A Historical Event

Local residents have now been passing along the Japanese camp story for several generations. It is a persistent story that appears on the surface as a simple account. The research has revealed a more complex narrative. We are beginning to view the Japanese camp story as an important historical event. In a broad sense, we have embarked on a sociological study of American internment with a specific emphasis on the people of the western Mohave Desert. We had fought a war overseas and won but what of the war we fought here on our own soil? What can we learn? We may have the rarest of opportunities to learn from this experience. A story about a small group of Japanese Americans who braved an entire nation, seeking a way to live, as all Americans expect to live, free and without prejudice, to carry on their chosen family traditions. A story that reveals a lasting impression made by the segregation and internment of American citizens over 70 years ago.

The goal of this research is to fill in all the missing pieces. We want to know and understand all of the people who were involved with the camp. We are looking for their neighbors, their friends, their allies, and even those who sought to arrest them. We are talking to people who were here before them, who were here during the war and the people who came along for so many years after, telling the story about a Japanese camp in the local mountains.

In all of our interviews and historical research there has been only one person who is alive today that has told us with certainty there were Japanese people living in these mountains during the war. He and his family knew they were there. He learned about them as a child, during the war, the Japanese living in the canyon where his family hunted for deer and chopped firewood. While there is still much more research to be done, is it enough to say it is true? I believe it is.

All of the research to this day indicates it was a true story and for 70 years it has been told over and over in much the same fashion. I have laid awake at night asking myself could this be enough? But I am always left wondering what I am missing. I want to know the whole story and I want to be able to share it. It is a story that needs to be told in its entirety.

Historical Archives


I have searched thousands of pages of newspapers from December 1941 to September 1945. It includes newspapers from the towns of Victorville, Lucerne Valley, Pioneertown, Yucca Valley, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Banning, Beaumont and San Bernardino. Most of the newspapers are on microfilm but there are still a few that are in their original form. I can only briefly summarize what I have learned from all of these papers. Each town does reflect its own character through its newspaper giving us a unique sense of what it was like there during the war. It has been a valuable process to understand the real possibility of how something like the Japanese camp could even happen in this seemingly remote region of the desert. None of the articles indicated the families at the Japanese camp were arrested or otherwise detained. In fact, I began to realize that it was even more likely that they were there at the camp after reading articles about Japanese populations in the area, evacuations allowing groups to travel east and the eastern counties of Riverside and San Bernardino being the last areas to finally restrict occupation by people of Japanese heritage.

I saved nearly all the articles from each town that reported on the war as it related to Japanese Americans in the community and the war effort on a local scale. It was important to me to understand how each town perceived the Japanese, how they may have lived in the community and the likelihood of their return to the area. I will be providing these articles in a future update for you to get your own sense of what it was like during the war. i will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.

I felt there was very little reported in the local papers about Japanese internment. The lack of discussion about internment by the town newspapers was actually quite disturbing to me. The San Bernardino Daily Sun seemed to be a major source of comprehensive news for all of these areas and was the only paper that regularly reported on a wide variety of information about the war. Even still, there was little public debate in any local newspapers of the day about the plight of the Japanese Americans in this country.

The Story of a Camp and a Mine

There are two major sites associated with the story along with three minor sites that may be involved. In addition, there are approximately 50 other sites that still need to be explored. I will only briefly address the 2 major sites here; the camp in a secluded valley and just below it, a mine located in a side canyon. They are the most well known locations, both separately and together, and they are integral to much of the basic story. Understanding these locations provides the most insight into the story’s origin and evolution.

It is documented that the mine, including 11 other prospects in the area were all claimed in 1931 by three miners. The camp’s construction and central location show strong indications of it being first developed at the same time the mines were in production. The mines and the camp have only been interconnected by trails, never by roads. This location is so remote they could only access the locations by foot or horseback. Later in the 1940s when the mines were abandoned there still would have been visible clues connecting the camp and surrounding mines. It would be a reasonable conclusion to assume anyone living at the camp during the war would know about the mines and may have even used one of them as a storage area. As the years passed into the late 1950s the area was being explored again. Arriving 15 years after the war, long after the miners had gone, these new explorers may not have recognized the traces of the extensive operations between the camp and the mine. With nearly all of the mining equipment removed, the trails unused, the connection between the camp and mine would be faint. And so the story of the camp tends to vary, usually with variations about a nearby mine and the possibility of storage.

In 1958 there was a “new” discovery of one of the mines, full of supplies. It was reported to the local Sheriff for investigation and I am certain it was this discovery that began to influence the story. The additional descriptions of possibly where the Japanese stored their supplies, as if they were going to be isolated there for a long time, vary from being a cave behind the camp, a rock shelter, or a nearby mine. These variations can be attributed to the new discovery of the mine in 1958 and the geographical relationship between the camp and mine. It also indicates the story probably laid dormant for quite a few years after the war when finally this generation of desert explorers came along in the late 1950s trying to understand what happened at the camp and mine.

The camp and the mine are just far enough apart, across rugged terrain, that it would now take a person of good hiking ability and a desire to search the area for a couple of days or more to discover both of them. Even today there are very few who fully understand their connection to each other.  Many of the people we interviewed were coming to these two locations in the 1950s but by two different routes. Many  people traveled to the camp by the eastern route in the late 1950s and early 1960s but did not know about the mine. At the same period in time, there were a few who came to the mine from a northern route but never knew where the camp was located or that it even existed. Their divergent experiences has certainly influenced the details of the story over time.

One Story Stands Out

There is one living source that has told us the story as he knew it in 1942. It is the closest we have been able to come to the origin. It lacks the details that seem to have been added in the 1950s and is from a reliable source; I take it as a factual account. These are my notes from our conversation:

“...There was only one camp in the hills above my house where a couple of Japanese families were living. Never saw them, they kept to themselves. My family knew they were there but they never bothered them. They had found a spot where there was water and there was someone bringing them supplies. This was during the war...”

It was an amazing account to hear, his memories as a young boy, growing up in the desert during the war. Their homestead was just a couple miles east, near the mouth of the canyon leading to the camp. It was the very same canyon where they would hunt for game and collect firewood. He comes from a family with a long history in this part of the valley. His grandfather retired as a well respected Deputy Sheriff, with an extended family that has mined, homesteaded and protected this area for many years since the 1880s. I believe they did know of a family up there in the hills and probably knew them well enough to know they were of no harm to anyone and simply let them be. It is the way of the desert, a lesson of life learned in this rugged land and it will cause you to give respect to your neighbors, if only because they are there.

Stone Cabin under the pine tree, 2010

Mine (Japanese camp), 2011

...he learned about them as a child, during the war, the Japanese living in the canyon where his family hunted for deer and chopped firewood.

Where to Start Looking

There is not a single place you can go to learn about the Japanese camp. It has never been fully documented with any further detail other than a possible location and a story of a Japanese refuge camp. There are only a few institutions that even know the possibility the event may have occurred. The Japanese American National Museum is aware of the camp due to recent efforts asking them for research aid. You cannot walk into a National, State or Local Archive to read a file documenting the event. The BLM that controls the wilderness land where the camp is located does not have any evidence other than the experiences of the local rangers who patrolled the area in recent years. After searching thousands of pages of newspapers, magazines and periodicals we have only found one instance, an article in a 1999 edition of the Johnson Valley Journal, where the Editor Bill Wilson relayed the story as it was told to him.

There are bits and pieces of information scattered everywhere, stories people have told, artifacts removed from the camp and individual records within historical archives. It will not be until all of the pieces have been assembled into one unified study that we will ever be able to fully understand what really happened at the Japanese camp. It is a monumental task. The information within the institutional archives is slowly being exhausted and we are involved with interviewing many of the local pioneers. In addition, we are researching the family histories of all the miners, ranchers and homesteaders who lived in the area at the time of the event. Most of these people have passed on and it is only through the great help of their descendants that we continue to further understand the possibilities of the Japanese Camp story.

Decorative Step, 2010

Sifting through land records and searching mining claims was the beginning to finding many of the people we are now interviewing and researching. There were actually quite a few miners and ranchers who were in the area of the camp during the war. As we learn more about them we are eventually able to talk to their descendants in the hopes they have passed down information that relates to this project. The people who lived in the area of the camp have proved to be an immensely interesting group. We are asking everyone to look for letters, photographs and even business ledgers for any clues. Many times information from one contact turns into a search for others. The area was widely explored during the 1930s, with a depression going on everyone was looking for a new way to make a living. The population in the desert and mountains actually swelled from the influx of new explorers. A rather unknown portion of the San Bernardino Mountains was gradually becoming a well known western edge of the Mohave Desert.

Miners, Ranchers and Homesteaders

Image from

1930 Census - Cunningham and Foerster

Maurice A. Donahue, Desert Painter

Japanese camp - Original Mining Claim

Locators - Wheeler, Cunningham and Foerster

The Miners

There were nearly a dozen miners in the area during the war and I am near certain there were others who wandered through. Wheeler, Cunningham and Foerster are the three miners who located the original claims at the Japanese camp. Of course it was not called the Japanese camp then, It was originally a camp belonging to the Gold Basin Mines Company, Daniel J. Wheeler, President.

I was able to find the daughter of one of the miners, Erich Foerster. Her father, in his later years, had written about his mining experiences in the desert. It provided a considerable amount of information about his travels in the desert during the 1930s. What was so interesting was his long association with the Blackhawk and Lester mines located just northwest of the Japanese camp. Foerster and Cunningham had actually worked together as best friends at the Blackhawk Mine all through the 1930s and even stayed in contact for many years later. The Blackhawk and Lester Mines did not operate continuously and it was during their off times they actually spent time locating and developing the mines at the Japanese camp. They did this along with Daniel J. Wheeler. Becoming the Gold Basin Mines Company, Wheeler, Cunningham and Foerster continued to own the mines at the Japanese camp through the 1930s and it was Wheeler and Cunningham who continued on into the 1940s.

Wheeler has been incredibly hard to find and research. We just haven’t looked in the right places as yet but I am sure something will turn up with him eventually. Cunningham has been equally tough but his history is gradually coming through after countless hours of searching. Both Wheeler and Cunningham are two key miners that I believe would have known the Japanese families who were at the camp. Whether they discovered them or allowed them to be there has yet to be determined but I think either possibility is highly likely. Cunningham in particular would have known something of the Japanese families since he is documented as overseeing the assessment work performed for the Gold Basin mining operations up to June 1942.

I discovered a book at the Lucerne Valley Library, just by chance, about the Blackhawk Mine. “The Gold Mines of Blackhawk Canyon” written by Walter Del Mar it is a first hand account of his families ownership and operation of the mines in the Blackhawk Canyon and much to my amazement it contained photos and descriptions of the miners Cunningham and Foerster . I was able to visit the author Walter Del Mar and he has provided incredible insight into the realities of mining during the 1930s. He knew both Cunningham and Foerster personally, worked with them at the mine and held them in high regard. Both men were responsible for overseeing the construction, maintenance  and operation of the works at the Blackhawk Mine. By understanding some of the methods used to develop the Blackhawk Mine , methods known to Cunningham and Foerster, it has answered many of my questions about the development of the their own mining camp, the Gold Basin Mines Company, now known as the Japanese camp.

There are other mines and miners that were near the Japanese camp but none can be so directly tied to the site as the Gold Basin Mines Company with Wheeler, Cunningham and Foerster. There are at least 50 other prospects or mines located within 3 miles of the Japanese camp, all of these sites need to be looked at for possible clues. Also we are specifically looking at William Baur at his Blue Vase Mine in 1941, Walden D. Fink in the 1930s and through the war, Floyd Vaughn from 1939 until the 1960s and finally, Virgil Clevenger, who in the early 1950s to 1970s lived on the same road to the camp, just 2 1/2 miles away. All were prospecting and mining in the area throughout the war years and we continue to search their history for any clue that they may have known about or have been somehow involved with the camp.

Because of the remoteness of the area we cannot leave out any of the miners who were working over in the Pipes and Rattlesnake Canyon areas including such well known gentlemen as John Olson and Pete Lager. Also, I recently found a handwritten local story by Vernette Landers, where she mentions a miner who set up a cabin by Ruby Mountain, a miner I have yet to find, Leslie Shroq. However remote the possibility, we continue to read the histories and stories about all of the miners that may have been prospecting the area, hoping for some mention of meeting a Japanese family or coming across the camp itself.


There were several large cattle ranches in the area. The closest being the Bain and Hardman ranches. Edgar Bain patented 640 acres in 1938 and the same with Francis Norma Hardman. They were neighbors to each other and just about 4 miles south of the Japanese camp. Given the nature of the cattle business in these hills it would be very likely that the Bains and Hardmans would have been aware of their neighbors to the north. The research on their history is in its very early stages.

In 1927 Maurice A. Donahue moved into the center of Johnson Valley, just north of the Japanese camp,  obtaining a serial land patent in 1929. Donahue was sometimes a rancher, mostly a desert painter but always colorful it seems. He has not been documented as telling a story specifically about the Japanese camp but I believe he may have some connection with the Japanese who were there or the Japanese who were living in the valley near his home.  There is still much to be learned of his many years spent here in the desert. We keep searching but I have yet to find any of his family, notes or letters that he may have passed on about his life in the Valley.

Donahue was a veteran of the first world war and he lived in the valley from about 1927 until his death in 1964. He was one of the few residents in this part of the valley with a good view of the northern canyon leading to the camp and mines. I am near certain he would have been aware of the mining operations of the Gold Basin Mines Company during the 1930s.

It has been told that Donahue relayed a story about a Japanese internment camp near his homestead. He said they were his neighbors and got along quite well with them. There was indeed a group of Japanese farmers living immediately south and just west of Donahue in the early 1930s. These farmers were working the land by what is known as a dry farming method and supposedly were employed by businessmen from the city. They lived in a group of little desert type cabins typical of the homesteads of the time. This basic story of the Japanese farming is told in the book “Range One East” by Virginia C. Hemphill-Gobar. The Japanese farmers may have appeared to Donahue as if they were in an internment camp but it certainly was not the case. The farming venture eventually failed and the cabins were abandoned. We are still looking for the businessmen who may have started the venture.

A man known as Andy Anderson came along in 1936 and homesteaded the now abandoned Japanese farm. He subdivided the land and began selling off the existing cabins as ready made homesteads. We are now researching Andy’s history because of his connection to the Japanese farm. Andy Anderson, who is actually Axel Clinton Anderson, born June 6, 1876 is buried in the Lucerne Valley Memorial Park as Alexander Anderson. We know that during WW l Andy had a daughter named Bernice but that is about all we really know of his family so far. He is interesting to our research as he may have told someone in his family about the Japanese farming in the desert. There is much more to be learned. It has been an intriguing possibility that some of the Japanese farmers, who were familiar with this desert area in the 1930s, may have been the ones who ultimately ended up at the Japanese camp.

Finally, there has been considerable mention during my interviews of the three boys of the John L. Kee family in Pipes Canyon. There are a number of people who say they knew about the camp and were possibly even the first to know about it. Original pioneers of this area in the 1930s, John Kee and his three boys Corky, Charlie and Roy would have spent considerable time roaming around these hills hunting, prospecting and grazing cattle. Through the war years they spent a fair amount of time working throughout and further exploring the canyons around their home. During WW ll John Kee’s sons were still quite young, Corky was barely a teenager, Charlie and Roy still very young boys but they would have been old enough to know what was going on with the war and retain any local events they heard of at the time.

The Kee family got my attention because generally the people who talked about the camp in the early years tend to be somehow connected with Search and Rescue or the Sheriff’s department. John Kee was a charter member of the Yucca Valley Sheriff’s Rangers and the boys became the youngest members of the Sheriff’s Posse. It makes sense to think that the men who were out in the hills looking for fugitives, rescuing lost people, etc. would be more familiar with all of the stories in the area.

Recent interviews with the Kee family descendants have indicated Johnny and Addah Kee were in contact with the Japanese families during the war years. Johnny Kee’s ranch home burned down in the 1960s destroying all evidence of their meetings but an amazing assortment of stories that have been passed down that continue to fuel further research.



In the 1950s there was a small group of homesteaders that settled in Johnson Valley just north of the canyon leading to the Japanese camp. It was the exploration of their new surroundings and their proximity to the canyon that lead to the “rediscovery” of the mine belonging to the Gold Basin Mines Company. It was most likely their discovery that prompted a renewed interest in the story of the Japanese camp.

Stan Coutant’s family homesteaded in 1957 and by 1958 they had explored far enough into the canyon behind their new homestead to discover the mine. Their initial exploration lead to a call to the local Sheriff’s office in Lucerne Valley and the following week they returned with an interested deputy and his partner. Sheriff Deputy Stilwell and Reserve Deputy Mitchell entered the mine, photographing the contents discovered there. It was January 4, 1958 and the site appeared to be abandoned other than the rather large stash of boxes found just inside the mine entrance. Stan Coutant was given one of the photographs by Deputy Mitchell, a saved memento that recently inspired Stan to write about his experience at the mine. It is a fascinating account and can be read at the following link:

The Deputies looked inside a few of the boxes but they did not record any kind of inventory while onsite. They simply documented the discovery with photographs and closed up the mine as they had found it. Whether they wrote an incident report later at their office is still to be determined. Stan relates that for the next few years his family trips to the location would reveal an increase in items being removed or vandalized.

There are many conclusions that could be drawn from this discovery in the mine but due to the late period that it was found, almost 13 years after WW ll had ended, it is difficult to connect the contents to the Japanese families who were at the camp. I believe the discovery had more of an affect on how the story of the Japanese camp was to be told in the years following. The Japanese camp story was to become a story of a Japanese camp and a mine full of Japanese supplies. An intermingling of two events, likely related but discovered separately many years apart.

An important clue to deciphering the impact of this discovery and how it probably influenced the story actually comes from a young girl and her brother who also visited the mine in 1958. Her grandparents were neighbors to the Coutants and after hearing about the mine they too explored the area of the mine. Lynn Blackford was 13 years old when she made the journey to the mine with her grandparents. While she was there she took notice of a small paprika can, discovering a note inside she was allowed to take it with her as a keepsake. The note was actually a detailed list of items that appear to be sorted into numbered boxes. It is a very interesting list. We have not been able to date it to a specific time other than to say that it is entirely possible it was written at the beginning of WW ll. We do know the list of items belonged to a man and woman with the initials H and R. There are many other aspects of the list that are intriguing and the study of the list’s implications will continue.

Lynn’s brother was also with her at the mine, he was about 7 years old. He remembers it as a cave in the side of the mountain. He said there were papers scattered around, like pieces of printed newspaper with Japanese writing on them. Printed writing similar to newspaper print or maybe even labels but definitely Japanese writing. He said he could not forget as he had called out to everyone to look at the papers he had found with Japanese writing on them.

Over the years since the discovery of the mine in 1958, all of the contents of the mine have been removed. I cannot begin to tell you how interesting it would be to know what all of those boxes actually contained. There are a couple of leads that we are following that may lead us to some of the items removed from the mine and possibly the camp. Until we are able to document the items and know exactly where they were found, I will refrain from listing the possibilities here. I am not surprised to know there are quite a few pieces taken from the camp that are still floating around in peoples collections. Most likely a varied assortment of little treasures that have been saved as reminders of a day gone by, a remembrance saved from a trip to a remote valley where they discovered a mystery camp or a mine full of supplies in the San Bernardino Mountains. I believe there is a rule in this wide open desert that when something useful is abandoned and left to lay in the desert sun it will eventually find a use by another desert explorer. Most people are not aware of the importance of their discoveries at the Japanese camp and the mine. Many of them are simply sitting on a shelf or even tucked away in a box waiting to tell the rest of the story. To discover how they fit into this story of the Japanese camp will truly make them a real treasure and it is my hope we will find and document many more of these important clues to help reveal the entire story of the Japanese camp.