Thursday, August 9, 2012

Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp

Kyle and I enjoyed our vacation to the Cody, WY and Missoula, MT areas. We enjoyed so many activities - floating down a river, visiting the historic Irma Bar in Cody, WY and visiting with good friends. However, there was one part of the trip that stands out because of what I learned about our history...

You grow up "hearing about" American history. Textbooks barely scratch the surface level. Teachers rarely have time to cover anything but the basics. We grow up not knowing or understanding what happened, why it happened, and why it's so important to learn about it. One piece of our history that is too often glazed over in the classroom is how America treated the Americans of Japanese heritage during World War II.

I knew we sent them to "camps," forcing them to abandon their homes and livelihoods immediately following the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. What I didn't know was where or what their lives were like while they were in these camps, how long they were there, and what they did to rebuild their lives afterwards. Thankfully, we have a close friend in the Cody, WY area who knew of an education center designated for this specific purpose: to teach and remember the people who endured this racist treatment.

Why do I encourage others to learn about the horrors of how we treated African Americans (slavery and segregation) or our awful treatment of American-Indians or the Japanese? So we are not doomed to repeat it.

----- Heart Mountain Memorial ----- 
First of all, could you imagine the fear these people experienced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941? Their nation was under attack! They knew nothing of the plans to destroy Pearl Harbor, so naturally they were as shocked and as horrified as the rest of America.

THEN, they get a notice that they are considered dangerous and must be relocated. This means everything they have worked hard to build must be left behind. Their dream of living the American dream... gone. They put their stuff in storage. They were forced to decide what was precious enough to pack in a tiny suitcase and take with them. They had no idea what was to become of them, their families, or their future.

They ride a train to different camps all around the nation. One was near Heart Mountain in Wyoming. This relocation center was open until 1945 and was heavily guarded with guard towers and barbed wire fence. Nearly 11,000 people were forcibly uprooted and two-thirds of them were citizens of the United States!
A view of Heart Mountain.
Due process was denied. They were assumed guilty simply because of their heritage. They were under suspicion and despite what the Constitution stated, this executive order violated the rights of thousands of Americans - including orphans and infants! Democracy failed these individuals.

What was life like while they were there? As you walk through the museum you will find items they used and an example of the living situations. They show pictures of them swimming, eating, going to school, working, it seemed as though life was decent - on the surface level. Once you read on you find that families shared one bedroom "apartments" with no kitchen, bathroom, or bedrooms of their own.
Example of how they set up their "apartment"
They created privacy walls with fabric hung on strings. They described newlyweds having to live with their in laws and the embarrassment of needing to use the bathroom or getting dressed without so much as a wall to offer them privacy! Private conversations happened outside the apartments and they said they simply had to get over it!

I'm not going to share everything with you, but the another piece that shocked me was a yes/no questionnaire the government required all internee's to complete, determining their loyalty. If the WRA determined that they answered questions incorrectly they were considered disloyal and placed in a "jail" called the Tule Lake Segregation Center. One of the questions asked, "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" Can  you imagine trying to answer that question? NO I don't want to serve this country knowing it might mean death - look at how you're treating me! but then again if you answered it that way you'd end up in the segregation center. Another question that irritated me was, "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and... forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?" I like how one internee discussed this question later, "How were we supposed to answer that? If we answered "yes" weren't we implying that we had once been loyal to Japan? Did a "no" mean that we were disloyal to the U.S.? No matter what we answered, we seemed guilty."

What was life like afterwards? I can't even begin to explain the horror I felt for these people when I read what Americans said about their release.
"We do not want a single one of these evacuees to remain in Wyoming." - Governor Lester C. Hunt, August 1945

"We don't want those Japs back in California and the more we can get rid of the better." U.S. Representative Clair Engle of California

"We shall take it but we shall not pretend to like it." - the Los Angeles Times
They had no where to go. The possessions they put in storage were looted. Money - gone. They were given $25 by the government to relocate, but where would they go? Where would they live? What would they do? This is the part of the story that breaks my heart, because we threw them to the wolves.

How did it affect them? Some people might argue that they had food, shelter, clothing, they were allowed to garden, they had a swimming hole, life for them was good right? When they moved from their homes and into these camps they lost: freedom, privacy, possessions, rights as American citizens, and their dignity. One of my favorite quotes from the museum was what one "prisoner" stated, "Underlying all the suspicions of disloyalty was racism. People thought we were enemies not because of something we did - but because of where we or our ancestors came from." This affected them in more ways than we can possibly imagine. Suicide rates after camp, for example, were double the national average. In 1997, a study found that these prisoners were 2.1 times more likely to suffer from heart disease! Those were just a few ways on how it affected them.
Just in case you can't read it, it says, "What do we remember about camp? Most of us talk about the day-to-day activities, such as food at the mess halls, bad weather, and the latrines. We reminisce about some of the fun we sometimes had. These are the "easy" things to talk about, the things that everyone can understand. But they only tell a portion of the true experience at Heart Mountain."
Remembering. One of the stories that I loved reading about was about the Haiku Rock.

Taketaro Azeka created this Haiku Rock by carving a poem into the slab of granite and burying it, hoping it would become an archaeological find. The Solbergs, who were homesteaders in that area, found the rock and donated it to the Heart mountain Wyoming Foundation.
Thankfully our government admitted their wrong. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagon, apologized on the behalf of the nation. Redress payments of $20,000 were given to each individual who had been imprisoned.
"Here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law." - President Ronald Reagon
What you see today:

Heart Mountain Memorial Museum

Short walking area where you are shown the location of where buildings, the swimming hole, etc. were located.

A clear wide view of the buildings that are left...

The remainder of one of the buildings.
The windows are mostly covered... but you can still peak in one or two of them and this is what you see...

The leaning smokestack that stands as a historical icon for this place. It still is a prominent feature of the boiler house that provided heat during the cold Wyoming winters to the hospital.
The view of heart moutain from the corner of one of the buildings. The location seems so ironic to me: a prejudice act of moving thousands of Americans to a place called Heart Mountain....
As I was visiting this memorial site, I knew that it was something I needed to share. I also highly encourage you visit it if you ever decide to go to Cody, WY or the Yellowstone National Park area. Take your kids, talk about it with your friends, share pictures, and encourage others to do the same.

Great quote from one of the internee's, Shigeru Yabu, to end this blog...

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