I was today years old, minus a couple of years, when I learned that Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the homes and kept in camps during World War II. Chalk it up to me being a slow reader in high school and finding history incredibly boring or that it wasn’t taught. I don’t know which, but ever since I learned about this injustice, I wondered where the camps, known as “relocation centers” were. One, was located in northern Wyoming and is now the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark.
Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, Historic Buildings, and Memorial
While most of the barracks and other buildings were sold for $1 to anyone who could remove them when the camp closed, the current site includes a few historic buildings, a memorial, and the award-winning Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.
When I saw the giant billboard advertising the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark, I stopped. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but certainly got a giant history lesson during my two-hour visit.
The interpretive center, which is constructed to look like the Heart Mountain barracks from 1943, includes a permanent exhibit, a temporary exhibit, a 15-minute movie, and a gift shop. There are lots of placards to read as well as some displays depicting camp life.
Just below the center is an original barracks that was purchased by Iowa State and used in Shell, Wyoming as a geology field station. It was returned to the site in 2015 and restored, offering a glimpse into the living conditions at Heart Mountain. This building may only be toured when staff offers a tour. Coincidentally, one was available while I visited.
Upon the hill remains the red brick chimney of the hospital’s boiler house, one hospital building, and one staff building. The hill also features a walking path with interpretive signs which provide a cliff note version of the Japanese American life at the Heart Mountain camp. Anyone short on time or who wants to learn a little about what Japanese Americans faced during World War II for free may drive up to the top of the hill and bypass the interpretive center.
Also on the hill is a memorial recognizing the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain yet later drafted to fight for the USA in WWII. I’m speechless.
The Mineta-Simpson Institute
Finally, the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark is growing. The Interpretive Center is adding the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain. The institute is named for Senator Alan K Simpson and the late Secretary Norman Y Mineta.
The two men met as boys at the Heart Mountain. Mineta and his family were among the Japanese Americans sent from their home in San Jose, California to Heart Mountain. Simpson, was a boy in Scouts whose troop visited the camp. The two were paired up for a weekend.
Fast forward many years, Mineta was the first Asian American mayor of San Jose who later served 20 years in Congress. Simpson spent 12 years in the Wyoming Statehouse before serving 3 terms as a Republican Senator from Wyoming.
Despite political differences, they worked together to for the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act which provided redress for Japanese Americans unjustly imprisoned during World War II. Now they are being honored with the naming of Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain.
The 7,341 square foot addition will resemble one of Heart Mountain’s mess halls and serve as a meeting space capable of hosting 200 for workshops and programming targeting civic responsibility and improved communication across party lines.
It will also include a research lab with a library of archival documents, an exhibition hall featuring Mineta and Simpson, as well as a broadcasting studio and storage.
With its kitchen, soon the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark will be able to host all sorts of events.
History of Japanese American Confinement
While the facility is nice, what is more important is the history of Japanese American confinement at Heart Mountain. I can’t describe all the emotions I felt while walking through the Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark. But some include disbelief, sadness, empathy, impressed, inspired, and even happiness, depending on the story.
First, I was surprised to learn that well before World War II the Immigration Act of 1924 closed the country to new Asian immigrants. And current land laws did not allow aliens to own property, thus the Issei, Asian immigrants, placed their property ownership under the names of their American born children, known as Nissei.
Already facing scrutiny, the Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were subject to FDR’s Executive Order 9066. Six weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry were ordered to temporary assembly centers and later relocation camps.
Initially the Nissei, who were American born, were treated better than the Issei, but ultimately nearly all the 120,000 Japanese were imprisoned in ten newly constructed concentration camps. Due to Nazi concentration camps, the word “concentration” sounds jarring as these were not death camps. But the relocation camps did serve to unjustly hold a concentration of people without evidence or due process.
The Japanese population was given just a few days to sell or store their things and close their businesses. They could only bring what they could carry, up to 100 pounds.
Heart Mountain Relocation Center
At the temporary facilities, like the Santa Anita Horse Track, the Japanese were housed in horse stalls. At Heart Mountain, they were assigned to a barrack. The 120-foot barrack was divided into six apartments. Each family lived in one small room.
The barracks had no running water, kitchen, bathroom nor insulation. They were built by 2,000 laborers that worked double shifts and 12-hour days. Covered in tar paper, the barracks were so crude, that they could be constructed in an hour.
The camp was separated into blocks and each block included 24 barracks, two mess halls, two recreation buildings, and two latrine and laundry facilities.
In all, Heart Mountain Relocation Center included 450 barracks and 200 other structures on 46,000 acres that was fenced by barbed wire and guarded with nine guard towers. At its peak, on January 1, 1943 it housed 10,767 Japanese. During the 1,187 days the camp was open, 14,000 Japanese Americans passed through.
Life at Heart Mountain
Despite the dry dusty land of the summers and the freezing cold winters, the Japanese formed a semblance of life at the camp. I found myself very impressed with their work ethic and resilience.
With the encouragement of the War Relocation Autority (WRA), they formed their own self-government. They organized recreational activities, worked at the camp or at other farms, taught school and religion, and addressed their healthcare needs. They basically created their own confined community.
Some projects included finishing the construction of a canal abandoned by the CCC to provide water for agriculture. They grew much needed crops for food which they stored in root cellars they constructed. They also built a hospital and staffed it with Japanese doctors and white nurses.
In addition to agricultural and health care jobs, they worked at the mess halls and in the fire and police stations earning from $12-$19 per month, depending on the skill level.
For recreation they dug a pool which served as an ice rink in the winter. There was also an 8-hole golf course! Additionally, they started literature clubs, scouting, art and language classes, and even had a weekly paper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel.
They built a high school with classrooms, a library, a gymnasium and more for their kids. Their football team won every game except one for two seasons.
These resilient Japanese Americans accomplished all this despite being hungry and cold and having absolutely no privacy in the quickly constructed barracks.
World War II Draft
And while they were rounded up under the suspicion they were acting as spies and saboteurs and had to live in confinement, after a few years, they were given draft papers and expected to fight for the USA! 750 men from Heart Mountain fought in World War II, some paying the ultimate sacrifice. A few refused to report on principle, and the draft dodgers were sentenced to three years in prison.
Camp Closing and Remunerations
Finally, at the end of the war and over three years later, incarcerees were told they could return home. By this time, many had nothing. Some nice neighbors on the West Coast watched over their belongings, but many others stole all their things. Not to mention, the WRA paid below average wages. And when they closed the camp, the WRA only sent them home with $25 and train ticket of their choice.
Many had to go to a temporary trailer park camp operated by the government which charged them $15 a month for rent, and they had to pay for food. Soon they were kicked out of the trailer park camp to make room for the homeless.
Eventually, in 1998, the USA apologized for their actions and paid remuneration. The Civil Liberties Act was signed by President Reagan and paid by President Bush.
The hardships conjured up my feelings of sadness and empathy, but then I’d read stories of their resilience and be so inspired. And I felt happy for those who went on to achieve great success from earning a Medal of Honor to reopening their businesses to making changes in politics today.
Though not like the overwhelming exhaustion that comes from visiting Aushwitz, a visit to Heart Mountain National Historic Landmark certainly runs the gamut of emotions. It probably would have been more daunting had the barracks remained. The only other place I have seen a few remnants of a concentration camp in the USA was the internment camp at Fort Stanton in New Mexico. ETB