
Kashima notes that the prosecution did not bother to introduce this evidence during the court martial.
Here is a portion of the official American response:
After Hirota Isomura and Toshiro Kobata entered the reservation but before they were within the camp enclosure, they suddenly made a break and started running toward the boundary of the reservation. The guard shouted to them twice to halt and when his order was not obeyed he fired in accordance with his standing instructions. Hirota Isomura died instantly and Toshiro Kobata a few hours later. An inquiry into the circumstances was conducted at once. The court-martial of the guard was vigorously prosecuted and all the facts were developed. An acquittal of the guard resulted.
A state department memo says, “Examination of the Army’s reports on the shootings gives the impression that the Army’s shooting rule comes close to making death, rather than up to 30 days arrest as provided in Article 54 of the Geneva Convention, the penalty for attempted escape.”
I was looking for the exact location where I entered the American thriller cliché of running out of gas on a lonely highway. I ended up lost in a sea of sanitized documents and speculation about the killing of two old men in a camp this country would prefer to forget. A camp in which we rounded up citizens based solely on their nationality under the pretext of national security — an idea which isn’t as alien today as one would hope.