A rare photo of the kids of the Keetley Colony. Howard Yamamoto is in the back row, third from the right.

442: How a Group of Japanese Americans Avoided Incarceration during WWII

Led by Fred Wada, the Keetley Colony refused to live behind barbed wire

A rare photo of the kids of the Keetley Colony. Howard Yamamoto is in the back row, third from the right.

Courtesy of Mary Wada-Roath

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

“What camp was your family in?”

This is a topic that often comes up for 51-year-old journalist Ryan Yamamoto whenever he’s around other Japanese Americans. The camps they’re referring to, of course, are the concentration camps where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast were illegally and unconstitutionally incarcerated during World War II.

And while his dad’s family was originally from Oakland, California, Yamamoto’s answer is complicated, because they didn’t go to camp. His family was part of the Keetley Colony, a group of 130 Japanese Americans who traveled from California to Utah, escaping a life behind barbed wire.

Howard Yamamoto’s travel permit from 1942, for permission travel from California to Utah.

Courtesy of Howard Yamamoto

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, it sealed the fate of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. But what many may not know is that in March 1942, before they were forcibly removed, Japanese Americans were urged by the army to voluntarily evacuate. But it wasn’t easy for folks to just pick up their entire lives and move.

The Keetley Colony were among about 5,000 Japanese Americans—less than 10 percent—who successfully moved from the West Coast states, according to Densho. Another 5,000 tried but were forcibly removed anyway after the area they settled in was later declared off limits.

An unknown part of history

Led by produce seller Fred Wada, the Keetley Colony settled in an old mining town in the Keetley Valley. In order to resettle there, Wada got permission from then Utah Gov. Herbert Maw.

Using his family’s history as a jumping off point, Yamamoto researched the story more when he got to college, writing a paper on the topic and surprising his professor, who had not known about this bit of history—despite San Francisco State University’s robust Asian American studies program.

Since then, the colony’s history has fascinated Yamamoto for three decades. Now an anchor at CBS News Bay Area, he recently reported on this story, sharing his father’s and others’ experiences from that time.

“I need to do this story, so there’s a record,” Yamamoto says.

Yamamoto’s father, Howard Yamamoto, was 4 when his family joined the Keetley Colony. Howard, now 85, doesn’t remember much about how he, his parents, and his 4-month-old sister got from Oakland to Keetley, but he remembers his mother being upset at the time. She burned anything that might show they were Japanese, including Howard’s Japanese toys.

“There was a great fear…Japanese all of a sudden turned into ‘Japs,’” he tells JoySauce.

The FBI were arresting men of Japanese descent (without warrants) and their wives essentially became widows during the war. Howard’s mother was particularly worried because his father was an undocumented immigrant and actually had served in the Japanese Navy about a decade earlier.

‘We almost felt shunned’

While the Yamamotos say having family who were in the camps is almost a “badge of honor” for Japanese Americans, Howard says voluntary evacuees don’t really talk about their experiences.

“We almost felt shunned,” he says.

The Keetley Colony may have received permission from the governor, but life was hardly “prosperous” for them and they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Upon arriving in April 1942, the group was greeted by a stick of dynamite thrown at them, according to Ryan’s report. And once the snow melted, they realized the land was not farmland—it was all sagebrush and rocks that needed to be cleared.

An archival photo from the Keetley Valley.

Courtesy of Mary Wada-Roath

With only a few dilapidated homes and apartments, Howard called the area a “ghost town.”

“That’s where we lived,” he says. “Essentially, we were living in poverty.”

Eventually the group was able to live off the land. They grew fruits and vegetables, which they sold to surrounding communities. They also donated crops to one of the concentration camps holding their fellow Japanese Americans, in Topaz, Utah.

In his report, Wada’s daughter Mary Wada-Roath tells Ryan that her father also made sure their neighbors knew they were loyal to Americans, erecting a sign reading “Food for Freedom.”

“It was important for my father,” Wada-Roath says in the report. “He wanted people to know they were Americans making food for Americans.”

Remembering a shared experience

Over time, relations between the colony and their neighbors improved and once the war ended, about a third of the Japanese American farmers actually stayed in Utah, according to Utah Humanities.

The Yamamotos added that many of the families who left Utah returned to California and are still there. Howard’s family stayed in Salt Lake City for a while, before returning to the Bay Area.

From left, Ryan and Howard Yamamoto read the informational signs near the Jordanelle Reservoir where the Keetley Colony settlement once was.

KPIX CBS News Bay Area

In 1987, the state of Utah built a dam that flooded the entire valley, creating the Jordanelle Reservoir. This destroyed any evidence of the Keetley Colony’s existence and nearly erased their story. But according to Ryan’s report, the nearby city of Hideout worked to preserve this history. Today, two signs telling the colony’s story, including a list with every member’s name, with a few rare photos from that time, greet visitors to the reservoir. In addition, two trails, Wada Way West and Keetley West, have been named for the colony to guide hikers and bikers in the area.

In August 2022, Wada-Roath organized a reunion for the remaining Keetley survivors and their families. Nine out of the 10 were able to make it—including the Yamamotos. They gathered in Utah for what would likely be the last time (the oldest survivor, May Yamada Kong, is 95).

Since he was so young at the time, Howard didn’t know many people, but he still enjoyed the reunion.

“It was nice because the descendants of the group came down,” he says. It was also nice because they all shared this one experience. “That was very heartwarming.”

From left, Howard and Ryan Yamamoto look at the informational signs about Keetley Valley.

KPIX CBS News Bay Area

Published on February 15, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.