‘Things like this should never happen again’ | Bittersweet Pilgrimage
From 1942-45, it was the third-largest city in Wyoming. It was home to nearly 11,000 people who were hidden there by a government afraid of its citizens. Only three buildings remain at the site of the former Heart Mountain War Relocation Center between Powell and Cody. But during its years of operation, it forever changed the lives of the Japanese-Americans who lived there and left a largely overlooked stain on the nation’s history.
“We teenagers were not that conscious of all that, we just knew it was not right,” said Joy Teraoka, whose family was from Los Angeles. She was about 15 when she reached Heart Mountain (as an inmate?) in 1942.
But life for nearly every American citizen also changed immensely on Dec. 7, 1941, when pilots from Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Until then, the U.S. had formally professed neutrality while inching ever closer in support of Allied forces. But being attacked at home infuriated Americans enough to finally enter World War II, with the country declaring war on Japan the following day.
Wartime hysteria gripped the nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Less than a week later, the U.S. Justice Department had arrested 2,541 foreign nationals from Axis countries, including 1,002 Germans, 169 Italians and 1,370 Japanese. The fear of enemy spies fueled rampant terror of (and prejudice against) those who looked like the attackers at Pearl Harbor. Some store owners posted signs that read “No Japs allowed,” sharply mirroring the signs in Germany that stated “Keine Juden,” or “no Jews.”
On February 19, 1942, only two months after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ostensibly intended to protect the country from enemy spies. It established “exclusion zones” along the West Coast to be designated and managed by military commanders. Though the order did not specifically name any racial or ethnic groups, it was designed to displace the Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in that area.
Almost immediately, the military started relocating Japanese and Japanese-American families living on the West Coast. Citizens and immigrants alike were told a week in advance that they must report to assembly centers, where they would be held until permanent camps could be constructed.
“We moved about two weeks before to the Hollywood area where our church was,” Teraoka said. “We wanted to evacuate with our church group, so we moved just before they were evacuated.”
Internees were allowed to bring only what they could carry — entire lives crammed hastily into suitcases — with everything else left behind.
In Wyoming, residents debated whether the state should host a relocation camp. Business owners who needed more workers for various agriculture and development projects wanted Wyoming to be a location for one of the camps. Towns submitted plans for projects the internees could work on. However, not everyone wanted to house the displaced Japanese-Americans. Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith told Milton S. Eisenhower, the newly appointed director of the War Relocation Authority: “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise they will be hanging from every tree.”
Eventually, state leaders agreed to host a camp, provided the WRA would be responsible for policing it and the internees not be allowed into Wyoming towns without prior permission from local governance.
The WRA chose a location halfway between Cody and Powell on 42,000 acres owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The site was within a vast federal tract set aside to be developed as irrigated farmland. It was close to the Shoshone River and a railroad, which would assist in getting the thousands of internees to their new home.
Heart Mountain was one of 10 such camps built around the West and in Arkansas, housing a combined total of more than 110,000 internees. At its height, Heart Mountain was home to more than 10,700 internees.
“Ten thousand is a lot of Japanese,” reported the Powell Tribune on May 24, 1942. “Many will be interned in large labor camp to be built on Heart Mountain project lands.”
The Tribune reported that camp construction had begun by June 11. It only took 60 days to construct, with thousands of workers putting together barracks and arranging them into blocks. Each block included mess halls, latrines and recreation areas. The entire camp was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, complete with guard towers and spotlights.
According to a history compiled by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a nonprofit group that has built a new interpretive learning center at the former internment camp site, Heart Mountain had 468 barracks spread across 20 blocks. Each building was divided into single-room apartments of various sizes, some holding families of up to six people. Each room had a stove for heat (meals were taken in mess halls), military style cots, two blankets per person and a single light. They were not insulated at first, and the separating walls did not reach to the ceiling, creating an environment with little privacy.
“If a baby cried in one room, everyone in the building could hear it,” said Christy Fleming, area director for the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. “Children were able to throw paper airplanes between the rooms.”
The first internees arrived by train on Aug. 11, 1942. That group included about 200 people who had volunteered to come early and get the camp set up. By October, the camp housed nearly 10,000 internees. There were also 200 administrative employees, 124 military police personnel and three officers.
Internees tried to make the best of the situation they found themselves in, creating a community complete with a water system, courthouse, post office, schools and a hospital. They put on dozens of recreational activities in the camp each week, including dances, club meetings and craft classes for children and adults. There was a cabinet shop, garment factory, agricultural canal system, a fire department that was nationally acclaimed and the Heart Mountain Sentinel — a newspaper that covered the camp’s daily life and the war abroad.
Many internees worked on the Shoshone Irrigation Project, a massive Bureau of Reclamation effort that still benefits farmers across the region. They cleared sagebrush to grow vegetables and raise cattle, chickens and hogs to help feed fellow internees.
The hospital — a small section still stands today — was one of the largest buildings in the camp. In her book, “Behind Barbed Wire,” Velma Berryman Kessel documented her work at the camp as a registered nurse.
Kessel remarked about the first winter she worked there. Frostbite was rampant, as most of the internees were from warmer climates and had no experience with such injuries. She wrote that in 1943, there were only five doctors available to care for 10,000 individuals. Even so, Kessel says the hospital was one of the largest and most well-equipped in Wyoming. But she also wrote that some of the Japanese nurses she worked with were not allowed to work without a Caucasian nurse supervising and, like all the other residents of the camp, they were unable to leave without a day-pass from the military police and a Caucasian escort.
Wages were set by the WRA, and gross pay disparities were common. For instance, the HMWF reports that Japanese-American internees who worked as doctors in the Heart Mountain hospital made $19 per month (the top wage in the camp), while Caucasian nurses were paid $150 per month.
Initially branded in 1941 as suspected subversives, some internees ended up volunteering for military service in 1943. In 1944, the government conscripted the remaining male internees, sparking debate within the camps over whether to resist the draft or serve, according to the book “Free to Die for Their Country,” by Eric Muller.
More than 800 Heart Mountain internees served in the military in a segregated unit, the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Heart Mountain was the only one of 10 internment camps nationwide that was home to an organized group of “resisters of conscience.” About 400 internees called the Fair Play Committee protested their internment and demanded full recognition of their constitutional rights before agreeing to serve. The resistance resulted in Wyoming’s largest mass trial, with 63 men convicted in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne of draft law violations in 1944, and sentenced to three years in federal prison. Later, 22 more from Heart Mountain were convicted, for a total of 85. Resisters from other camps generally fared no better in the courts.
“With but one exception, the federal judges hearing the cases waved aside the resisters’ attacks on the legality of drafting internees and ran shoddy trials that produced across-the-board convictions,” Muller wrote.
While the adults in the camp had to deal with the hardships of the environment — and the loss of their liberty, homes and possessions — in the camp life for children in the camp resembled a more village-like upbringing.
“It was more of an adventure for us,” said Mike Hatchimonji, who was about 13 when he first moved to the camp. “I made a lot of new friends. We did a lot of things together.”
Hatchimonji recounted his favorite memories of the camp, including typical teenage activities like high school dances, kissing girls and going sledding in the new, snowy terrain.
Shigeru Yabu, whose family was moved to Heart Mountain from San Francisco when he was 10, went on to write a children’s book about his experiences. “Hello Maggie,” tells the true story of Yabu finding a young magpie while exploring near the Shoshone River. Eventually, the bird became a beloved pet that lifted the spirits of many in the camp. The magpie even learned to speak short phrases that camp kids had repeated to her, mimicking both English and Japanese.
“One winter, we had a silly idea,” Yabu said during a July appearance at the Cody library to promote his book. He explained the lengths children went through to stave off boredom. “We all held hands and one person sticks a knife in the electric sockets. The last person gets the biggest jolt. Don’t do it! It’s stupid!”
Teraoka, from Los Angeles, enjoyed music in her spare time. She was selected as the vocalist for the camp’s big band orchestra. The group played popular music for school dances and other social events.
Eventually, they were even asked to perform in neighboring towns, including Cody, Powell, Lovell and Worland. However, they were bused straight back to the camp as soon as they were done playing.
The American Legion and church groups often wanted to raise funds for war bonds, so the orchestra was often asked to play at their gatherings, Teraoka said.
In 1945, sirens rang out in the camp, signaling the end of the war. Many young men and women from Heart Mountain were serving overseas, so the news was exciting for the internees for multiple reasons. It also signaled the fact that they would soon be allowed to go back to their homes on the West Coast.
The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center closed officially on Nov. 15, 1945. All internees were given $25 and a train ticket to wherever they wished to go in the U.S.
Unfortunately, there was often little left for them when they returned home. In some cases, their homes had been looted and their jobs were filled by others in their absence. It fell upon the internees to forge new lives for themselves outside the camp.
Former internees rarely express bitterness or resentment at how they were treated during the war.
But many like Mike Hatchimonji, who spent his teenage years at Heart Mountain, say the camp and other sites like it should be viewed as reminders of past mistakes that should not be repeated by future generations.
“Things like this should never happen again,” he said.
Deborah Cobb is a Northwest College Journalism student from Wright, and a writer for that school’s campus newspaper, the Northwest Trail.