To Heart Mountain

Heart Mountain
Heart Mountain

To Heart Mountain

Oregon Humanities
December 15, 2017
A writer travels to see the site of a World War II prison camp that her father designed.
Oregon Humanities
December 15, 2017
A writer travels to see the site of a World War II prison camp that her father designed.

My father, W. Lindsay Suter, was one of the architects of the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming. Too young to serve in World War I and too old for World War II, my father specialized in designing houses and small commercial properties along with his architectural partner, René Travelletti. However, once the United States entered World War II in late 1941, domestic construction ceased almost completely. Both men had families and needed work, so they looked around to see how they might contribute to the war effort. The Harza Engineering Company of Chicago was advertising for architects and engineers to design and supervise the construction of an internment center for Japanese Americans in Wyoming. They decided to sign up.

My father must have believed he would be able to make the internment center as habitable as possible, a notion of which he was surely disabused in short order. Dad never shared anything about this project with me, and I never asked him about it. I learned the details from my mother some thirty years later, when I happened to ask her what we were doing in Wyoming back then.

Fourteen thousand people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated at Heart Mountain during the period the camp was open from 1942–45. Once I understood the meaning of that summer long ago, I began to contemplate a pilgrimage to the Heart Mountain site. But I learned that all that was left of the camp was a ramshackle old building and a deteriorating memorial.

I let go of the idea for nearly four decades, until 2005, when one day, on a whim, I searched for “Heart Mountain” on the Internet. To my amazement, I found an active website describing a comprehensive interpretive center, a bookstore, staff members, and a foundation devoted to the history of the camp. Furthermore, the center was holding yearly events called Pilgrimages, to which former incarcerees, their families, friends, and any interested parties were welcome. Fifteen hundred people had attended the first Pilgrimage in 2011. Immediately I knew that I wanted to go to the next one, scheduled for summer 2016. I ordered some books and a video from the bookstore, registered to go to the event, and reserved a room at a motel in Cody.

On July 27, I drove the 105 miles from the airport at Billings, Montana, to Cody, Wyoming, returning after an absence of seventy-four years. Driving in darkness for the last thirty miles or so, I could just make out the dark purple outlines of mountains against a moonless sky. I was tired and anxious, not only about staying on course with no lights to guide me along the desolate road, but also about how I would be received at Heart Mountain by people I had never met and who might have reason to dislike me.

The author with her father in Wyoming Photo courtesy of the author

In May 1942, my father had taken the train from our suburban home in Winnetka, Illinois, to Cody, where he began his work. A few weeks later, my mother, my older brother, Lauren, and I met him in Wyoming. After a short stay in a tourist cabin we settled at Majo, a working ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River. We took to ranch life with gusto, living in a log cabin beside a spring where we drew our water every day. We ate our meals with the ranch family and staff, downing huge breakfasts of eggs, bacon, and my favorite new food, flapjacks. Lauren and I rode a gentle old horse and gathered deer and elk antlers in the surrounding hills. We also played a water-engineering game that we called “Dam the Shoshone,” redirecting the little rivulets that ran alongside the shallow river. It was the first time I remember the two of us playing well together, without the constant squabbles typical of our life in Winnetka. It was one of the happiest summers of my life.

My father came out to the ranch on weekends, riding in the mail stage, a pickup truck that delivered mail, groceries, and other necessities to the ranches along the South Fork. Lauren and I were sometimes allowed to ride in the pickup and throw bags of mail into the mailboxes’ large openings as the truck sped along. The Shoshone was full of trout, and Dad often took us fishing. Our equipment consisted of long sticks, strings, hooks, and grasshoppers. When I caught my first fish I screamed so loudly that I’m sure any others were scared away.

One time, Dad took the family to see what he had been working on during the week. I have no memories of what I saw. But I can imagine myself, a restless five-year-old looking at a city of tar-paper barracks stretching off into the sage, impatient to get back to my games and the Shoshone River.  Only a few weeks after our visit, thousands of Japanese American children and their families walked into that same city, into what might have been the worst period of their lives.

I was vividly reminded of that contrast as I drove out to the relocation center. I had read about the Japanese American experience of mass incarceration in ten different camps throughout the West, and about the Heart Mountain experience in particular. It had increased both my understanding and my anxiety. I felt a bit like an interloper. I knew I needed to be candid about my interest and my father’s role, but how would people judge me?

From the road I could see the small, barrack-like building that houses the interpretive center, and the gardens immediately around it. Beyond lay a desolate plain.

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) had chosen to site the camp on a flat stretch of high desert dotted with sagebrush and buffalo grass, and dominated by an unusually shaped mountain to the northwest. Heart Mountain is an 8,123-foot rock mass remaining after the surrounding material has eroded. The mountain appears heart-shaped from Cody, but it looks more like a thick pillar or an anvil when viewed from the camp. Legend has it that Heart Mountain was blown up by a volcano and thrown for several miles before it landed in its present location, upside down. Geologists believe that its placement atop rocks much younger than itself is actually the result of a catastrophic slide triggered by a now-extinct volcano some twenty-five miles to the northwest of the current site. All of this happened some fifty million years ago, but it provides a dramatic prologue to the tumultuous journey of incarcerees to this site during World War II.

Man standing on a road between the barracks looking toward Heart Mountain. George and Frank C. Hirahara Photograph Collection (id. sc14b01f0240n01.jpg ), Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC), Washington State University Libraries.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, requiring all people of Japanese ancestry, both those born in Japan and those born in the US, to leave their homes on the West Coast immediately as a “matter of military necessity.” They were to abandon their homes, farms, and belongings, and take with them only what they could carry.

In March 1942 President Roosevelt appointed Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight Eisenhower, to direct the newly created WRA. On orders from the president, Milton Eisenhower informed several governors that so-called internment centers for Japanese Americans would be built in their states. During the war and for decades after, government officials and the public referred to these camps as “internment” or “relocation” centers, and to their inmates as “residents.” President Roosevelt referred to the facilities as concentration camps, places where people were forcibly incarcerated without due process.

Construction at Heart Mountain began in June  1942, under the supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The work was carried out mainly by private contractors. The government soon informed the Corps and its contractors that more than ten thousand people were on their way, and that they had only sixty days to complete the construction. The project was much more extensive and had to be finished much sooner than anyone had anticipated. Ads for workers said anyone who could drive a nail could apply for a carpenter’s job. Inspectors overlooked poor workmanship because of the need for haste.

As a result of the accelerated schedule, architects and draftsmen simplified the design, cut corners, and use prefabricated materials. They used lighter-weight roofing materials for those originally specified and cheap tar paper to clad the exterior, abandoning the plans for insulating the barracks. The buildings were framed with uncured lumber that shrank when it dried, forming large cracks through which sand, dust, and dirt blew in, not to mention the freezing cold winter air. Because of the wood shrinkage, doors and windows often didn’t close. Many of the woodstoves, which were the only source of heat, were improperly positioned, sometimes resulting in fires. The wiring for electric lights was often installed incorrectly, and the water system was designed without expansion joints, so the water lines broke and pipes froze continually during the record-cold months of the first winter.

Construction was completed in sixty-two days, almost on time. In addition to more than 450 barracks, the workers built eight office buildings, a recreation and mess hall, a hospital, a sewage treatment plant, a power station, and some warehouses. Barbed-wire fencing completely surrounded the compound, interspersed with eight forty-foot guard towers.

In August 1942, the first incarcerees walked into this makeshift city—men in their suits, women in their Sunday hats and spectator pumps, little girls in dresses. More than six thousand Heart Mountain incarcerees were from the Los Angeles area. The parched, treeless desert of Wyoming was foreign enough, but the inmates also weren’t prepared for the bitter cold and had no winter clothes. The government eventually supplied them with Navy surplus pea coats, but most of the incarcerees had to buy winter clothes to survive the subzero temperatures.

Families were squeezed into barracks that contained six single-room apartments of 320 square feet each, and one of 480 square feet for six-person families. A bare bulb dangled from a single electrical outlet, and the only furniture consisted of cots and mattresses. Mess halls and latrines were located in separate buildings. For the first several months food was in short supply and of very poor quality, causing hunger and overcrowding in the camp hospital. People had to go out into the freezing cold to relieve themselves no matter the hour, often triggering the searchlight from the nearest guard tower. There was no privacy. Showers and toilets, although divided by gender, were communal, and there were no partitions.

I knew my father as a perfectionist, and being responsible for that kind of shoddy workmanship must have been painful for him. Although he was usually mild-mannered, I occasionally heard him yelling at contractors over the phone about missed deadlines, electricians or plumbers who hadn’t shown up, or jobs that had been done sloppily. I don’t know how he felt about his role in the imprisonment thousands of families, because we never spoke about it. He lived to the age of ninety, so he must have known about the reparations movement, the hearings, the payments to incarcerees and their children, and the eventual apology by President Reagan to the Japanese American people. Perhaps he felt some guilt, and that is why he never brought it up. I never broached the subject with him, and to this day I consider it an opportunity squandered.

The author’s family’s cabin at Mt. View camp in Wyoming Photo courtesy of the author

With a sense of foreboding I parked the car and walked into the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. I was greeted at the door by Shigeru “Shig” Yabu, who introduced himself as a member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board of directors. During his family’s incarceration, Shig found and tamed a magpie, who became his constant companion. He and his magpie were the subject of two children’s books, which he pointed out in the center’s bookstore. I picked out two copies for my granddaughters.

When Shig asked what brought me to Heart Mountain, I explained that I’d spent the summer in Cody when I was five because my father was an architect of the camp.

“No kidding!” he said, his eyes lighting up. “That’s wonderful! I’m very pleased to meet you.”

There was a cheerful hubbub in the interpretive center as old friends greeted each other and introduced family members. The staff and board of directors had planned a two-day weekend of workshops, dinners, and speeches. Friday afternoon we were invited to attend a forum in which organizers divided attendees into small groups of about twelve participants each; every group included a facilitator and at least two individuals who had been incarcerated at Heart Mountain.

We were welcomed by Shirley Ann Higuchi, a dynamic attorney from Washington, DC, who also chaired the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board of directors and facilitated our small group.

She identified herself as a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. Her parents had met in the Heart Mountain camp. She asked us to go around the circle to introduce ourselves and say something about our connection to Heart Mountain. My heart skipped a few beats.

Many in the circle had been incarcerated at the camp as children and described the activities they enjoyed, such as weekly dances, sports, and being around other kids their age. One of those people, Lili Tokuda, who had arrived at the camp when she was nineteen, said, “The ones who suffered were the parents, but they never complained.”

Shig Nishida had also been incarcerated at Heart Mountain as a child; his wife, Rae, had been at the Minidoka camp in Idaho. Shig said he usually ate meals with his friends while his mom worked in the mess hall. “It destroyed the family dynamic,” he said, breaking down.

Finally it was my turn. I felt shy but not intimidated. The friendly reception by Shig Yabu in the bookstore had given me courage. I told them about my father’s role as an architect and construction supervisor and how I had not known about it for decades. I also told them that the summer of 1942 was the happiest of my childhood, that the irony of that fact was not lost on me, and that I felt a deep sadness about the suffering of the Japanese American people. Although no one spoke, I sensed that I was not being judged.

At one point, Shirley also talked about how many in the Nisei generation didn’t want to talk about their incarceration experiences with their children. She described a typical conversation with her mother:

“Hey, Mom, tell me something about how it was in the camp.”

“It was where I met Dad. It was a fun place to be.”

“Oh, come on, Mom, weren’t you angry?”

“No. I was happy.”

“Really? You weren’t angry?”

“I was happy! I was happy!”

“Mom, why are you yelling?”

The reluctance to discuss the camp experience was a common theme among the people I met at Heart Mountain. “If nobody talks to you about it,” Shirley observed, “you don’t know who you are!” I couldn’t help noticing the parallel with my own father’s silence about this epoch in our family’s life.

On Saturday morning I met with Tlaloc Tokuda, Lili Tokuda’s son. He shared none of his mother’s sunny attitude about the camp experience. Although he was born after his mother left the camp, he had very strong feelings about the incarceration. Tlaloc’s parents had named him Greg, but he explained that he felt betrayed by the American government and didn’t want an American name. He changed it to tlaloc, the Toltec word for “cloud.”

Now in his early seventies, Tlaloc told me that as a young man his eyes were opened when he started to read about racism and the treatment of Blacks and American Indians, so he dropped out of high school and began working in Black communities in Los Angeles. “I don’t think of myself as American,” he said, weeping quietly. “In fact, I’m really ashamed of America.”

That afternoon I explored the interpretive center’s award-winning exhibit about life in the Heart Mountain camp. It described how, despite their privations, the incarcerees attempted to normalize their lives: Children played games, did their homework, and graduated from high school. People got married and had babies. Some died. Families hung sheets as privacy curtains and built their own furniture using tools they ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. They planted individual and community gardens and cultivated several thousand acres of arid land, producing flowers and vegetables, to the amazement of the locals. The harvest of 1944 yielded 2,500 tons of produce. A camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, helped provide a sense of community. Residents organized a variety of activities, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and several types of sports teams. They practiced traditional cultural activities, holding classes in flower arranging, haiku, and Japanese music, as well as kabuki theater performances.

In the blazing heat of the late afternoon I walked across a nearby field to visit an original tar-paper barrack that had recently been brought back to the site. Moving through it I was struck by how small it was, though it was meant to house several families. It was more like an outbuilding on someone’s farm, or a shed in someone’s backyard. A typical room, designed for a whole family to live in, was smaller than my living room.Outside the barrack I stopped to chat with a family who had also come to the Pilgrimage. I had begun to feel more relaxed about introducing myself. More than one person had said, after learning my story, “Wow, that’s really interesting! Hey, come and meet Alice. Her father was an architect here!” Colleen Miyano and her siblings and cousins were no exception. They had come to honor their parents and their uncle, Ted Fujioka, who had graduated from Heart Mountain High School in 1943, where he was student body president. Fujioka was one of the young men who volunteered for the army while his family was still incarcerated. He was a member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed entirely of Japanese Americans, the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in US history. He was also the first soldier from Heart Mountain to die in combat in World War II.

Americans of Japanese descent were among the first to speak out against anti-Muslim propaganda immediately after the 9/11 attacks. They knew that what happened to their parents and grandparents could happen again. Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, both Nisei and Sansei also played an active role in the Japanese American redress movement of the 1970s and ’80s. In 1988, Congress agreed to pay $20,000 to each of the living survivors, amounting to a total of $1.6 billion. And, of greater importance to the survivors, the US government issued a public apology. Senator Daniel Inouye, the first Japanese American to serve in the US Congress, fought for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and redress to the Japanese Americans. In 2013, President Obama awarded Inouye the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Slightly younger than Inouye, Norman Mineta also served in Congress for twenty years before he became Secretary of Commerce and then Secretary of Transportation. “Commit yourself to public service,” reads a plaque at Heart Mountain that bears Mineta’s name. “Be accountable and accessible, and what happened here will never happen again.”

W. Lindsay Suter at his drafting table. Photo courtesy of the author

On Sunday morning the group dispersed, all of us going our separate ways. Leaving Cody, I drove north along the desolate plain of the Bighorn Basin, where I could see the anvil silhouette of Heart Mountain against a brilliant blue sky. I was grateful for the kindness everyone had shown me and for some new friendships. I wished I could have told my father all about it, and I think he would have been pleased to listen.

Share this article:

Facebook
Twitter
Google+
Pinterest
LinkedIn
Email
Original Publication: Oregon Humanities
Date Published: December 15, 2017

Additional Materials Not Included in the Oregon Humanities article:

Earlier drafts of this story were much longer than the published version. I had become intensely interested in the Japanese American experience at that time and in my research had found out much that I wanted to share. But as most journals don’t accept pieces 7000 words long, the manuscript needed to be condensed. With some help from my friends I cut it by about 3000 words, then my editor reduced it further.

For the interested reader, here are links to some of the material that we cut. The first gives more history about the injustices done to Japanese Americans during this period and the second gives historical details about the Heart Mountain camp in particular. The third lists books, films, and two important websites, The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.

If my reporting is imperfect in some cases, please let me know. Two such changes have already been made to the online version of the journal article.

The Japanese American Experience

Being a native midwesterner, I was surprised to learn that the reaction against Japanese Americans had its roots in racism that long preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese people had immigrated to the American West Coast for decades, becoming successful farmers and businessmen. The majority of these immigrants had been educated in Japan and knew not only how to work the soil but how to run a business. The reaction by state and local legislators was to restrict the ability of the Issei, Japanese born in Japan, to own property or to become citizens. The clever Issei got around these laws by putting property in their children’s names, the Nisei, who were born in America. But lawmakers tried to crack down on the Nisei as well.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the greedy locals had an excuse to declare their own war on the Japanese American population. They spread rumors that the Japanese Americans would spy for the Japanese military, sending them coded messages telling them where to attack. Right away, 5,500 leaders from the Japanese American community were arrested and imprisoned – professors, journalists, and businessmen. Despite the injustice of these arrests and the later incarceration of nearly the entire Japanese American population, there was not one documented incident of spying or collusion with the enemy by Americans of Japanese descent throughout the war. Most of them remained stubbornly loyal to the American government.

Some of the most vicious rumor-mongering came from public officials on the West Coast, like Fletcher Bowron, mayor of Los Angeles and Earl Warren, then California Attorney General. They were aided by lies and hysterical proclamations from countless others, including respected personages like Walter Lipman, Henry Luce, and even the cartoonist Dr. Seuss! While some national officials recommended interning only the foreign-born Issei, others, like the members of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce recommended just locking them all up. The Japanese Americans did have some stalwart friends like Eleanor Roosevelt, Ansel Adams, the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, a few members of the ACLU (but not all). Especially helpful were the Quakers, who stood by them throughout the whole ordeal, visiting, sending gifts, and helping them to leave the camps and relocate further east.

Certain members of the military fed on these malicious rumors and recommended to President Franklin Roosevelt that the West Coast be declared a “Military Zone.” They succeeded. On Feb. 19, 1942 the President issued Executive Order 9066, requiring all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast immediately as a “matter of military necessity,” taking with them only what they could carry. They had to abandon their farms, homes, cars, precious heirlooms, everything. Children had to leave their toys and their pets behind. While some families were fortunate enough to entrust their homes and valuables to loyal Caucasian friends, 80% of them lost everything. Those who were sick were forced to go when they were well enough to travel. Even orphans and Japanese American children who had been adopted by Caucasian parents had to go.

Approximately 120,000 people were incarcerated as a result of Executive Order 9066. This number reflected nearly 95% of the Japanese American population, as the vast majority lived on the West Coast. They were taken first to “assembly centers” in California, Oregon, and Washington, which were usually racetracks or fairgrounds. The conditions there were appalling. Whole families lived for several months in individual horse stalls still smelling of manure. The amount of food was often inadequate and usually of a kind repugnant to the Japanese palate. By summer, most of them had been shipped to one of ten camps located throughout the nation in California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, or Arkansas.

During and for quite a while after World War II, government officials referred to these camps as “internment” or “relocation” centers, and its inmates as “residents.” Internment, however, is a legal process where holding alien nationals necessitates providing them with certain rights under the Geneva Convention and allowing them to be monitored by organizations such as the Red Cross. Some Japanese Americas actually were interned shortly after Pearl Harbor, but the vast majority were not interned but incarcerated. Their new homes were concentration camps. While it is obviously wrong to compare Heart Mountain to Auschwitz, they were both places where people were forcibly incarcerated against their will and without due process. Even President Roosevelt referred to them publicly as concentration camps. The architect of the New Deal, himself an anti-Semite and a supporter of eugenics, also called these people “Japs,” another dehumanizing slur, as did many throughout the West.

The massive incarceration of Japanese Americans was one of the most egregious infringements of constitutional rights in American history.

Heart Mountain

The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center was located on a flat stretch of high desert dotted with sagebrush and buffalo grass, dominated by an unusually shaped mountain to the northwest. The mountain’s heart-shape may be seen from Cody, but it is shaped more like a thick pillar when viewed from the camp. There is a legend that Heart Mountain was blown up by a volcano and thrown for several miles before it landed in its present location upside down. Geologists believe that its placement on rocks much younger than itself is the result of a catastrophic slide, triggered by a now extinct volcano. All this happened some 50 million years ago, but it provides an interesting backdrop to the tumultuous relocation of the new residents to this site.

In March of 1942 President Roosevelt appointed Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight Eisenhower, to direct the newly created War Relocation Authority (WRA). Soon after that, Eisenhower informed the governors of several western states that “internment” centers for Japanese Americans would be built in their states. Wyoming did not welcome them, at least at first. Governor Nels Smith famously told Eisenhower, “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise, they will be hanging from every tree.”

Much of the business community, however, supported the camp. They believed it would be a boon to business because of the influx of workers, the opportunities for concessions within the camp, and tax revenues generated from inmates who needed to purchase necessities from the community. The real boon to the Wyoming economy was to the farmers who were in desperate need of workers to harvest their crops. It is now well known that labor by the inmates of the Heart Mountain camp saved the sugar beet harvests of 1942 and 1943.

Construction on the camp began June 8th, 1942 under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, implemented mainly by private contractors. Soon after that, the government informed the Corps and its contractors that they had 60 days in which to complete the construction and that there soon would be 11,000 residents. All of this was faster and more extensive than anyone had anticipated. As a result, architects and draftsmen had to simplify the design, cut corners, and use prefabricated materials. They had to use cheap tarpaper for cladding the exterior and scuttle plans for insulation.

Workers from all over the area responded to ads saying that anyone who could drive a nail could apply for a carpenter’s job. They worked 12 hours a day in double shifts and received overtime pay. Inspectors overlooked poor workmanship because of the need for haste. They completed construction almost on time in 62 days. In addition to the 450 barracks, they built eight office buildings, a recreation and mess hall, a hospital, a sewage treatment plant, a power station, and some warehouses. Barbed wire fencing completely surrounded the compound, interspersed with eight 40-foot guard towers.

To be forced into that kind of shoddy workmanship must have been excruciating for my father. I always knew him as a perfectionist, in his personal as well as his professional life. Although he was usually mild-mannered, I occasionally heard him yelling at contractors over the phone about missed deadlines, electricians or plumbers who hadn’t shown up, or jobs that had been done sloppily. There was much in that Heart Mountain construction project to be upset about. Perhaps the worst deficiency was the fact that the lumber they used was green. Consequently it shrank when it dried out, forming large cracks through which sand, dust, and dirt blew in at all times, and, of course the freezing wind in the winter. Because of the wood shrinkage the doors and windows often didn’t close. Many of the wood stoves, which provided the only heating, were improperly positioned leading to occasional fires. The wiring for electric lights was often installed incorrectly, and the water system was designed without expansion joints so the water lines broke and pipes froze continually during the record cold months of the first winter.

Into this grim environment walked nearly 11,000 people of Japanese descent, men in their business suits, women in their Sunday hats and spectator pumps, and little girls in dresses. Most of the Heart Mountain incarcerees were from the Los Angeles area. The parched, treeless desert of Wyoming was foreign enough, but they were not prepared for the bitter cold and they had no winter clothes. The government eventually supplied Navy surplus pea-jackets, but most of the inmates had to buy winter clothes to survive the subzero temperatures that awaited them.

While the initial shock occurred at the assembly centers, conditions at the Heart Mountain camp were not much better. Multiple families were squeezed into barracks 120 feet long and 20 feet wide. A typical barrack contained six single-room apartments of 320 square feet and one of 480 square feet for larger families. A bare bulb dangled from a single electrical outlet, and the only furniture consisted of cots and mattresses. Mess halls and latrines were located in separate buildings. For the first several months food was in short supply and it was of very poor quality, causing overcrowding in the camp hospital. To relieve themselves at any hour, people had to go out into the freezing cold, often triggering the searchlight from the nearest guard tower. There was no privacy. Showers and toilets, although divided for sex, were communal and there were no partitions.

In the face of these privations, incarcerees immediately showed their resourcefulness. They quickly began to build their own furniture using tools they ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, which took on the status of a bible. They hung sheets as privacy curtains, built shelves and dressers for their belongings, and started gardens. They prepared several acres of arid land for farming and produced vegetables, to the amazement of the locals. Bill Hosokawa, a young man with a degree in journalism, started a camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, which helped provide a sense of community. Activities promoted by the camp administration as well as the inmates included boy scouts, girl scouts, and several types of sports teams. People were able to practice some of their traditional activities, putting on classes in flower arranging, haiku, and Japanese music. They even managed kabuki theater performances.

Most of the Nisei adults worked at various jobs in the camp. Women worked in the mess hall or laundry, nursing in the hospital, or teaching school. Men worked in the power plant, on the camp farm, or as laborers in the community outside the camp. However, the older people, mainly Issei, were not given jobs and not always trusted by the administration. Thus the family unit quickly began to break down. Fathers, particularly the older patriarchs, were no longer in control. Those who had nothing to do were demoralized by their perception of uselessness to their families.

Many of the younger men left camp to work as farm laborers in the beet fields. Although they could earn some money that way, they were not able to supervise their children. Young people, especially teenagers preferred to eat meals with friends rather than with their families. Some of them ran wild and formed gangs. Boys got into trouble and girls got pregnant, but because of the total lack of privacy, there was no way for families to save face when dishonored by such behavior.

Despite these tribulations, there was a semblance of normalcy in the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Children played games, did their homework, and graduated from high school. People got married, had babies, and some died. Although they were incarcerated, they were not tortured or treated cruelly, as were the victims of Nazi concentration camps in Europe. Once in the camp, their suffering was usually the result of poor planning on the part of the government and the camp administrators rather than intentional abuse. But the fact that they were prisoners was clear to them at all times, and they were well aware of the war hysteria and vicious racism that put them there.

By the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, it became clear that the U.S. didn’t need to fear an attack on the West Coast. Not long after that, some government officials began telling President Roosevelt that the whole internment process was a bad idea. But the President held out until after the election for his fourth term in 1944 before allowing Japanese Americans to go back to the West Coast.

Actually, the WRA had quietly begun to advocate for the relocation of incarcerees. As early as the summer of 1943, certain people were allowed to leave, either to go to college or take jobs, as long as they went to the Midwest or East. With the approval of the camp administration, the inmates formed a Relocation Committee to help young people find colleges or jobs. They received valuable assistance from the Quakers and the YMCA.

Others were able to leave the camp through the military. Some young men enlisted, but many more followed after the government initiated the draft for incarcerees in January of 1944. Not unexpectedly, there was vigorous resistance by those who were outraged by the idea of fighting and dying for a government that would take away their constitutional rights, force them to abandon their homes, and imprison them, their parents and siblings. Some of those who resisted the draft were sent to the Tulelake camp for “problem” Japanese Americans. Sixty-three members who continued to hold out were sent to federal penitentiaries.

Nine hundred men from Heart Mountain did serve in the armed forces in the European theater and 22 of them died in combat. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese Americans, was the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. history. There is a memorial to them at the Heart Mountain site.

The effect of the early release programs was that many families were split up, with young people attending college or finding jobs in the Midwest or East, while their parents and siblings were eventually able to return to California. Even after officials lifted the ban on West Coast resettlement, thousands of confused and hopeless incarcerees continued to stay at Heart Mountain until the WRA finally dismantled the camp in September of 1945, and in an ironic turnabout, they were forced to leave.

Resources

Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
1539 Road 19
Powell, WY 82435
307-754-8000
www.heartmountain.org

Densho

The Japanese American Legacy Project
1416 So. Jackson St.
Seattle, WA 98144
206-320-0095
www.densho.org

Books

“A Matter of Conscience: Essays on the World War II Heart Mountain Draft Resistance Movement,” by Mike Mackey, ed. 2002.

“Heart Mountain: Life in Wyoming’s Concentration Camp” by Mike Mackey. Western History Publications, 2000.

“Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II” by Richard Reeves.  NY, Henry Holt, 2016.

“Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment” by Donna K. Nagata. NY & London, Plenum Press, 1993.

Films

“All We Could Carry: The Story of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center” by Steven Okazaki. 15 min. Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, 2011. www.heartmountain.org

“The Legacy of Heart Mountain: A Documentary” by David Ono & Jeff MacIntyre. 56 min. www.heartmountainfilm.com

2 thoughts on “To Heart Mountain”

  1. Marie Langenes

    Bill and I have been to Heart Mt. in 2011 before the interpretive center opened. Your story is one of many American stories; most haven’t been written down! Thank you for writing yours.
    There was one Japanese family (Hayashi) in my small North Dakota town. They owned a restaurant where my parents took us for breakfast after Mass every Sunday before driving back to our farm.
    I’ve been curious about the Hayashis and now you’ve renewed my curiosity. I wonder if they came from an internment camp and didn’t go back to live wherever they were from. More stories to unearth!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Featured Articles