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The secret of Triangle-T


During World War II, Japanese diplomats were detained at the guest ranch on the outskirts of Dragoon.

In the early months of 1942, still stunned by the recent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Arizonans would have been shocked to learn that some three dozen Japanese citizens were living secretly right in their own back yard.

They were diplomatic staff members from San Francisco, held in a supersecret prisoner-of-war camp in as remote a spot as the federal government could conceive of: a guest ranch on the outskirts of Dragoon.

The ranch and its buildings still exist, and it still operates under its original name, Triangle-T Guest Ranch, though ownership has changed since World War II.

Tucsonan Rhea Robinson is one of the few who learned of the camp’s existence, and only because her husband, the late Reed P. Robinson, then a U.S. Border Patrol agent, was in charge of the camp.

She didn’t learn about it until the prisoners of war were gone and the guest ranch had been returned to its traditional function.

“We were stationed in Benson,’ she recalled in a recent interview. Her husband was assigned to check train cars and buses coming through there, looking for German agents. His notes indicate he periodically was sent out of state, as well, probably guarding groups of aliens.

“One day in February 1942, the chief from Tucson came by and told Reed to be ready to go in 30 minutes, and to have his uniform, his dress suit and some rough clothes packed.’

It would be many weeks before his wife, who two months earlier had given birth to their child, would hear from him again. And then it was only a letter from El Paso, Texas, with a post office box address.

Later she would learn he had been on “special detail’ guarding a consul general and his vice consul, and more than 30 staff members and assistants – “20 minutes down the road.’

“It was high security,’ said Robinson, who revisited the guest ranch herself for the first time a few years ago.

“It wasn’t that they were afraid the Japanese would leave, but that the Americans would get to them,’ Robinson said. Anti-Japanese sentiment ran high in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Her husband would go on to pursue a career in foreign service with the State Department – one that took the couple to all major areas of the world except Russia and China.

They retired in Tucson in 1974. Reed Robinson died in 1976.

His widow still has the duty notebooks from his Border Patrol days, in which he refers to “special detail’ work. Early entries do not specify the location, but are simply followed by two cryptic symbols: a triangle and a “T.’

She also has six small Kodak Brownie-style photographs taken at Dragoon.

They show members of the diplomatic staff, the ranch buildings they lived in and the tents that Robinson and his fellow Border Patrol agents occupied.

Governments traditionally treat an enemy’s diplomatic personnel well, even in times of war, expecting that their own diplomats will be equally well treated.

The Dragoon POWs were no exception, apparently. One of the small photos shows a Japanese man, believed to be the consul general, with a tennis racquet, posing with Reed Robinson. Both are smiling, and the photo is autographed in Japanese and English on the back.

Robinson’s brief notes, more of a duty log than a “diary,’ provide an abbreviated look at the activities at the Triangle-T a half-century ago. Among the entries:

* Feb. 10, 1942: “Left Bismarck, N.D., arrived St. Paul, Minn.’

* Feb. 13, 1942: “Arrived in Tucson.’

* Feb. 14, 1942: “30 cars, 2 buses.’

* Feb. 18, 1942, Wednesday: “Special Detail. Left O.S. 3, arrived (drawing of a triangle and a “T’) at 4. (O.S. is an abbreviation for “official station,’ Robinson’s regular assignment in Benson).

In late April, the notes indicate, Robinson returned briefly to his regular duties checking railway passenger cars and buses.

He returned to Dragoon on May 8, and entries indicate he spent the remainder of the month there. The last day of the month, however, signaled a change:

* May 31, 1942: “In charge of Special Detail, Dragoon, Ariz. 123 pieces of baggage shipped on May 31, with help of Montoyea, Pettengill, Kanjeme and Terak of Tucson. (The names apparently are those of fellow Border Patrol agents.)

* June 8, 1942: “Took down fences and signal systems, checked government-owned equipment. Transported aliens from Triangle-T to Dragoon, Ariz. Loaded them on train. 2 p.m.-4 p.m. (his on-duty hours) en route from Dragoon, Ariz. to Jersey City, N.Y., with aliens.’

* June 11: “Arrived N.Y. 11 a.m., removed aliens from train to Pennsylvania Hotel. Guarded aliens there. Checked in hotel at 8, Room 742 with Pettengill and Panther.’

* June 18, 1942, Thursday: “Guarded enemy aliens at Pennsylvania Hotel, N.Y.C., and during transit from hotel to Ship Gripsholm.’ (The Gripsholm was a Swedish ship, from a neutral nation, used to transport POWs, Rhea Robinson said.)

* June 20, 1942: “Left hotel. Went to Jersey City, N.J. Loaded aliens on train. Left Jersey City.’ (Here, the word “aliens ‘ appears to refer to Mexican citizens being returned to El Paso, rather than Japanese prisoners of war.)

Only two full names and one partial name of the Japanese prisoners are listed on the back of the photos: Otojiro Okuda, Kokichi Seki and Nagokita.

Rhea Robinson said she later was told that the POWs her husband had guarded had been exchanged for American POWs of similar stature.

Their ultimate fate, after their return to Japan, she never learned, nor, apparently, did her husband.

Jim Wallen, assistant manager of the Triangle-T Guest Ranch, said he has chatted with State Department officials who have visited the ranch and was told that at one point, during the POW period, the Cochise County sheriff had gotten wind of “unusual activities’ at the guest ranch and had gone there to see for himself.

The sheriff, according to the story, was turned away – possibly at shotgun point – and told not to interfere with federal business.

True or not, it makes a good tale.

Thus apparently ended Dragoon’s direct participation in the war effort. The population of the town numbered only a few dozen in the ’40s, and it is difficult to believe that there weren’t rumors about what might be going on at the Triangle-T.

But it was a secret well kept, producing a mystery that has survived until today.

Photos by RICK WILEY/Tucson Citizen/LOST CAMP – Tucson resident Rhea Robinson (left) shows old photos of the internment camp at Dragoon. Japanese diplomats were kept there during World War II. At far left is the diary of the late Reed P. Robinson, Rhea Robinson’s husband, who was in charge of the camp.

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