World War II internment camp historic site saddens the contemporary heart
The Winter Olympics captivate me. Apolo Anton Ohno, whose father immigrated from Japan, is representing the U.S. in his third Olympics as a crowd-pleasing favorite in short-track speedskating. Kristi Yamaguchi, the California-born 1992 Olympic champion, is an NBC a commentator for figure skating at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Her paternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Japan. Her mother was born in an internment camp during World War II. It might have been the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the Big Horn Basin of northern Wyoming.
The Story: In one of the more shameful chapters of American history, our government forced tens of thousands Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and relocated them into 10 internment camps in the US interior. One was at Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell, Wyoming. It accepted (“welcomed” being the wrong word) its first internees on August 12, 1942. For three years, nearly 11,000 US citizen and alien internees were housed behind a barbed-wire fence in primitve, 120 by 20-foot uninsulated tarpaper barracks laid out like a military base. At that time, the camp was the third-largest “city” in Wyoming. Internees grew vegetables, raised pigs and chickens, worked in the camp hospital and also in the region. They got passes to leave the camp to toil for a pittance, even by the wage standards of the day, to replace men who were in the service
The history of the camp, reflecting both the bigotry of the era and anti-Japanese feelings and fears caused by the Pearl Harbor attack, is heartbreaking. In total, some 45,000 Japanese aliens and 75,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced into indefinite and involuntary relocation. Ironically, more than 800 men and women from Heart Mountain alone served in the American military defending the nation that had treated their people so shabbily.
Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and Manzanar National Historic Site in eastern California are administered by the National Park Service to document this period. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center is a desolate place today, especially on a gray, blustery winter day that makes it all the more poignant. The site is partly Bureau of Land Management land and partly on land purchased by a not-for-proftit Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation dedicated to keeping the memory alive.
When the internees were released and the camp was dismantled, the government sold the barracks to returning veterans for $1 or $2 each, provided the buyers removed the structures. Some can still be seen on area ranches and farms. Two barracks of the 457 barracks, part of the hospital, vents for underground root cellars and one frame house that had been occupied by Caucasian camp officials remain on the site along the railroad tracks between the Shoshone River and distant Heart Mountain.
The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation has purchased back some of the non-government-owned land originally occupied by the camp and has received a government development grant of nearly half-a-million dollars.The camp site currently has a short, flat trail with government-standard interpretive signs and a World War II honor roll with 800 names of those servicemen, including 15 killed in action, and a visitor center is framed in and planned for completion in the next couple of years.
LaDonna Zall, a retired phys-ed teacher, is a member of the foundation board and a tireless advocate for creating a meaningful site to memorialize the period that she peripherally witnessed. On November 15, 1945, as a young girl, she and her father watched the last trainload of internees leaving the camp. She watched hem walking down the hill and had many questions about who they were and what had happened. As the longtime Acting Curator, she is still getting answers. When the visitor and interpretive learning center is completed, the answers will be easier for everyone to come by. Meanwhile, the site, which received National Historical Landmark Status in 2007, is an empty, poignant place that merits a visit and reflection about the toll that fear and intolerance take on a nation.
LaDonna told the Heart Mountain story to a small group of us from a warm vehicle. She wisely stayed inside the van while we walked that path and read as many of the plaques as time permitted. I wish I had managed to snap a few pictures of her, but as I listened to her tell the camp’s story with an astonishing command of numbers and dates, I neglected to do that. A “progress celebration” for the visitor and interpretive center is planned for August 22.
Cost: Entry and the self-guided tour are free until the visitor center is completed. Then, a modest. entry fee is expected.
Contact: Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation, P.O.547, Powell, Wyoming 82435-0547; 307-754-2689.