Japanese American grocery sign

Remembering Racism and War Hysteria At Heart Mountain

Turning off the highway, we drove up and down an isolated road trying to find the Heart Mountain Interpretative Center.  The land was flat with nothing around and the sun beat down on the parched earth.  It really felt like the middle of nowhere which I can imagine was exactly how the Japanese-Americans who arrived at this detention camp in 1942 would have felt.

Heart Mountain Relocation Center
Image: Nicholas Brown

We eventually located the black barrack style building which looked like nothing special.  We had repeatedly overlooked it as we were driving.  Although intentionally bleak and uninviting from the outside, the interpretive centre on the inside was really great.

The History of Japanese Immigration to the United States

Japanese immigration to the United States began in the late 19th Century when workers were needed for the sugar cane plantations in Hawaii.  Eventually the Japanese moved onto the mainland to work on railroads, farms, oil fields and mines.  Despite heavy racism, some of them owned their own businesses or farms.

The first generation (issei) who were Japan-born had never been allowed to become citizens because under American law at the time, only people of European and African descent could become naturalised citizens.  By 1940, the nisei (second generation) of Japanese americans were integrated into American society and even had children of their own, the sansei (third generation).

 The Executive Order Forcing Japanese-American Relocations

President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942 as a result of the racism and hysteria prompted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour marking the American entry into World War II.  This law lead to the forcible internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast of the USA onto 10 camps located effectively in the middle of nowhere USA.

executive order 9066

The Japanese Americans were seen as a threat to national security because they could be conspiring with the enemy.  This sign was put on a store owned by a Japanese American born in California and educated at the University of California Berkeley.  He still felt the need to publicly state his loyalties.

Japanese American grocery sign
Sign reaffirming the owner’s loyalties

Japanese Americans were given one week to report to the collection centres which would send them onwards to the detention centres.  Their lives were uprooted and they didn’t have time to sell off their businesses or dispose of assets.  Many people left their personal possessions behind which were quickly stolen by remaining locals.

The Visitor’s Center has a movie by Academy-Award winner Steven Okazaki entitled “All We Could Carry” which is a really good introduction to the rest of the museum.  The title is a reference to what each person could bring to the centre – a suitcase.

Japanese American family with their belongings

The Heart Mountain Relocation Center

One of the relocations camp, Heart Mountain, located near Cody in Wyoming has been reopened as a museum and gallery to remember this unfortunate period in American history. Heart Mountain was open from 1942 until after the end of the war in 1945.

At its height, the camp held over 10,000 Japanese Americans making it the third largest town in Wyoming.  Approximately one-third of the occupants were Issei but the remainder were American citizens.  All were of Japanese descent except one woman who was Caucasian and refused to leave her Japanese-American husband.

Although the camp was supposed to be open-gated, the Wyoming governor warned the racism of the locals would make it dangerous for the Japanese.  The 46,000 acre camp was then surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and searchlights.

guard tower at Heart Mountain
Guard Tower remaining at the camp

Conditions at Heart Mountain were basic. People were housed in barracks and even families were housed in single rooms.

heart mountain relocation centre
Image: @AndrewGHayes

Although there was a stove in the room for heat, the Japanese-Americans who were used to a more temperate climate in California must have been frozen in the Wyoming winters.  The wind would have whipped through the buildings which were timber-framed and wrapped in black-tar paper.

recreation of a family room at heart mountain
Recreation of a family’s room

The camps had communal bathrooms. With no doors for privacy, many women felt humiliated using the toilets.

Barracks toilets
Image: Bob Perry

Meals were served in a cafeteria setting.  Children were sent to schools that were created in the camp. Even a hospital was set up in the camp to take care of the internees needs.

Family life was disrupted in a major way.  For example, Japanese families have a tradition of respecting their elders.  In the camps, however, the Issei had less rights than their American-born children because they were not American citizens.  In another example, cafeteria-style eating meant that families no longer shared meals together.

The American government extended the drafting of soldiers to the Japanese living in the camps even though their constitutional rights as Americans were being trampled. Needless to say, a group of men resisted the draft, were put on trial and imprisoned for disobedience.  They were eventually pardoned by President Truman after the war ended.  The 800 men who did join the war were part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team which became the most decorated military unit in US history.

After the war ended, the Japanese Americans were told to disperse and given $25 and a train ticket.  They had lost all of their pre-war businesses and other assets so technically they had nowhere to go.  Wyoming passed laws that prevented them from staying.  The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center also has stories from people reintegrating back into mainstream American society.

Heart Mountain Japanese Relocation Center

Information for Visiting Heart Mountain Interpretive Center:

The Heart Mountain Interpretative Center is located between the towns of Powell and Cody in Wyoming at the intersection of Highway 19a and Road 19. Look for a barn-like low building which blends into the landscape fairly close to the intersection. Adults pay an admission fee but children under the age of 12 are free.

I think perhaps my 8 year old children were a bit young to understand what happened at Heart Mountain.  Even though they knew about World War II because we had visited the D-Day beaches at Normandy, they didn’t quite grasp the horror of having someone’s life uprooted in a week.  Even though my children thought it would be cool to live in a camp with all their friends, they did think it was unfair that they would have to lose all their possessions.

The Heart Mountain Interpretative Center is a useful reminder of a bleak period in American history where American citizens were illegally detained and their civil rights trampled.

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I am an American expat based in London with my travel-loving family. I write at Just Go Places Blog about luxury, cultural and family travel.

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