‘Things like this should never happen again’ | Bittersweet Pilgrimage

Nearly seven decades after Heart Mountain first opened as an internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry, the site will host the grand opening this weekend of a new facility dedicated to documenting the experience of internees and reminding visitors of the enduring civil rights lessons from that era.

As many as 1,000 former internees, descendants and supporters from across the country are expected to gather between Cody and Powell at the site of the former camp Saturday for the opening of a $5.5 million, 11,000-square-foot museum. For some of the returning former internees, many of whom were children or young adults during the war, the weekend is likely to be a bittersweet pilgrimage — a journey returning them to the site of a great injustice, but on a positive mission of commemoration and education.

Nearly 14,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned at the site, one of 10 set up across the West after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The story of the camps and how tens of thousands of American citizens were confined there is a dark chapter in U.S. history that millions of Americans today know little or nothing about.

“The Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center and surrounding site will stand as a powerful reminder of the need to balance concern for national security with respect for basic civil rights,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.

Founded in 1996, the nonprofit foundation has worked to preserve and catalog artifacts, records and the remaining elements of the former camp site. The center is the only private museum of its kind.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Cody, an honorary advisor to the foundation, said the opening of the center “will mark the culmination of an important preservation effort that has long involved the communities of Cody and Powell, Wyo., and the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated there.”

“It will be a most significant new museum and an exciting and inspiring new visitor attraction for this region and our entire country,” he said.

Among the other Park County residents who have worked over the years to support the foundation and build the museum are Dave Reetz, Pat Wolf, John Collins and Ann Noble.

Simpson, who turns 80 next month, has often recalled his own personal experiences growing up in Cody during the war years when the camp was open.

Those days were “a most profoundly confusing time for a kid or an adult,” he told a crowd of supporters at the Heart Mountain site during a June 2007 gathering to announce plans for the center.

Simpson said he remembered that “there were signs in Cody on the restaurants that said ‘No Japs’ were allowed,” but there were no such signs for Italian-Americans or German-Americans.

“Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in,” he told the crowd.

Simpson shared the podium that day with an old friend, former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who was interned at Heart Mountain as a boy.

The two men would later serve together in Congress, but they first met during a Boy Scout gathering at Heart Mountain, taking part in knot-tying and woodworking contests as boys from Cody and Powell camped out with Japanese-American boys displaced from their homes along the West Coast.

Mineta, who for 20 years served in the U.S. House representing the San Jose, Calif. area, recalled at the same 2007 gathering the first time he met Simpson.

“And then we got paired off,” he said, to pitch a pup-tent with a partner and dig a trench around the tent to divert water in case of a thunderstorm.

Mineta recalled the boy he was paired with worked hard to aim their trench toward another tent downhill, and cackled with glee later that night when it rained, flooding the lower tent.

“Alan, would you please shut up?” Mineta recalled telling his tent mate, struggling to get some sleep.

A wide range of events are scheduled for the weekend, including banquets Friday and Saturday nights and the the premiere of “All We Could Carry: The Story of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center,” a short film by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki.

If you go…

A public dedication ceremony for the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday with a keynote address from Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The museum will remain open until 8 p.m. on Saturday, and on Sunday and Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.heartmountain.org for additional information.

DISCLOSURE: Ruffin Prevost’s wife is a paid vendor for HMWF dinners scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Powell.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or ruffin@wyofile.com.

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  1. I was just a 17 year old boy myself when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Except for the outrage I felt at my country being attacked, it was something that happened halfway around the world. Like Alan, I was “most profoundly confused.”
    I turned 18 in April, 1942, and shortly thereafter enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While I was waiting to be called, a fellow Lander classmate and I decided to go to Cody to work on the Japanese Relocation Camp. It was quite an experience. It was mass confusion with vehicles running everywhere and great dust clouds emanating from the site of the camp.
    I expected to be called about any minute so I quit and went to be with my folks in Colorado in early August. I was called into service on October 14, went into training and graduated as a bombardier on August 6, 1943.
    We began flying combat missions in February, 1944, and in May, my right eye was blown out by German flak. I went to the Air Force hospital in Bari. Italy, and there I met some Japanese-American hospital orderlies. These were young guys just like myself who had fought down on the ground in the mountains of Italy and who had suffered terrible frost bite and the loss of fingers and toes. Unable to go back to their fighting units, they served as orderlies. A few of them had come from Heart Mountain. They were from the most decorated fighting unit in the U.S.Army.
    My whole outlook on Japanese-Americans changed completely from that experience. I greatly respect them for their patriotism and love of country. I commend all of those who are involved in the Heart Mountain Learning Center which will teach others of these great American citizens.