Heart Mountain: A Half-Century Later
Now that the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of V-J Day is over, bringing an end to a series of half-century commemorations of battles and other events associated with World War II, it often seems that closure has been reached on the turbulence set in motion by that war, that final recognition has now been given to the generation shaped by the war, and that a final healing of the wounds created by the conflict has occurred. Wartime allies embrace each other on the shores of Normandy and former enemies come together in conciliation in the islands of the Pacific.
The most awkward reunion may have taken place in the town of Powell, Wyoming in May of this year. And that reunion suggests that the closure and healing may be yet to come.
Fifty years ago the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, located between Cody and Powell, Wyoming, sent its Japanese-American residents away after having held them prisoner since its opening in October, 1942. It was euphemistically called a “Relocation Center,” but was referred to widely as a concentration camp. Heart Mountain was the fourth largest of the ten relocation centers opened during the war. It was the sixth to open. In a more local perspective, the roughly eleven thousand residents of Heart Mountain made it the third largest city in Wyoming. Of all the many communities in Wyoming, only Casper and Cheyenne had more people.
People came back to the reunion at Heart Mountain for a variety of reasons. The vast majority had never been back in the half-century since their departure. Some came to see others they had known and to kindle memories of the past, which is not to say that they sought to cherish those memories. Some brought their families to see where they had been and help them to understand the experience. Many came to reach closure on this experience—a closure that the payment of reparations and the official apology by President Reagan in 1988 still had not brought. Whatever the motive, though, it was clear that this was not a casual reunion of a school class or other group. For that matter, it was different from other wartime reunions of combatants.
Reunions often stir feelings of nostalgia, celebrate a rite of passage, or otherwise hearken back to times of triumph or at least of camaraderie. There were no doubt moments when some of this happened at Heart Mountain in May, but the central thrust was to find the meanings of the different experiences of people in this concentration camp. It was also different because the reunion came in conjunction with a symposium at Northwest Wyoming Community College, sponsored by the Wyoming Council for the Humanities, in which the meaning of the experience was explored by various speakers from the Japanese-American community and the academic world.
Part of that meaning had to do with the policy defining this group by their ethnicity and then segregating and isolating them far from their homes. There was no doubt after some of the scholarly presentations and after various individuals related their experiences that these people presented no threat, that it was the color of their skin that made their treatment categorically different from that of others during the war. Indeed, one member of the audience, in response to one of the academic papers, suggested a precedent for this action that struck to the heart of the problem in ways that even those familiar with the history of the West sometimes neglect: the placement of Native Americans on reservations in the nineteenth century.
The kernel of that problem was that of citizenship. In an informal exhibition in an adjacent room one woman displayed photographs of her family and talked of her experience. She showed a small suitcase, one of the two that she was able to take. That suitcase thus held one half of all that she owned. And she displayed two of the items from the suitcase that she had taken. One was a birth certificate (with the date of birth discreetly obliterated for this display) demonstrating her U.S. citizenship and the other was an American flag, now faded and creased by the folds of a half-century. To the outsiders these artifacts prompted questions and to those who had also packed their belongings and traveled to Heart Mountain the artifacts generated nodding and murmured words of their own experiences. The distance was palpable between the two groups. The source of that distance was the circumstance of birth, with one group having been born into a family that emigrated to the United States from Japan, but it was also the knowledge that that demographic fact made all the difference in the world.
Time and again speakers articulated this theme of racist subjugation and victimization. And it was a point on which virtually everybody present could agree, although doubtless others elsewhere would dissent. Among those others would be the local residents an Associated Press reporter interviewed who knew there was a “Jap camp” at Heart Mountain or who were completely innocent of even that knowledge, to Senator Alphonse d’Amoto’s lemon-faced caricature of Judge Lance Ito, whose parents James and Toshiko Ito attended the reunion and remembered the place they met. But those who were at the reunion were sympathetic.
Bill Hosokawa, editor of the Heart Mountain Sentinel for a period during the early history of the camp, and who holds a broad and esteemed reputation as a journalist but who also is sometimes viewed as an accommodationist, indicated that he had not been censored as editor by officials; he also sagely noted that the Sentinel should not have been born because the community it served should not have been created. That was a conservative statement; others pointed to the insistence of the Wyoming Governor that any such camp located in the state be confined with barbed wire and armed guards.
The most persuasive and revealing presentations were the personal experiences. In a survey of his high school classmates, Judge Raymond Uno provided individual memories that cemented the powerful, racist nature of this singling out, uprooting, and removal. The people he surveyed told tales of the harassment to which they had been subjected upon the outbreak of war, of the efforts to move inland which were thwarted, of FBI investigations and interrogations at 1:00 a.m., of FBI confiscations of material and burning it in their backyard, of a father losing his job the day after Pearl Harbor, of leaving pets and animals behind. They told of camp life being dull and dismal, of the lack of privacy, of their hated of open latrines and showers; they told of making friends of each other at camp and how previously most of their friends had been white. Dark moments often involved deaths, leaving the camp for an uncertain future, trudging through the snow to the restrooms, the tensions over military conscription, a mother in a wheelchair who was therefore confined to her grim dwelling, the storms of dust or snow, the huddling next to the stove, the scrabbling for coal at the pile, the people suspected of spying. One remembered how happy he (or she) was when the war was over only to be informed two days later that a brother had been killed in combat. Afterwards, one married a white man and certainly hadn’t planned on it, but her family ultimately accepted it. They told of harrowing trips back to reclaim lives and of what they found when they got there. For the Issei it seems to have wrecked their world; for young Nisei, it made them grow up quicker and gave them a broader view of the world. One told of a father who was fifty years old at the time of evacuation and who found it devastating to start all over afterwards. The experience proved difficult to deal with more in the subsequent years than at the time when they were just children and saw it as an adventure.
One afternoon buses and cars took the attendees to the site itself; there the confrontation with the past became especially difficult. The barracks and schools and other buildings are gone. The land has been cultivated and was a bright green from the crops emerging after the long winter. A small memorial has been added to the site and a chimney from the hospital stands sentinel over the location. Small groups gathered here and there, pointing in different directions, spotting landmarks and familiar contours of the land to show where they had lived, where something else had happened. Those who had lived here, whose parents had lived here and labored here, who had been born here, found in this visit an opportunity for reflection that they had long sought. Some found closure on the whole experience. To them it was an emotionally evocative and wrenching experience. They not only looked into the abyss of torment and affliction as they looked at the land stretching between the monument and the rising slopes of Heart Mountain; they looked inside themselves.
That the years had permitted a healing process to occur was clear when two speakers from outside the Japanese-American community were well received. Both were local people who had been inside the camp, one as a worker and the other as a youth visitor. Bridges had been built even at the time. Velma Kessel was a nurse in the hospital at the Heart Mountain center. In an understated presentation she modestly provided hospital statistics and related incidents of hospital activities. In the process, however, she revealed the way that a hospital mirrors the problems and fortunes of life in a community. By considering the physical exams for internees, for girl and boy scouts, the obstetrics department, the surgery facilities, the ophthalmologist, the mental ward, and the other specializations and functions of the hospital she came closer than most to offering a glimpse inside the real life of the people who lived at Heart Mountain. The hospital was austere—seventeen barracks connected by a long unheated hall—and included different clinics, a pharmacy, and a padded room in the isolation ward and mental ward for those with problems that could lead to destructive actions. Moreover, it was not only clear that she cared deeply for the people she worked with and served in this hospital, but in the question and answer session following her presentation one internee who had been a nurse’s aide for Kessel at the hospital remarked that it was the average white people like Kessel who helped them keep faith in their country.
The second white visitor to the camp who spoke at the reunion was Peter Simpson, a historian and administrator in the University of Wyoming and whose brother Alan is U.S. Senator from Wyoming. Simpson shared with the group his own recollections of growing up in Cody, a dozen or so miles from the camp. He recalled his experiences from the time that he was an eleven year old boy, when the camp was opened, in particular the memories of his trips to the camp with his Episcopal minister and his boy scout troop. As an acolyte in the church he went and was fascinated to learn that the people at Heart Mountain, whom he had feared because the barbed wire and armed guards surely indicated that they were a threat, spoke the same language as he, and were usually more familiar with the sacraments of the church than he was. As a boy scout in a trip to the center he exchanged projects with scouts there; and, paired off with scouts from the other troop, he visited the barracks of a counterpart and met the boy’s Issei grandmother, a dignified lady who spoke no English but who welcomed him into her home. These visits had the effect, Simpson noted, of dislodging his comfortable stereotyping.
The healing between whites and Japanese Americans does not guarantee a happy ending, however. There is more that that rift and reconciliation conceals. Indeed, that tension may not be the central problem after all. To lump all Japanese Americans together, whether in terms of healing or hurt, is to repeat the flawed and racist assumptions of a half century ago. They were individual people with individual outlooks and experiences. The people at Heart Mountain were not a monolith.
There were, first of all, the generational differences. The Issei, born in Japan, were virtually destroyed by the experience, sometimes literally. The Nisei, the second generation, younger, born in the U.S., proved sometimes more resilient. Parents and children found the experience different as parents bore the responsibility of the future of their children as well as their own fates; adolescents and younger children, in the way of children everywhere, sometimes saw it as an adventure. Then there were the differences in class and culture and background that would characterize the diversity of the American population in general. Despite the fact that, as one speaker—Mamoru Inouye—observed, this community had a greater ethnic purity than the towns they left and even than parts of Japan itself, the mix was not always a comfortable blend. Inouye talked about the high school at Heart Mountain and the teenagers like him who attended it. He said there were some street-smart kids from Los Angeles there, there were some bad apples there. He was a country kid from the isolation of Los Gatos and at the camp he heard for the first time in his life the F word. Class and cultural divisions within Heart Mountain ultimately proved as important as the unifying experience of oppression, confinement, and privation.
But the chief agent of division within Heart Mountain was the complex question of loyalty. Hosokawa had hinted at the division within the camp when he went on the defensive about his editorship of the Sentinel. He denied that there was substantial protest while he was at Heart Mountain, that most inmates were pre-occupied with material comforts and irritants—fuel, cold, quarrelsome neighbors. Frank Inouye, historian at the University of Hawaii, took a different position. Inouye, beset with a struggle against cancer, had prepared his paper but his son Dr. Allan Inouye, a thoracic surgeon, read it to the group. In that paper, the elder Inouye argued that although the official view of the camp was that Heart Mountain was a peaceful and calm community, beneath the calm on the surface lay an undercurrent of tension and frustration that surfaced with what might otherwise appear to be minor acts of violence and protest. A knife attack in the kitchen, a furor over the kids sledding and the heavy hand of officialdom in dealing with the issue, and the strike of internees who refused to build the barbed-wire fence, both fanned inmates’ resentments and antagonism and reflected the tensions within.
The United States Government actually brought those tensions to a heightened form. In 1943, the government circulated a questionnaire in the camp. Perhaps this was to isolate the trouble-makers so they could be sent to a special camp at Tule Lake. The questionnaires were long and tedious. But two questions in particular sparked long hours of discussion and debate in the camp. Question 27 asked the prisoners if they would serve in the armed forces of the United States. Question 28 asked if they would “swear unqualified allegiance” to the United States and “foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor”.
While the War Relocation Authority asked these questions with no sense of irony, those who were asked to respond—everybody over the age of 17—saw plenty of dangers in any answers they might give. The Issei had been denied any opportunity of citizenship in the U.S. If they answered “no” to question 28, did that mean they considered themselves subject to the emperor? If they answered “yes” and actually surrendered Japanese citizenship formally, then what country could they claim? If the Nisei answered “no” then they would clearly brand themselves as traitors, but why should they answer “yes” if they were prisoners of the country that was seeking their loyalty? On question 27, if they answered “yes,” they would be willing to serve in the armed forces, was that the same as volunteering? If they answered “no,” then, again, the consequence was fearful. And the armed service question was asked of young and old, male and female. What would be the correct response of a seventy-year old grandmother? The ambiguities and the subtleties centered on the question of loyalty. The United States had already shown no sense of loyalty to these people when it ignored their needs and crudely trampled their rights as citizens. Now it demanded unquestioning loyalty from those same people in the struggle for the four freedoms.
The response to the questionnaires was not automatic. It was, indeed, agonizing. There was much thought and discussion. And later when the government started drafting people from the relocation centers, Heart Mountain began the draft resistance movement that spread to other camps. The origins of the resistance to the draft are plain enough. They have to do with the conflict between rhetoric and reality, between rights and duties of citizenship, between the national requirement that they serve in the armed forces at the same time that the government requires that they yield their liberties as citizens, in fact, the same liberties that other citizens are free to pursue. It is the familiar story of the double bind. Heads they win, tails they lose.
People like Jack Tono traced the dissension to their upbringing. Tono’s father came of age in the Meiji period that stressed values of dignity, honor, and shame as well as compassion and mutual respect; at the same time his father was something of a disciplinarian. These values, Tono said, came into conflict with the reality he witnessed that seemed to transcend any value beyond obedience. In a short period of time Tono, born in the United States and an American citizen, saw his selective service classification shift from eligible for the draft, to enemy alien upon the outbreak of hostilities after Pearl Harbor, and then, suddenly, back to eligible for the draft. The irony may have generated cynicism as citizens watch their classification change from enemy alien to draft-eligible. At a minimum, the process held certain Kafkaesque qualities. Possibly the logic of the situation suggests more about punitive, discriminatory action than about the unconscionable assessments made of the situation by the federal authorities. At any rate, discussions in the camp began in earnest over the proper response. There could never be any unanimous decision; ultimately the burden came to bear upon those who received their induction notices. How would they respond?
Tono and some others chose to refuse induction. Others, however, volunteered for the armed service. Sam Fujishin, a decorated veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, started his talk by saying that he was reluctant to come to this reunion but finally decided that it was important that he do so because of his own perspective on the draft and armed service issue. He related his experiences from the time of Pearl Harbor, when he lived with his family in Seattle, through their dispossession and relocation and his induction, through service in Europe. What was especially revealing was the fate of his father when his son accepted the draft. His father had encouraged him to go to the meetings on resistance; at the meetings he was told that he was already in prison but he decided that reporting for induction was the right thing to do. His father did not try to influence his decision, but was proud of him. As a consequence, his family had to endure the taunts of those who disagreed. His father was unable to eat at the mess hall for a week because he was ostracized by those who felt he failed in his responsibility to keep him from going. His father, Fujishin recounted, had to endure more consequences than he did. Fujishin attributed changes in the law and the larger social acceptance of Japanese-Americans in the post war years to the Japanese American Citizens League and the successes of the 442nd. Fujishin indicated that he respects the dissenters for standing up for their beliefs, although it was not clear when he came to this conclusion or if it was one that he held at the time. Perhaps the mainstream position came when another commentator noted that both the resisters and the volunteers fought a great battle and urged healing.
The question of loyalty caused more than a little discomfort. Part of that discomfort had to do with the lack of a clear answer on the discussion of which responses to the draft produced the greater benefits for the Japanese-American community, service and sacrifice, or standing up for their rights and sacrifice. But the question went deeper than that. Yuji Ichioka discussed a little known Nisei individual named Buddy Kuzamora Uno. Uno’s story remains obscure largely because he sometimes appears to be an embarrassment to virtually all factions. Born in Oakland and covering the Pacific war in the 1930s, he became a vocal pro-Japanese advocate in the 1930s, including defending the Japanese drive into China and other expansionist activities. And he served in the imperial army of Japan during the war. Yet his example provides an insight into the larger problem of loyalty. Whatever choices the Nisei made, they were made under racist conditions. Uno’s alienation from American society is understandable and so his experience raises the fundamental question of loyalty in a racist society. What does it mean to be a “disloyal Nisei” in a society that categorically rejects the Nisei on racist grounds?
Although it is plain that healing remains to be done, between the society that imprisoned these people and those captives who remain alive, and between the separate factions of the Japanese-Americans who faced their imprisonment and required armed service with different answers, it is also plain that the larger question is the one that needs to be addressed. And it has not been addressed. Historian Roger Daniels referred to a conspiracy of silence, a reluctance of the oppressed to talk about their experience until well into the 1970s. Dr. Allan Inouye discovered only when his father wrote his autobiography that he had been involved in the draft resistance movement. Don Nakanishi learned that his parents had been sent to Tule Lake, the camp for “trouble makers,” only when his soon-to-be parents-in-law asked about their internment.
It has not been uncommon for the children of the prisoners at Heart Mountain to ask their parents, who may have been children at the time, why they let the authorities do this to them. When that happens, it sometimes seems that this episode will never end, that the anxiety will always continue in one form or another, and that, at any rate, there is no way that resolution and clarity will fever prevail. The enigmas run deep. The last direct casualty of Heart Mountain was a forty year old Issei woman who was on the last train of evacuees to leave Heart Mountain, November 10, 1945. They were now forced to leave just as they had been forced to come and their prospects were as uncertain then as they had been upon arrival. This woman suffered a complete emotional and mental breakdown as she left.
The tensions of Heart Mountain, and all that Heart Mountain represents, were, indeed, more than tensions between Japanese Americans and white Americans, as serious and tragic and fatal as those tensions have been. The fundamental tensions ultimately derive from the circumstance of modern life in which individuals stand accountable to their country—or to any outside force—and they also stand accountable to themselves. It may well be that those demands, in a free society, are simply in conflict. The irony is that that is one of the things that World War II was about. The forces of evil and darkness and tyranny were defeated in the war. The forces of freedom, however, were nonetheless also eclipsed in the effort to fight that tyranny.