Wyoming center tells story of Japanese-American internees

by Jody Godoy


Nob Shimokochi still remembers the hardship he suffered as a Japanese-American during World War II. “We used to say the Pledge of Allegiance in camp. ‘With liberty and justice for all,’ we said, and that irritated me like a pebble in my shoe.

“I used to say ‘liberty and justice for some’ but I didn’t say it very loudly. I was afraid the FBI would make me disappear.”

Shimokochi, 82, is one of more than 14,000 Japanese-Americans who were taken to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming almost 70 years ago. Forced by the U.S. government to evacuate their homes on the West Coast due to the view that they were a military threat because of their Japanese ancestry, they lived in barracks in the barren desert for up to three years.

On Aug. 20, 250 former internees returned to the prairie where the camp used to stand, to meet old friends and see their experiences memorialized in the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, a new educational facility that opened the same day.

The center is shaped like the barracks in which they lived and is located near the original camp site. It took the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, formed by a group of former internees, their families and supporters, 15 years and $5 million in private donations, most from fellow internees, to complete the project.

They hope that future generations will never forget that in the United States, which enshrines liberty in the constitution, wartime hysteria once led to the racial profiling and mass incarceration of innocent people. The lesson carries a warning, Sen. Daniel Inoue, who is of Japanese descent, said at the opening ceremony. “If this happened in this great nation and if we don’t watch ourselves, it could happen again.”

From 1942 to 1945, 10 camps throughout the country imprisoned about 120,000 Japanese-Americans. But the new center is only the second of its kind, and the first to be planned and built by former internees.

Shimokochi, originally from Los Angeles, was only 13 when he and his family were put on a train and sent to the camp. They were given just a few days to dispose of their possessions and allowed to take with them only what they could carry to the dusty camp in the shadow of Heart Mountain.

He remembers the stress of the experience, and using newspapers to cover gaps in the thin walls that separated his family from the six others in the same building. What little sleep they could get was interrupted by the searchlights of the guard towers.

“Laying there on my straw mattress, I was totally confused,” said Shimokochi. “I had learned that the constitution guaranteed civil rights, so how come I was in a concentration camp?”

“The feelings (about opening this center) are bittersweet,” said Shirley Higuchi, the chairwoman of the foundation. Her mother and father first met at the camp, and building the center was her mother’s dream. “Although this is a magnificent project that we are all proud of, it also memorializes what happened during World War II,” she said.

Visitors are surrounded by life-size photos of former internees as they imagine the turmoil of being displaced. The center avoids the explanatory mode of traditional museums and tells the internees’ story in the first person using quotes and video clips. Photographs taken by internees show life before, inside and after the camp.

One room re-creates what internees saw when they first arrived: empty wooden barracks with the wind blowing dust through gaps in the walls. The opposite room shows what the barracks looked like after a family moved in and tried to make it their home: a painting, a wall fashioned from a sheet, rough wooden furniture, shoes, a teddy bear and other small comforts.

Collecting the pots and pans, suitcases, furniture and other pieces that bring the museum to life has been a 12-year labor of love for LaDonna Zall, who grew up in the nearby town of Powell and was 10 when she watched the last train of internees depart. As acting curator for the museum she has collected and saved more than 6,000 artifacts from life at the camp.

The exhibits reflect a wide range of experiences, from labor strikes at the camp hospital to high school sports teams, farming at the site and Boy and Girl Scout troops.

The happy memories are what Maye Yasuda Umemoto, 81, recalls best. She came from a farming family, and camp life meant she didn’t have to work. “We just played and played,” she said.

Her granddaughter, Kelsi McGamm, 25, who had only previously heard her grandmother’s positive accounts, said that visiting the center made her respect what the older generations had to overcome even more.

In the racist climate of the war, many Japanese-Americans strove to prove their loyalty to their countrymen. One display honors the more than 800 Heart Mountain internees, including Shimokochi’s brother-in-law, who joined the U.S. military. Fifteen of them died in combat.

It also remembers the nearly 90 people who became conscientious objectors, stating they would serve in the military after their constitutional rights were restored.

They organized a movement called the Fair Play Committee — holding meetings, posting fliers and writing articles about their beliefs — that professor Eric Muller, who helped plan the center’s content, calls “unique among all the camps.”

“History always has the ability to repeat itself,” Norman Mineta, a former Heart Mountain internee who was serving as U.S. secretary of transportation when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were carried out, told the crowd of more than 1,000 at the opening ceremony.

“It came very close on Sept. 11,” Mineta said, recalling talk of banning people of Middle Eastern descent from airplanes or even “rounding them up” in the panic-filled days following the terrorist strikes. “What you are doing here is drawing that line in the sand to say, ‘never again.’ “

Before the dust settled at the new museum’s grand opening, Higuchi announced the foundation’s plans to collaborate with lawyers, policymakers, psychologists and researchers to learn from the internment experience and suggest practices for dealing with wartime hysteria and avoiding civil rights abuses.

“For the old people here, it’s a kind of closure. We can now turn the job of telling our story over to the center,” said Bacon Sakatani, a former internee and one of the foundation’s board members, before stopping to call out to a friend. The weekend was not only a grand opening, but a reunion for former internees.

The center’s opening was a chance for Shimokochi to laugh with the family who once stayed in the shack next to his on their way to camp. For Sakatani, it was an opportunity to climb Heart Mountain for an eighth time. And for all the internees, it was an occasion to look back and see how far they have come.

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