Q: You mentioned the Heart Mountain “camp.” Didn’t that have something to do with American-Japanese citizens during World War Two?
B.R. Boston, MA
A: The Japanese internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming represents one of our nation’s most conflicted times, and one of my saddest memories.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s declaration of war against Japan, concerns arose regarding the loyalty of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.
Following President Theodore Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, notices like the one above were posted throughout America, focusing on the states of California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
One hundred twenty tousand people of Japanese ancestry were instructed to report in as little as 48 hours, bringing only what they could carry, to one of sixteen “assembly centers,” from which they were to be transported to one of ten internment camps.
One such camp was constructed in 1942 near Heart Mountain (photo) at Ralston, Wyoming, between Cody and Powell near the Montana border.
The 450 barracks that sprang up behind barbed wire became home to the 11,000 Japanese men, women and children who were watched over by armed guards..
The 740 acre complex soon became a small city, with its own public works, schools, hospital and newspaper. It also became Wyoming’s third largest town.
After the war ended in 1945, the camp was closed and the land was opened to homesteading. Internees were given $25 and released to uncertain and often very difficult lives.
More than forty years later, on December 19, 1985, a portion of the Heart Mountain Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For those of us who grew up near there, the camp represents a confusing and painful period in America’s history: while we knew that many Americans were killed fighting the Japanese in the Pacific -- we also knew that the people interned in the camp had preciously been living as peaceful and productive citizens of the United States.
A somber memorial was erected on the site. It describes the period between 1942 and 1945 when these people, two thirds of whom were U.S. Citizens, were held held like prisoners of war behind barbed wire.
Most poignant and painful of all is the 1985 plaque honoring the 750 internees who were allowed to leave this prison camp to join the American Armed Services in defense of America. Fifteen were killed in action.
While this is a memorial that should sober all Americans, it has special meaning to me. While I was growing up here after the war, my best friend was Curtis Ando.
Curtis was the son of a “camp family,” a wonderful family of hard working people who, after their release, became well known farmers on land near the camp site.
Curtis and I did everything together. We were Cub Scouts together (photo). We played and discovered and grew up in the nurturing and loving environment of Powell. It was a painful separation when my family moved to Cody, and we attended high schools twenty miles apart.
Curtis graduated valedictorian of his Powell High School class in 1963. Shortly after, he joined the Army. I joined the Navy. I came home safe. Curtis was killed in Vietnam.
I remember my friend so clearly, and those days with him so fondly. For me, the pain of his loss will never fade.
Curtis Ando was my only friend who gave his life on behalf of his country, the United States -- the country that imprisoned his family years after they arrived in America in search of freedom, opportunity and security.
When I look back on those times through much older eyes, I can’t help but feel that what happened to the American citizens held behind barbed wire twelve miles from my own childhood home tarnished the American Dream.
Now that the western world is enmeshed in war against the scourge of terrorism, I hope that our efforts can be selective and carefully considered. I shudder when I hear Americans promoting the wholesale use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in the effort to rid the world of terrorists.
We should reflect long and hard on the horrible price of overreaction. We should remember those innocent people who were considered enemies because of their heritage, people who went on to give their lives in service to America. We should remember my cherished friend Curtis Ando.
Curtis, even after all these decades I think often of our carefree and precious days of childhood innocence. I angush your loss, honor your sacrifice, and pray it was not vain.
July 11, 2005