Photos from left to right: From arrival to postwar: (1)As a train arrives, incarcerees help lift an elderly patient off the train; (2) Eiichi Sakauye shows off a watermelon grown in camp as a result of the agricultural system he helped to create; (3) Workers unload coal; (4) The Iwagaki family reunites in San Jose after the war, posing with their son, Sgt. Ken Iwagaki (right) and son-in-law Capt. James Higuchi (left) , who are en route to their overseas assignments.
Sitting at the foot of Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, a few haunting remnants of the "camp" still stand-–a hospital boiler house with its towering red chimney, two hospital buildings, an administrative building, the concrete vault from the high school, a root cellar, and a large excavation that once served as a swimming hole. These and other reminders underscore the importance of preserving sites that are key to understanding U.S. history even when that history isn't flattering or idyllic.
The federal government at first sought sites for humane, open-gated resettlement communities in the Mountain states, but Gov. Nels Smith of Wyoming predicted there would be “Japs hanging from every pine tree” should they be permitted to live in his state under such permissive conditions. The federal government, therefore, agreed to the conditions that Smith and his fellow western governors demanded: incarceration in “concentration camps” with guard towers and barbed wire.
Construction of the barracks and other structures began in the summer of 1942. Two thousand workers were needed to build the camp over the next sixty days, and Wyoming's low unemployment rate was turned around within a matter of weeks.
Over the course of the three years it existed as a War Relocation Authority facility, from August 1942 to September 1945, some 13,997 incarcerees passed through the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Many were destined to stay within its barbed wire confines the entire time. At its peak, the "camp" population was 10,767.
The first trainload of "internees" arrived on August 11, 1942. The long train ride from the West Coast had taken its toll. Incarcerees came from California and Washington--6,448 from Los Angeles County; 2,572 from Santa Clara County; 678 from San Francisco; and 843 from Yakima/Washington Counties. For the Issei, who had immigrated to the U.S. to build new lives in their adopted country, removal to these inland locations meant the loss of homes, jobs, and businesses. Younger Nisei (American-born second generation) and Sansei (third generation) suddenly were forced to leave school and friends behind, with no idea as to when they might return.
The "camp" consisted of 468 barrack-style buildings sectioned into 20 blocks that served as administration areas and living quarters. The tarpaper barracks were divided into apartments, some single rooms and others slightly larger to accommodate families of up to six. Each unit was furnished only with a stove for heat, a light fixture in the center of the room and an army cot and two blankets for each person. Each block had a mess hall, unpartitioned toilet and shower facilities and a laundry area.
There were 200 administrative employees, 124 soldiers, and three officers. Military police were stationed in nine guard towers, equipped with high-beam searchlights.
Heart Mountain also ran a garment factory, a cabinet shop and a sawmill. The camp’s silk screen shop produced posters for the Navy and other camps.
Doctors and dentists were recruited from among those confined at Heart Mountain to help tend to those who were ill. Soon, incarcerees began to build a community infrastructure with the health care system as a key component to address the community’s needs. Despite limitations in personnel and equipment, 550 babies were born in the barbed-wire enclosed camp.
In November 1942, Japanese American hospital workers walked out because of pay discrimination. Japanese American doctors were paid $19 per month, while Caucasian nurses working at the camp’s hospital were paid $150 per month.
Bill Hosokawa, who had worked as a journalist before the war, taught writing skills to others and became editor of the camp newspaper. The
Incarcerees at all the camps were given a loyalty questionnaire. Although 95.9% of the Heart Mountain population answered the questionnaire positively, about 400 became "resisters of conscience," insisting that their families' constitutional rights be restored before agreeing to join the military. The Fair Play Committee thus became the only organized resistance by draft-age Nisei. This action led to the largest mass trial in Wyoming history. In July 1944, 63 men were convicted and sentenced to three years in federal penitentiaries in Kansas and Washington.
More than 800 from Heart Mountain served in the military, becoming members of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Fifteen were killed in action, and two received the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Of the ten Japanese American relocation centers, Heart Mountain alone had more than one Medal of Honor recipient.
In the spring of 1943, the camp’s agricultural efforts got underway. Incarcerees had to first complete the Shoshone Irrigation Project, which included a 5,000-foot canal. They then cleared several thousand acres of sagebrush to make way for peas, beans, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, and other fruits and vegetables. Despite the local farmers’ doubts that it could be done so late in the year, the autumn harvest yielded 1,065 tons of produce. The following year, 2,500 tons was harvested. Milk was supplied through a creamery in Powell, but the camp raised cattle, hogs and chickens for its own consumption. Heart Mountain had one of the most successful agriculture programs of all the camps, introducing new crops that had never before been grown in the region.
Those confined at Heart Mountain worked at various jobs within the camp, but the WRA decided that the Japanese Americans could not be paid more than a private could in the army, whose salary was $21 a month. Most jobs paid between $12 and $19 per month. Likewise, Japanese American teachers were paid $228 a year although Caucasian instructors earned $2,000 per year and senior teachers were paid $2,600 annually.
The children at Heart Mountain started school on October 5, 1942, using barracks as classrooms. Learning was a challenge because there were a limited number of books, and students had to check one out if they had homework. Supplies and classroom furniture were also hard to come by, and the chalkboard was a piece of plywood painted black. By the following year, the elementary school was reorganized and construction of the new high school was completed on May 27, 1943. It had regular classrooms, an auditorium/gymnasium, a library, a large home economics room, a machine shop and a wood shop. Athletic teams began competing with other local high schools, and the football team, the Heart Mountain Eagles, suffered only one defeat in two years.
Heart Mountain had a Catholic church and a community Christian church, which held services that were attended by all denominations. Although the practice of Buddhism was initially discouraged by camp administrators, a Buddhist church was eventually established and such group events as kabuki theater and bon odori (the annual festival for the dead) were allowed. About two-thirds of those incarcerated at Heart Mountain were Buddhist.
Adults could take part in standard crafts and hobbies, such as sewing, knitting, woodcarving, flower arranging, bonsai, calligraphy, haiku poetry and the games of goh and shogi.
Like most teens and young adults, the Nisei gravitated toward activities like sports and social gatherings. With an average age of between 17 and 21, the Nisei quickly found ways to interact with each other. Numerous social clubs and youth organizations developed, holding get-togethers where they danced to 78-rpm recordings by Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Count Basie, and other popular music. There was even a traveling band that supplied live music on occasion. For many, it was the first time they had met young Japanese Americans from other areas.
Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs, a major part of Nisei life before the war, were revived at Heart Mountain. Koyasan Troop 379 was the largest, but soon 13 Boy Scout Troops and one Girl Scout Troop had been reactivated. The rustic environment lent itself to Scouting-related activities, such as swimming, hiking, and recreational camping on the banks of the Shoshone River and around Heart Mountain. Scouts led the raising of the flag and Pledge of Allegiance each morning, and they had a drum and bugle corps and a drill team for girls. They held meetings and jamborees with scouts from nearby Powell and Cody. It was during one of these jamborees that Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson met as youngsters and became lifelong friends and political allies, both serving in Congress as elected representatives.
Many Wyoming residents, who had initially opposed the presence of nearly 11,000 Japanese Americans in their midst, ultimately came to accept the Heart Mountain incarcerees who shopped and utilized services in nearby Cody and Powell. Residents were awarded special permits to leave the camp for shopping and temporary work. As restrictions began to ease, the internees were given opportunities to move from the camp to work or go to college in the Midwest or the East.
"Internees" were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in early 1945. Each person was given $25 and a train ticket. But only 2,000 people had left Heart Mountain by June 1945. Wyoming officials tried to discourage Japanese Americans from remaining in Wyoming and had earlier passed laws that prevented them from owning land and voting. Nevertheless, the last trainload of incarcerees left Heart Mountain on November 10, 1945.
After World War II, most of the land and residential barracks were sold to former servicemen and hopeful farmers. Driving along Highway 14 today, it is possible to spot barracks-shaped storage sheds and barns, reminders of a unique albeit dark period in our nation's history.
"Internees" assemble for the morning flag-raising and reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance accompanied by the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps.
-PHOTO BY HANSEL MIETH & OTTO HAGEL
Photos from left to right: (1) The Shishima family arrives at Heart Mountain; (2)A freight train arrives with crates containing the incarcerees' belongings; (3)Dr. Tanaka fills a molar; and (4) Joan Ishiyama gets a smile out of a young child growing up at Heart Mountain.
Photos from left to right: (1) Bill Hosokawa teaches a writing class; (2)Moe Yonemura talks to young men about enlisting in the Army; (3)The trial begins for 63 Heart Mountain resisters on June 12, 1944; and (4) Children in nursery school.
Photos from left to right: (1) Interscholastic basketball game between Heart Mountain and Powell High Schools; (2)Three Boy Scouts take part in a morning flag ceremony; (3)An Issei plays a game of shogi; and (4) High school students gather between classes.
A crowd gathers to bid farewell to the first group of "internees" to leave Heart Mountain.Back to top