Home History JCCCW Omoide The Coal Crew

The Coal Crew

by Atsushi Kiuchi, For the North American Post

In the winter of 1942, a winter rescue mission brought coal to the shivering and chilled residents of the Minidoka War Relocation Authority camp in the bleak south central Idaho desert. This was our first winter and the extreme cold was a shock, especially for us accustomed to the mild, northwest climate.

We faced our first winter in uninsulated barracks, constructed of single, exterior plaster board covered with tar paper. In the summers, we were at the mercy of 100-degree temperatures and in the winter, two-foot deep snows and below freezing temperatures.  A single pot-belly stove was the sole source of heat in our crowded, single family, living units.

Coal was the life force of camp, serving the 36 blocks and some 9,000 residents. Coal kept us warm in our small family units, cooked our mess hall meals; and provided hot water for our communal showers and laundry rooms.

Similar to the famed “Red Ball Express” of World War 2 fame, Minidoka had its counterpart in the coal crew. The all black unit brought supplies to the fast advancing Allied military forces crossing Europe as the war neared its end.

The coal crew hauled the coal on depression-era, government, surplus trucks about 20 miles from the end of the railroad spur north of Twin Falls. They worked 24 hours a day–divided into two shifts- night and day crews.

The crews consisted of young adult men- all past high school age. The work gave them a sense of purpose after the shock subsided from their forcible removal from their homes and incarceration.  There was a great sense of camaraderie, developed through the extremely hard manual labor, long hours and keeping the old, worn out surplus government vehicles and equipment running.

With coal dust -smeared faces and grimy, government- issued work clothes, the crew members were loved and respected by the residents. After delivery to the mess halls, they were always given special treats by the cooks.

Coal was always short of supply. Each resident was allowed one bucket per living area each week. The early arrivals at the coal pile got the big chunks. The late comers had to settle for smaller pieces and coal dust- the latter hard to ignite and providing little heat.

Even in these bleak camp circumstances, there was room for boyhood heroes.

I was 13 years old. My ambition was to be a member of the coal crew.

Atsushi Kiuchi is retired after 13 years as a newspaper reporter and 28 years as a public affairs administrator for several state agencies. He is currently active in the Omoide writing group, JCCCW and the Nisei Veterans Committee. He spent three years in the WW2 facilities at Puyallup and Minidoka.

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Omoide is developed under an umbrella of organizations supported in part by the Nikkei Heritage Association of Washington and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. To date, the Omoide team has introduced the project to several thousand students, 200 teachers, and 400 members of the general public over the past 12 years. These personal accounts have encouraged open dialog and discussions of constitutional rights, personal history, cultural development, immigrant experiences in the US, family values, multi-cultural issues and much more.