I stood by the remaining guard tower that watches over the dry, windy landscape in Wyoming. This was the site of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II. Ten thousand Americans lived here in 650 barracks. Little remains of the camp now, one of ten such camps where fear triumphed over humanity. In the distance was Heart Mountain, named by the Crow people because it reminded them of the noble heart of a bison.
The camps were set up in isolated and harsh regions of the country. Barracks were hastily assembled out of green wood and tarpaper. Not insulated, as the wood dried, gaps formed between the boards and dust constantly drifted in. In winter, when temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero, the inmates had to stuff newspapers and remnants of cloth into the cracks to block the cold.
Provided only with a cot, they made what furniture they could out of scrap lumber. Because rations were meager, they were forced to irrigate the land and grow their own food in order to survive.
Their crime? Being of Japanese ancestry. Without a trial or due process, they were pulled out of their homes on the West Coast and locked up. Then, in an act of chutzpah, the government still thought it was okay to draft the camp’s young men into the military, and over 800 men from Heart Mountain willing fought during the war.
Although called relocations centers, they were internment camps with armed military guards in the towers, barbed wire, and they held over 120,000 people. You may not know of the Heart Mountain camp, but you have probably heard of Manzanar, the internment camp in California, because of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s book, Farewell to Manzanar and Ansel Adams’ photographs; and Topaz, the internment camp in Utah, because of Chiura Obata’s moving book of watercolor paintings, Topaz Moon.
President Roosevelt, Congress, the military, even the Supreme Court said it was right to lock up Japanese Americans. But it was wrong and immoral. Later they would confess that they messed up.
When World War II ended, the United States gave $13 billion to rebuild Germany and Europe, and provided money to rebuild Japan. After being held for three years, each Heart Mountain internee was given $25 and a train ticket. No longer having homes to return to, with businesses that had been looted, everyone had to start over, and some were not able to.
It would take us more than 40 years to say we were sorry and pay partial reparations to our own people that we forced into internment camps. It was a necessary and moral step. The bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, was co-sponsored by congressmen Alan Simpson and Norman Mineta, who met each other as young Boy Scouts at the Heart Mountain camp.
The American system of justice failed its own citizens because of “wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and the failure of political leadership.”