Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming

The single internment camp in Wyoming existed in the shadow of distinctive, limestone-capped Heart Mountain. Amidst the treeless, desolate region in Northern Wyoming, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans lived from August 12, 1942 to November 10, 1943. Heart Mountain had one of the harshest living environments of all the camps, especially for those who had come from the California coastal areas.

When plans were being made to build the camp, local government officials were adamant that they did not want the Japanese in their communities. The site for the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, halfway between the towns of Powell and Cody, was chosen for several reasons: because of its proximity to the Shoshone River, for its water supply, and the Vocation Railroad, which would provide the necessary transportation for tens of thousands of internees. But most important, the campís location was far enough from the two towns to satisfy those who insisted on keeping the internees out.

Ultimately, many of the local residents were not opposed to allowing the internees into their towns, particularly to shop and use the services. Although the issue was bitterly debated among the residents, the governor of Wyoming and the WRA, some saw it as a potential means to help alleviate the stateís depressed economic situation.

By June 1942, construction of Heart Mountain was underway. Two thousand workers were needed to build the camp over the next sixty days, and the low unemployment rate was turned around within a matter of weeks. The first trainload of internees arrived on August 11, 1942. Describing it as "bleak, scrubby, lonely, dusty and a plain of sagebrush with not a tree in sight," many despaired when they saw the landscape before them.

The camp comprised 468 barrack-style buildings sectioned into 20 blocks that served as administration areas and living quarters for the internees. The tarpaper barracks were divided into apartments, some single rooms and others slightly larger to accommodate families of up to six. Each unit was furnished only with a stove for heat, a light fixture in the center of the room and an army cot and two blankets for each person. Each block had a mess hall, toilet and shower facilities and a laundry area. But the buildings were unfinished by the time the internees arrived in August. The green lumber used for the hastily constructed barracks shrank and left gaps between the boards. Windows often would not open or close properly, and the tarpaper was no shield from the severe dust storms and other elements.

By October 1942, about 10,000 internees were living at the camp, and the population peaked at 10,767 in January 1943. There were 200 administrative employees, 124 soldiers, and 3 officers. Military police were stationed in 9 guard towers, equipped with high-beam searchlights. Barbed-wire fencing surrounded the camp.

Once the initial food shortages and housing problems were alleviated, the internees attempted to get on with their lives. The self-contained camp had its own water system, hospital, post office, court system, fire department, and even a miniature zoo that had rattlesnakes, rabbits, kangaroo rats, bats and other native creatures. Heart Mountain also ran a garment factory, a cabinet shop and a sawmill. The campís silk screen shop produced posters for the Navy and the other camps.

The weekly newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, was first published in October 1942 and distributed every Saturday to 6,000 households. The camp was self-governed by Block Chairmen and Block Managers, and although they had little real power, they were instrumental in facilitating camp operations and policies.

In the spring of 1943, the campís agricultural efforts got underway. The internees had to first complete the Shoshone Irrigation Project, which included a 5,000-foot canal. They then cleared several thousand acres of sagebrush to make way for peas, beans, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, and other fruits and vegetables. Despite the local farmersí doubts that it could be done so late in the year, the autumn harvest yielded 1,065 tons of produce. The following year, 2,500 tons was harvested. Milk was supplied through a creamery in Powell, but the camp raised cattle, hogs and chickens for its own consumption. Heart Mountain had one of the most successful agriculture programs of all the camps, introducing new crops that had never before been grown in the region.

The internees worked at various jobs within the camp, but the WRA decided that the Japanese could not be paid more than a private could in the army, whose salary was $21 a month. Most jobs paid between $12 and $19 per month. In November 1942, Japanese-American hospital workers walked out because of pay discrimination. Internee doctors were paid $19 per month, while Caucasian nurses working at the campís hospital were paid $150 per month. Likewise, Japanese-American teachers were paid $228 a year although Caucasian instructors earned $2,000 per year and senior teachers were paid $2,600 annually.

Some internees sought work outside the camp, where they could earn fairer wages. But once again, caught in a bureaucratic snarl, the internees had to wait until government officials could settle their differences regarding policy. Wyoming and other western states had a severe labor shortage at the time, and farmers were willing to pay standard wages for harvesting. But Wyoming Governor Nels Smith insisted that the state should have control of the workers, and the WRA refused to grant it. Local farmers protested Smithís decision, pointing to the economic disaster that would take place if their crops rotted in the fields. The governor reversed his decision, and internees were finally allowed to work.

The children at Heart Mountain started school on October 5, 1942, using barracks as classrooms. Learning was a challenge because there were a limited number of books, and students had to check one out if they had homework. Supplies and classroom furniture were also hard to come by, and the chalkboard was a piece of plywood painted black. By the following year, the elementary school was reorganized and construction of the new high school was completed on May 27, 1943. It had regular classrooms, a library, a large home economics room, a machine shop and a wood shop. It also had an auditorium/gymnasium, which seated 700 for basketball games and 1,100 for stage productions. The boysí and girlsí athletic teams began competing with other local high schools, and the football team, the Heart Mountain Eagles, suffered only one defeat in two years.

Cultural and religious activities were also part of the campís lifeblood but the administration was not always amenable to the more traditional cultural practices. Adults could take part in standard crafts and hobbies, such as sewing, knitting, woodcarving, flower arranging, bonsai, calligraphy, haiku poetry and the games of goh and shogi. But the administrators discouraged group events such as kabuki theater and bon odori (the annual festival for the dead). The camp had only a Catholic Church and Community Christian Church, which were attended by all denominations. But two-thirds of those who attended church at Heart Mountain were Buddhist, and the administration would not let them start their own church.

A regular pastime for the internees was to see movies at one of the two movie theaters in the camp, the Dawn and the Pagoda, which charged a dime for adults and a nickel for children. In the summer, softball and baseball were among the most popular activities. A giant pit near the irrigation canal became the camp swimming pool and a favorite hangout. During the winter, the most popular outdoor activity was ice-skating, and many internees became excellent skaters. Judo, boxing, basketball, volleyball, badminton and weight lifting were among indoor sports that helped pass the bitterly cold months.

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts at Heart Mountain swam, hiked and camped on the banks of the Shoshone River and around Heart Mountain. They took great pride in their scouting accomplishments and also had a Drum and Bugle Corps and a drill team for girls. They held meetings and jamborees with scouts from nearby Powell and Cody. The administration even arranged for 500 boys and girls to spend a week camping and hiking in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1944.

As restrictions on the Japanese eased over the next couple of years, the internees were given the opportunity to move from the camp to work or go to college in the Midwest or the East. Internees at all the camps were given a loyalty questionnaire, which supposedly determined who was loyal or disloyal to the United States. At Heart Mountain, 95.9 percent of the population answered the questionnaire positively. But for those wishing to leave, an inordinate amount of paperwork and approvals were required and many ended up staying in the camp until it closed.

The other opportunity that arose for the Nisei to leave camp was to volunteer for the armed services. But the unit with which they would serve Ė the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Ė was segregated, and few volunteers initially stepped forward. The War Department decided to draft men directly from the camps, and Heart Mountain had the only organized resistance to the military draft. This action led to the largest mass trial in Wyoming history: In July 1944, 63 men were convicted and sentenced to 3 years in federal penitentiaries in Kansas and Washington.

More than 900 men and women from Heart Mountain, however, did serve in both the Pacific and European theaters. Of those, 20 were killed in action. The heroism of the soldiers from Heart Mountain contributed to the 442ndís reputation as the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. Army.

In December 1944, the war emergency ended and internees were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in early 1945. Each person was given $25 and a train ticket. But only 2,000 people had left Heart Mountain by June 1945. Their reluctance to return to their original homes in California and Washington was based on fears of racism they would face on the outside as well as the struggle of starting their lives over. Although many had little to go home to, the state tried to discourage Japanese-Americans from remaining in Wyoming and had earlier passed laws that prevented them from owning land and voting. Nevertheless, the last trainload of internees left Heart Mountain on November 10, 1945.

After World War II, most of the relocation center land was sold to former servicemen and hopeful farmers, many of whom benefited from the labor carried out by the internees. The residential barracks were sold or demolished and materials salvaged.

The site is on the National Register of Historic Places. A memorial at the Heart Mountain Memorial Park honors the more than 900 men from the camp who fought in the U.S. Army. The park also includes plaques showing a detailed view and a pictorial view of the former internment camp. Fifteen miles north of Cody, another historical monument was placed by the American Legion.

Americans of Japanese Ancestry Who Died in World War II
(Enlisted from Heart Mountain)

 

Unit

First Name

Last Name

Rank

Hometown

Date Died

Battles

Grave

4.442-Can

Yoshiharu

AOYAMA

Cpl

Los Angeles, CA

07-Jul-44

Rome-Arno

Evergreen, LA

4.442-AT

Ted T.

FUJIOKA

Pfc

Los Angeles, CA

06-Nov-44

Vosges Mtn -St. Die

Epinal, France

2.442-E

Stanley K.

HAYAMI

Pvt

San Gabriel, CA

23-Apr-45

Po Valley Campaign

3.442-K

Joe J.

HAYASHI

Pfc

Pasadena, CA

22-Apr-45

Po Valley Campaign

Evergreen, LA

3.442-K

John S.

KANAZAWA

Sgt

Seattle, WA

07-Nov-44

Vosges Mtn -St. Die

Evergreen, LA

3.442-L

Yasuo

KENMOTSU

Cpl

El Monte, CA

28-Oct-44

Lost Battalion Rescue

Evergreen, LA

1.100-C

George M.

MAYEDA

Sgt

Kelso, WA

15-Oct-44

Battle of Bruyeres

Seattle, WA

3.442-L

Jim

NAGATA

Pvt

San Jose, CA

17-Apr-45

Po Valley Campaign

Golden Gate

1.100-C

William H.

TAKETA

Pfc

Kent, WA

28-Apr-45

Po Valley Campaign

US

2.442-G

Kei

TANAHASHI

2ndLt

Los Angeles, CA

04-Jul-44

Rome-Arno

3.442-K

Fred M.

YAMAMOTO

Pfc

Palo Alto, CA

28-Oct-44

Lost Battalion Rescue

Golden Gate

4.442-Can

Hitoshi

YONEMURA

2ndLt

Los Angeles, CA

21-Apr-45

Po Valley Campaign

Golden Gate

 

References

Paul Gullixson. "Return to Heart Mountain," Santa Rosa Press Democrat (California), 1992. Reprinted at http://www.enigmaterial.com/heartmt/return.html

Mackey, Mike. "A Brief History of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center and the Japanese American Experience," Heart Mountain Digital Preservation Project. Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming. (A Civil Liberties Public Education Fund project.) http://chem.nwc.cc.wy.us/HMDP/history.htm

Douglas W. Nelson. Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp. Madison, Wisconsin: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976.

Niiya, Brian. Japanese American History: An A to Z Reference, 1868 to the Present. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Reprinted with permission from "Echoes of Silence:  The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII" with thanks to the AJA WWII Memorial Alliance educational project who produced the CD.