Life In The Camp

Life was an incredibly difficult change for families like this one pictured at Heart Mountain Relocation Center camp.
Life in the “relocation center” camp was especially harsh for family life.
Photo by Yoshio Okumoto

Life in the “relocation center” camp was a difficult adjustment for incarcerees, especially since the living conditions were far from comfortable. Heart Mountain “Relocation Center” was built on 46,000 acres of dusty land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Incarcerees lived in a fenced area of camp that covered 740 acres. It was ringed with barbed wire and guarded by nine guard towers. There were 650 buildings and structures, including some 450 barracks. Incarcerees grew crops on 1,100 acres of farmland on the southeastern corner of the property.

On January 1, 1943–at the camp’s peak–10,767 people were confined there. During the 1,187 days the camp was open, more than 14,000 prisoners passed through.

Incarcerees lived in barracks that were laid out in 20 blocks separated by unpaved roads. Each block held 24 barracks buildings, two mess halls, two buildings housing latrines and laundry facilities, and two recreation buildings.

The management worked out of an administrative complex southeast of the barracks. A few staff chose to live at Heart Mountain. Their barracks were similar to those of the prisoners, but they were finished on the outside with shingles rather than tarpaper.

Aspects of life in the “relocation center” camp:

The construction of the “Heart Mountain Relocation Center” camp began in the summer of 1942. Two thousand workers helped build the camp over approximately sixty days, and Wyoming’s low unemployment rate was turned around within a matter of weeks.

The first trainload of “internees” arrived on August 12, 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.

Over the course of the three years it existed as a War Relocation Authority (WRA) facility, from August 1942 to November 1945, some 14,000 incarcerees passed through the confinement camp. Many were destined to stay within its barbed wire confines the entire time. At its peak, the population was 10,767.

The “camp” consisted of 467 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.

A group of military police situated in nine guard towers manned the site and 130 government employees oversaw day-to-day operations. Heart Mountain’s first director was C.E. Rachford, a former Forest Service administrator. When Rachford retired, his assistant, Guy Robertson, succeeded him. In November 1942, administrators began erecting a barbed wire fence between the guard towers around the camp. In protest, 3,000 incarcerees signed a petition aimed at WRA director Dillon Myer, declaring that the fence was “an insult to any free human being, a barrier to a full understanding between the administration and the residents.” It made no difference, and the fence went up.

The camp administration encouraged incarcerees to start a community council to oversee camp life. Each of the 20 blocks elected a chairman, usually an Issei. The WRA, mistrusting the Issei, appointed Nisei as “block managers.” There were tensions between these two groups. It was not until May 1943—nine months after the camp opened—that they managed to pass a community charter. In all camp matters, however, the WRA held final decision-making power. 

As with any community, those incarcerated at Heart Mountain got sick and sustained injuries. They received care at the 150-bed hospital that opened on August 28, 1942. In the two weeks before the building opened, sick residents were cared for at one of the recreation halls. The hospital saw 5,486 admissions and 391 major surgeries during its three years of operation.

The hospital staff of around 150 employees included a Caucasian Chief Medical Officer and Chief Nurse and Japanese American physicians, nurses, nurse’s aides, dentists, pharmacists, and orderlies. Tensions between the WRA management and Japanese American staff often ran high. In 1943 staff members twice walked off their jobs to protest working conditions. Japanese American doctors were paid $19 per month, while Caucasian nurses working at the camp’s hospital were paid $150 per month.

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.

Bill Hosokawa, who had worked as a journalist before the war, taught writing skills to others and became editor of the camp newspaper. The Heart Mountain Sentinel was first published in October 1942 and distributed to 6,000 camp households every Saturday.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government deemed all Nisei men “unfit for military service.” They put them in the category for aliens, even though they were citizens. Some community leaders thought that military service would be the best way to prove the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The WRA, and some in the War Department, agreed.

Having been forced from their homes, imprisoned, and labeled “unfit,” many were not enthusiastic when Army recruiters came to Heart Mountain Relocation Center camp in the spring of 1943. Only 38 volunteered. The government reinstated the draft for Nisei men in January 1944. Over 700 reported to their selective service physicals, and a total of 385 were inducted directly out of Heart Mountain into the armed forces.

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 confinement camps, 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 were harvested. Milk was supplied through a creamery in Powell, but the camp raised cattle, hogs and chickens for its own consumption. Heart Mountain Relocation Center camp had one of the most successful agriculture programs of all the camps, introducing new crops that had never before been grown in the region.

Nisei were permitted to work at Heart Mountain. In additional to agricultural jobs, they worked in the motor pool, the mess halls, the fire and police departments, and many other places where their labor helped make the community function. The WRA paid $12, $16, or $19 per month, depending on the skill level of the work.

For many Issei, the camp experience was one of forced idleness. That led to dejection and worries about the future. Many would never recover their hard-earned jobs and social standing, even after the camps closed.

Even those who didn’t have paid jobs were busy with the day-to-day tasks of life at camp. We hauled coal to our barracks to heat the stove. We swept the ever-present dust from the rooms. We did laundry in large concrete tubs in the latrines.

Heart Mountain Relocation Center incarcerees able to acquire permits also worked outside the camp at a variety of temporary jobs. They assisted farmers in harvesting and processing crops. They worked as domestic servants in well-off Park County homes. Jobs in the community gave them the opportunity to interact and counteract negative stereotypes about Japanese and Japanese Americans.

The experience outside camp wasn’t always pleasant, however. In October 1943, two local men in a truck tried to run down five Nisei who were digging potatoes for a Powell farmer. The driver got off with just a $125 fine for disturbing the peace. 

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 relocation center camp 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.

Initially, feelings of Wyoming residents upon the sudden arrival of thousands of Japanese Americans resembled the feelings of the rest of the country. Many in Park County wondered why a group the government deemed too dangerous to stay on the West Coast would be safer in their communities.

In Powell and Cody, shops, hotels, and restaurants displayed “No Japs Allowed” signs. The Wyoming legislature took action to stop Nisei incarcerees from voting in Wyoming. They also refused to grant us hunting and fishing licenses. 

However, many in the region 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. The camp was an economic boon to Park County, which may have helped local residents feel positively towards the Japanese Americans. The most visible legacy of Heart Mountain is the irrigation canal that incarcerees helped build. As restrictions began to ease, the incarcerees were given opportunities to move from the relocation center camp to work or go to college in the Midwest or the East. 

Heart Mountain didn’t close all at once. On December 17, 1944, the government announced that mass exclusion was no longer necessary and would end in January 1945. The next day, the WRA proclaimed: “All relocation centers will be closed within a period of six months to one year after the revocation of the exclusion orders.” They promised the incarcerated $25 and a train ticket anywhere in the U.S.

It took months for Heart Mountain to close. The incarcerees discovered, when released, that while the war was over, their struggle against prejudice was not. Racism was still very much alive in the United States, adding insult to injury as they tried desperately to rebuild their lives. Starting over was an incredibly difficult prospect. 

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 14A today, it is possible to spot barracks-shaped storage sheds and barns, reminders of a unique, albeit dark, period in our nation’s history.