Sam Mihara gives a presentation on his experience as a Japanese-American prisoner at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp during WWII. The presentation was at Buffalo High School on March 15, 2018 and was sponsored by the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum. (Courtesy Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum)

Former President Donald Trump is campaigning to turn America into a police state where “communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin” are rooted out.


But the most sinister part of his plan is aimed at undocumented workers and their families in the U.S., and people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking political asylum. Trump proudly tells MAGA crowds he will hold these immigrants in “detention camps” and deport millions from the country each year.

Regrettably, the dehumanizing treatment of immigrants and people of color Trump’s proposing is nothing new for America, but that history must not be repeated. Wyoming, which played a pivotal role in the horrendous mistreatment of Japanese Americans incarcerated after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, should take the lead in telling Trump “never again.” As Trump continues to ramp up anti-immigrant hate, Wyoming must remember Heart Mountain. 

During World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes, though none were ever charged with a crime. At its peak, the Heart Mountain camp near Cody held 10,767 people.

Sam Mihara, 90, was only 9 years old when his family was taken from San Francisco and sent by train to Wyoming. Now he travels the country to lecture about the roots of this miscarriage of justice and his personal experiences. He does this, Mihara explained, because it’s part of history rarely taught in schools.

In September, the Wyoming Humanities Council sponsored his lecture series across Wyoming, a state where he once vowed never to return.

Mihara doesn’t call Heart Mountain an internment camp, as it and nine other facilities were known, because it was a prison. What else do you call a place where you are locked up and threatened with being shot if found outside the fence?

When we examine Trump’s deportation plan that he hopes to implement if voters return him to the White House in 2024, it’s important to remember that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was authorized by another president, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor, a majority of Americans did not want to see fellow citizens of Japanese descent punished for an act they had no role in. But that quickly changed as many politicians and the media led the call to round them up as a security risk. It’s a stark lesson in how people can be caught up in a frenzy of hate and attack their fellow citizens.

“I say it is of vital importance that we get rid of every Japanese, whether in Hawaii or on the mainland,” said then-U.S. Rep. John Rankin (D-Mississippi). “Damn them! Let’s get rid of them now.”

“Japanese a Menace to American Women,” stated a San Francisco Chronicle headline from the time. Some journalists referred to Japanese Americans as “rats.” Even Walter Lippman, Washington, D.C.’s most popular columnist and an avid favorite of FDR, supported the camps to save the country from “enemy aliens.”

At a Salt Lake City meeting of 10 Western governors, then-Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith blasted the plan to relocate Japanese Americans to his state.

“The people of Wyoming have a dislike for any Oriental and simply will not stand for being California’s dumping ground,” Smith said. “If you bring Japanese to my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every pine tree.”

The federal government sold racist governors like Smith on the concept by guaranteeing “the evacuees remained within the reception centers under guard,” or in other words, prison.

A historic photo from the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center shows a World War II internment camp in Wyoming between Cody and Powell. (Courtesy)

There was no actual evidence that Japanese Americans were plotting to attack U.S. military installations, but that didn’t matter to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense Command. He used unjustified fear as an excuse to justify evacuations: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”

Some Department of Justice officials dissented including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who argued any action taken against Japanese American citizens because of their race was unconstitutional. But faced with intense public and political pressure, FDR signed an executive order giving the military authority to begin the mass detainment.

DeWitt despised Japanese people, and even though he wavered almost daily about whether sending them to camps was a good idea, he eventually carried out the plan with gusto.

But during his University of Wyoming lecture, Mihara noted DeWitt was the only one of five U.S. generals who made that decision. Lt. Gen. Ben Lear, who led the Central Defense Command that included Wyoming, said he would not relocate Japanese Americans living in his region to camps. Mihara said that included farm workers in several communities like Riverton and Evanston. Agricultural workers were considered vital to the war effort.

This was also true in Hawaii, where more than one-third of the population were Japanese, including many farmers. Pacific Defense Commander Delos Emmons, who also raised constitutional questions, managed to spare all but a few hundred from being incarcerated. 

“Blindsided: The Life and Times of Sam Mihara,” describes what happened at Heart Mountain. “We weren’t ready for Wyoming,” he told author Alexandra Villarreal. “No one told us where we were going, and we had no warm clothing.”

His family was assigned to a small barracks. A high school was built, but Cody residents insisted plans to build a grammar school be scrapped because the town didn’t even have one. Mihara and other students had their lessons in one of the barracks.

Mihara spent three years at Heart Mountain before prisoners were finally allowed to leave in 1945. After a disastrous stay in Salt Lake City, where the Mihara family struggled to survive, they returned to San Francisco and a better life.

Mihara went to college and was hired by Boeing, where he became a rocket scientist. Despite his success, he was still haunted by his time at Heart Mountain.

Infrequently, prisoners were allowed to visit Cody, 15 miles away. In “Blindsided,” Mihara recalled a trip he made with his father, where they encountered “No Japs” signs in front of many stores and very unfriendly townsfolk. 

“It was the single worst moment of my imprisonment, over illness, over death, over mushy food and small living quarters,” Mihara recalled. “[It showed] how cruel humanity can be.” 

Mihara said after many years he forgave people responsible for his treatment, but not those who lived in Wyoming. “To me, they were racists,” he said. “They deserved to feel despised, like they had made me feel as a boy.”

But an unplanned visit to Heart Mountain softened his stance. Every store in Cody had signs welcoming Japanese Americans, and he realized “the righteous hatred previous generations had felt for me” no longer existed. He forgave the people of Wyoming.

He’s worried, though, about the anti-immigration policies of the U.S. today. Trump is counting on turning xenophobia into votes. Mihara said the question he’s repeatedly asked is, “ How do we keep it from happening again?”

“Please, I beg you — do something, now,” Mihari pleaded in his biography. “As American citizens, no matter what color or creed, we should have known better. We should have done something.

“The answer is simple,” he said. “We don’t let it [happen again]. We vote. We run for office. We care. We listen.”

At a time when Trump is accusing undocumented immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” as he did on Veterans’ Day, Mihara’s message is one we must heed. Especially the part about voting.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. The mindset of today’s typical Wyoming resident is a sad thing to observe. Anger, grievance, intolerance, racism. It didn’t used to be nearly this bad. I fear for what will happen if Trump gets back in the White House. If Wyoming voters get their way that’s just what will happen.

  2. It’s downright laughable to think that we would actually allow that to happen again. Get real, Drake.

  3. I so disagree! The Japanese Internment was solely based on fear! They lost all of their property and were kept in camps until after the war entirely because they were of Japanese descent.
    The not-new idea of rounding up the people in our country who are not here legally has been around for decades. How many of us know, first hand, the stories of unethical employers who hire illegals at the beginning of the growing season and call ICE on them just before payday at the end of the season? The idea of collecting those who are in our country without documentation and deporting them follows the letter of the law. If you do not like that, change the law. And since the law does not discriminate against any race, faith, or country of origin, it is not quite the racist rant that you are portraying it to be.
    Most of the discussion, in my opinion, is about what to do with the majority of illegals who have lived here for decades without breaking any laws other than the one they broke to be here. They have children who were born here! And what do we do with those who came here as children, do not speak their native language, and consider the USA their home?
    That is the civil discussion that needs to happen. Not the slamming of those who want to follow the law instead of ignoring it.

  4. Sadly, in MAGA world, Trump can do and say no wrong, which then requires his supporters to work really hard to figure a narrative to justify his words and actions.

    Mr. Kerry, I thank you for your effort to remind us how ugly Americans can get.

  5. I wonder how much of FDR’s decision had to do with the fact of German-Americans working against the USA.

  6. Thank you for this story, Kerry Drake. I fear that the U.S. is very close to becoming like Hitler’s Germany with Trump as the dictator. We mustn’t let that happen. Those who claim the migrants at the border are all bad and dangerous people are saying the same thing people said about the Japanese during WWII. People forget that we all came from immigrants a long time ago and I bet the Native Americans wish we would have all gone back to where we came from!

  7. Certainly, a very poor choice of words by Trump, “vermin”, but hyperbole might result from the current uncontrolled situation at our southern border with several million un-invited and un-documented immigrants and countless “got-aways” gaining entry into this country and essentially vanishing from sight. But the glaring fact that makes this very different from Heart Mountain is that in that instance almost 2/3 of the detainees were AMERICAN CITIZENS!

  8. Kerry is much confused in his representation of facts and comparisons, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to know this. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was both a racist and an elitist who had little or no regard for our U.S. Constitution. He stripped approximately 122,000 AMERICANS OF JAPANESE DESCENT of their Constitutional rights when he issued Executive Order 9096. And by his order, he not only forced those citizens into isolated “internment camps,” but also confiscated their properties. Trump’s intention is to deport NON-CITIZENS WHO HAVE ENTERED OUR COUNTRY ILLEGALLY having no intention of complying with our federal laws providing for both legal entry and a pathway to citizenship. The Americans of Japanese descent ordered to “concentration camps” by Roosevelt were largely productive citizens who weren’t dependent upon our federal, state, or local welfare systems nor were they associated with any particular increase in criminal misconduct. Our current wave of illegal migrants consume vast amounts of American largess and, at the very least, are associate with a massive influx of illegal narcotics and human trafficking for illicit purposes. There’s no similarity between Roosevelt’s stripping U.S. citizens of their civil rights and Trump’s intent to deport non-citizens who have broken our laws in a multitude of ways.

    1. Absolutely. Mr Drake needs to check his facts. His article is a most fallacious argument – never stand up in a true logical debate. A “red herring” argument if ever there was one.

    2. Robert Lee Koller, thank you for the statement: “Kerry is much confused in his representation of facts and comparisons, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to know this.”

      Kerry Drake does not present both sides. He cherry picks his facts and lies by omission. And when called out for it, he is covered because his columns are clearly labeled “opinion”. A very untrustworthy source to get information or understand an issue.

  9. Wyoming “patriots” need to read their history books. Any power we give to our leaders will eventually be used against us.

  10. I agree the treatment forced on the Japanese Americans was harsh and unacceptable. But illegally entering America doesn’t make you a citizen. Therefore go back where you came from.