The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and National Historic Monument is located about a fifteen minute drive outside of Cody, Wyoming, and if I hadn’t been specifically heading to it, I probably would have driven right past without even realizing it was there. That would have been a huge miss, because this was the most intellectually and emotionally moving place I visited during my entire four month trip around the country.
I’m going to try to summarize the basic historical background in just a few paragraphs, because what happened here was never covered during my public school education, nor in the many history classes I took in college, so most of this information was new to me and I’m guessing it might be for others as well.
In the early part of the 20th century, immigration laws in the U.S. were quite hostile to those of Asian descent. Only people who were identified as “whites” or of African American decent were permitted to naturalize as citizens of the country. First-generation Asian immigrants, also called Issei, could not become U.S. citizens or own property. As Asian immigrant communities grew, stereotypes and propoganda began to fuel targeted anti-Asian campaigns, eventually leading to the The Immigration Act of 1924, which closed the country to all new Asian immigrants.
In 1941, potential U.S. conflict with Japan was looming, and President Roosevelt sent Chicago businessman Charles Munson to investigate Japanese American communities on the West Coast. One month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, “The Munson Report” was delivered to the President, indicating that “for the most part, the local Japanese are quite loyal to the United States, or at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs.” The FBI and Naval Intelligence, which had kept tabs on the Japanese community for years, confirmed Munson’s findings.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a wave of anti-Japanese hysteria set in and under pressure from white farmers who wanted the lands of Asians, both politicians and journalists were demanding the military take action against the Japanese American community. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to declare military areas from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” The military used this order to remove everyone of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. It did not matter that no Issei or Nisei (children of Issei, and American citizens) had engaged in any act of espionage or sabotage. It was based entirely on hysterical fear, a desire to grab property, and the ability to easily discriminate against people, based on race.
No person shall be..deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Constitution, 5th Amendment
There was opposition to the action, of course. The Quakers, the American Socialist Party, and even Eleanor Roosevelt were vocally opposed. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover also opposed it, saying the hysteria was, “based primarily on public political pressure rather than on factual data.”
“The broad provision of the Bill of Rights..are not suspended by the mere existence of a state of war… No less than 70,000 American citizens have been placed under a special ban and deprived of their liberty because of their particular racial inheritance… In this sense, it bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to (Jews) in Germany.”
Frank Murphy, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, in Hirabayashi vs. United States
It happened anyway.
It’s astonishing how quickly the entire facility was built. By early June of 1942, construction of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center was underway on 46,000 dry and dusty acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The site was chosen for both its isolation and convenience; it was adjacent to a railway depot, and the nearby Shoshone River offered a water source. 2,000 laborers quickly descended on the site, with men working double shifts and 12 hour days. The barracks constructed were crude and easy to erect, with each building 120 feet long by 20 feet wide, and divided into six “apartments”. Engineers boasted they could construct one in only an hour, and by the time they were finished, there were 650 buildings and structures, including 450 barracks, all within the barbed wire fenced area of the camp that comprised roughly 740 acres. By January, 1943, 10,067 people were confined here and it was the third largest population center in the state of Wyoming.
Back on the West Coast, as Japanese Americans began receiving their evacuation instructions; entire communities were given anywhere from a few weeks to just days in order to store or sell their belongings, close up their businesses, lock up their homes and report to the “assembly centers”. They were told to bring clothing, bedding and personal effects, but were limited to what they could carry, with no real knowledge about what to expect. In some cases, neighbors agreed to care for property while they were away, but some neighbors also took what they wanted and never returned any of it. Those being relocated were assigned identification numbers and forced to wear identification tags. A total of 120,000 people were relocated to Heart Mountain, or other camps during this time, and two thirds of them were United States Citizens who had committed no crime or any other action that would have called their loyalty to this country into question. There was no ability to resist.
“What choice do you have? When you are faced with a young guy with a gun pointed at you and he’s got a very nervous trigger finger, and they say, ‘This is what you guys are going to do,’ you don’t say, ‘Now wait a minute. I’m going to stand on my constitutional rights.’ That’s a very difficult situation.” Bill Hosokawa
Once they arrived at the camp, the detainees focused on survival and tried to create some sense of a normal life, despite the harsh conditions. For the most part, men were assigned work in the fields, where forty-five different crops were grown, including broccoli, lettuce and corn, as well as Japanese crops like daikon, takana, mizuna and nappa. A total of 2.1 million pounds of produce were grown in 1943, and 5.1 million pounds in 1944. Hog and poultry operations were also successful, producing 32,000 pounds of poultry, 93,000 dozen eggs, and 371,000 pounds of dressed pork. All of the food went towards feeding the camp, with any surplus sent to other camps or sold in nearby towns. Women assumed the traditional roles of the time, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for the children. In the midst of all the hardship, there were also efforts to find peace. There were Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant services held, along with modest festivities to mark the holidays. I was surprised to see the Girl Scouts offered a program as well.
Despite all of that, life in the camps was understandably difficult. The entire experience was one that was designed to strip those within of their human dignity in ways both large and small. The interpretive center made a really interesting point of one aspect: the lack of privacy. Not only were many people trying to live in very close quarters, but the simple act of using the bathroom facilities was not even private. Visitors are presented with an uncomfortable opportunity to experience what that was like in the restroom where one of the stalls has mirrors on either side, so that using it gives the impression of trying to relieve yourself in a room filled with others.
These people brought with them many talents, including everything from artists and physicians to laborers. There was a wonderful exhibit on display when I visited, that focused on the photographic work of Yoshio Okumoto (1903 – 1993). Mr. Okumoto was born in Hawaii to Issei parents, and earned his pre-medical degree at Stanford University in CA. When he arrived at Heart Mountain, he applied to work at the camp hospital, but his request was denied. Stripped of his professional identity and isolated from his family, Mr. Okumoto began learning photography from one of his roommates, James Yonemura (originally, photographic equipment was banned, but eventually those restrictions were lifted.) Okumoto and Yonemura took many photographs while they were at Heart Mountain, mostly of weddings and babies. Mr. Okumoto also began photographing extensively for his personal collection, capturing very personal and unguarded images that presented an intimate look at everyday life in the camp.
The exhibit placed photographs by Mr. Okumoto directly next to work by photographer Ansel Adams, who famously traveled to the camp at Manzanar, CA. There is a striking juxtaposition between the two. Adams used higher quality professional equipment to create his works, and his images are of a much higher technical quality. His photographs display the attention to tonal balance and sharp focus that he is known for. Okumotos photographs are different. They are more spontaneous, more vulnerable, and capture much more poignantly the people within the camps. Both photographers were incredibly talented, and it was fascinating to see similar subject matter captured by each, hanging side by side. I’m including a slide show here to give a bit of a sense of the images, but as always, I don’t own these images, and they are distorted somewhat by the physical limitations I was working with. Mr. Okumotos photos are the ones on the left.
Despite having illegally imprisoned these American citizens, the government had no trouble still evaluating the young men over the age of 17 to determine if they were fit to be drafted into service in the armed forces. Questionnaires were administered probing their loyalties, and causing a great deal of stress between the generations. Detainees began receiving draft notices in early February of 1944, with the stern warning that not complying would be a federal offense. Most men went and served honorably, some as translators for Military Intelligence. The unjust nature of the entire situation caused several men to refuse, and they were immediately transferred to the county jail as draft evaders.
Heart Mountain closed in November of 1945, but lives were forever changed. Few communities welcomed back those who had been imprisoned, and several towns in California passed resolutions opposing their return. Things were no better in Wyoming. There were companies who attempted to capitalize on the situation, sending recruitment flyers which promised a better life. One of those was Seabrook Farms, which was one of the biggest providers of frozen food to the U.S. Military. By the end of 1946, more than 500 families had relocated to Seabrook’s operation in Bridgeton, NJ. Life there wasn’t all that different from Heart Mountain, as workers were housed in concrete barrack like buildings, working 12 hour days, and were required to provide all of their own food and other basic necessities.
Over time, people who had been relocated to Heart Mountain began to rebuild their lives. While most were eventually successful doing so, the lasting impact of the experience can be found in a suicide rate that was double the national average, and heart disease levels more than 2.1 times that of the general population. Many spoke out about what had happened to them through public speaking, writing and film efforts. An official redress movement began in the 1970s. In 1980, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, tasking it with examining Executive Order 9066 and it’s impact on Japanese Americans. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized on behalf of the nation for “fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights” of people of Japanese ancestry. The Act also authorized token redress payments of $20,000 each to those who had been imprisoned. President Reagan signed the Act into law, and in 1990, at a public ceremony, President George Bush issued the first redress checks.
“The apology was more important to us than the payment. It allowed us to acknowledge what had happened. The government admitted that we were not guilty. The apology changed the way that many of us viewed ourselves.”
In 2005, the Heart Mountain site was dedicated to the memory of Setsuko Saito Higuchi, “one of a small but determined group of former Heart Mountain internees who envisioned an educational facility that would preserve and teach the lessons embodied in the wartime experience of the people confined there during World War II.” The original site was opened for walking tours. In 2007, the site was designated as a National Historical Landmark. In August of 2011, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (non-profit) opened the doors of its Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
The final slide show I’ll leave you with here is a collection of comments left by visitors to the interpretive center, some of whom were former detainees who returned to visit.
Overall impression: This place opened my mind, and broke my heart. I learned quite a bit, and was left with these words, captured in one of the exhibits, that resonated with a permanent impact:
“..If you think the Constitution protects you, you better make sure that the Constitution is actively operating.. in other words, ‘constant vigilance’. Otherwise, it’s a scrap of paper. We had the Constitution to protect us in 1942. It didn’t because the will of the people wasn’t behind it.” Gordon Hirabayashi
Costs: Access to the property and walking tours is free, with ample parking. Admission to the interpretive center is $7 for adults, and should not be missed. While the property is a National Historic Landmark, the Interpretive Center is the work of the non-profit group Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. Donations to their important work can be made at: http://www.heartmountain.org/support.html