Termed relocation, some who were relocated felt it was prison, others went along with the plan, not wanting to appear traitors to their newly adopted country, and even serving in the military. The year was 1942, about six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. All Japanese in America were suspect.
Recently my husband and I toured the Heart Mountain Japanese Internment camp near Cody, Wyoming. What a lesson in human resilience. And prejudice. And attitude.
Families from California and Oregon “Assembly Centers”—where Japanese were collected into groups after being forced to leave their businesses and homes by Executive Order 9066—began arriving at hastily constructed barracks in August of 1942, near the Heart Mountain. It was a rather remote place, but near a railroad spur so people and supplies could be shipped there quite easily. Over 10,000 of the relocated 110,000 arrived at Heart Mountain.
It was cold, cramped, and bewildering. And, I think, a seemingly heartless place to be located near a mountain with the name of Heart.
Since the internees were from warm, humid climates, and many had left their own businesses, the culture shock had to be acute and horrendous. A book I purchased, Tales of Heart Mountain, a compilation of short stories about the camp by LaDonna Zall, tells part of the story this way: “When the internees arrived, each family was assigned to a room which served as their home. Upon entering the room, they found only a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a cot with two army blankets for each person and a Morning Glory Coal stove.” (Page 7).
A couple of the original 650 military style barracks have been set up to show visitors to the now Heart Mountain Interpretive Center what it was like for these Japanese Americans. Crowded and sparse accommodations were the norm. A video of interviews with former residents of the camp tells of the lack of personal space in the one room barracks where more than one generation must live together, and the lack of privacy in the latrines.
There were barbed wire fences around the 740 acre compound and nine guard towers. The army gave the engineers 60 days to build the barracks. They were poorly constructed and not insulated against the cold Wyoming winters and oft-present prairie wind that blew dust and snow into the confused faces.
There was a hospital, churches and a public school. Girls scouts, boy scouts and Brownies organizations were formed. They formed gangs, ball teams and socialized. They survived, hoping to be set free to go back to the life they left behind.
Controversy arose over the United States government drafting “Nisei,” or the generation of Japanese born in America to parents who emigrated from Japan. Some were encouraged to resist serving in the army unless they could be set free.
“In early 1943, camp officials began to administer a “Leave Clearance Form,” better known as the loyalty questionnaire because of two controversial questions that tried to distinguish loyal and disloyal Japanese Americans. Question 27 asked whether men would be willing to serve in the armed forces, while Question 28 asked inmates to forswear all allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Many, confused by the questionnaire’s wording, fearing it was a trick and any answer would be misconstrued, or offended by the questions’ implications, answered “no” to one or both questions…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_Mountain_Relocation_Center.
Yet the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/442nd_Regimental_Combat_Team) was the most highly decorated unit in the war and consisted of Japanese American soldiers. Some wanted to enlist to prove their loyalty to the United States. About 800 are reported to have joined from the Heart Mountain camp.
Three years later, in January, 1945, internees were given $25 and a one-way ticket to return to their homes, to find their home and belongings now belonged to someone else, or no longer existed, and they had to start over. Despair claimed many I imagine, and the story tells of one man’s suicide after returning home to a scene like this.
Judge Lance Ito, now famous for presiding at the O.J. Simpson trial, was born of parents from this camp. A survivor’s attitude and perseverance were needed after experiencing the camp I’m sure.
Many began again, building a home for the second time in this land of promise, and becoming part of the glue that holds American together—different colored strands of varying strengths that have been tried and tested true, to form a quilt of opportunity, if one just continues to sew.