The geological formation of Heart Mountain is part of the Absaroka Range and a uniquely shaped rugged crest in northern Wyoming.
Located near Cody and Powell it’s due east of Yellowstone Park. In early to mid-summer, luscious green fields and hazel rolling hills lead up to it. You can see the rise of Heart Mountain above the other ridges whether you’re driving on Route 72 from Red Lodge, Montana or on Route 14 between the two Wyoming towns. You can hike and camp nearby, enjoying the great outdoors.
The Japanese Americans who came to Heart Mountain because of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 weren’t there for the pleasure of being outdoors.
At its peak, the Heart Mountain internment camp held 10,000 people. Think of the scope of that in comparison with the community you live in, where you grew up, or the high school/college you attended. That size meant that it was the third largest city in the state of Wyoming and didn’t close until two months after the end of World War II.
In all, 120,000 Japanese Americans were detained in camps scattered across the USA. The 1940 census showed that 127,000 persons of Japanese heritage lived in the USA. That only 7,000 people avoided being incarcerated is something to ponder.
Buildings of the Center
Scope of the camp
When I was a child and first learned about the camps, I remember being shocked and appalled that our government would do such a thing to our own citizens. It went against everything that I knew about our country at that time. As always, I turned to my parents (too young for WWII) and dad’s parents (my grandmother’s brother died as a result of injuries at Normandy) for information.
They explained that this retaliation was in the context of the attack on Pearl Harbor and a gut reaction to hold what the Japanese government did against every person of that heritage residing in the USA.
We were struck by the disparity of a particular exhibit, “Incarceration in Focus, A Comparative Look at the Photographs of Ansel Adams and Yoshio Okumoto.” Adams, hired by the government to document life at the camp, shows life with a party atmosphere of smiling people, games, adequate housing and food.
Review those by Okumoto and you get a clearer idea of what this concentration camp, as they were called at the time, was really like.
The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center is part of the National Historic Landmarks Program and included in the National Park Service and is extremely well done.
There are rooms setup to typify the dwellings of families or barracks for groups of single adults. My college dorm room may have been larger than some. Several original camp buildings are onsite and as you view them, keep in mind that these were mostly tar paper shacks in Wyoming where winters are anything but gentle.
It’s touching to read about how life went on for these people. There were marriages, births, deaths, celebrations, organizations, a weekly newspaper. They made something from their situation, not knowing when it might end or what, if anything, they would find of their homes and former lives when it was over.
Like the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, won many decorations in the war. Learning about what they did despite the restricting circumstances is remarkable. For additional facts about the all Japanese-heritage (Nisei, meaning American born Japanese) serviceman, please see their website.
Their’s is a remarkable story of patriotism and heroism despite prejudice.
There’s a wealth of reading on the website under “Life in Camp.”
An article’s title is eye-catching, “My Only Crime is My Face,” written by Mary Oyama. Even without reading the well-written content, isn’t that headline enough to make anyone rethink their prejudices? It’s startling to read her sentence, “The Powell Tribune, which had first reported in a surprised tone that the new farm helpers ‘talked good English,’…” Had no one explained that these were American citizens being detained?
Another poignant sentence reads, “I couldn’t help but reflect that the only true democracy there is is the democracy of childhood—before a child’s mind is contaminated by the prejudices of adults.”
There are additional articles in the Berkley link.
With our social media-drenched world of today, it’s hard to think of a time when TVs in every home were rarities. The news reached people via radios, newspapers and word of mouth.
In that vein, there are two videos well worth watching:
Please look at the Tom Brokaw video filmed when he was on hand for the 75th anniversary August 2017.
An enduring and celebratory friendship still exists between Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson. Simpson belonged to the Boy Scouts in Cody who went to meet with the Boy Scout troop at the camp. Decades later, with both men serving in the US House of Representatives, they co-sponsored The Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Heart Mountain is both a lovely piece of landscape and a heart-wrenching bit of American history that can teach many generations about keeping an open heart.
Location: address is Powell, Wyoming, it equal distance between Cody (with an airport) and Powell.
There are seasonal hours, so check the website before going.
Admission: $7 adults, $5 for students and seniors
Length: Allow at least two hours including the 15 minute film and the outside walking tour.