Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Behind the Wire

Reconstructed Guard Tower
August 2011

Saturday the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center between Cody and Powell, Wyoming was dedicated. Nearly 1,200 individuals attended, including internees and their families, from across the United States. It was a day of recognition and a day of healing.

Heart Mountain was one of ten camps created after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Over 110,000 Japanese American citizens living on the Pacific Coast were ordered to relocate with as little as three days notice, taking only personal items that they could carry.

Keynote speaker at the dedication was Sen. Daniel Inouye, president pro tem of the U.S. Senate. I was impressed with this humble and amazing man and the message he presented on this historic day.

Inouye spearheaded an effort that eventually led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act which included to a formal apology and payment to internees. "Few governments are strong enough to admit when they are wrong," he said. "America is strong enough, and we did so. But it could happen again, and it's important to keep going so it won't happen again."

Seated behind Inouye in the photo is Sec. Norman Mineta a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Commerce and Transportation secretary for two presidential administrations. On Mineta's left is Alan Simpson former Wyoming U.S. Senator who grew up in Cody. Mineta and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain camp: he and Simpson became lifelong friends after the two met at a Boy Scouts Jamboree at the camp.

Addressing the crowd about the new interpretative center, Mineta stated, "It's not about the past. It's about the future because history always has the ability to repeat itself. What we are doing here is drawing a line in the sand to say, 'Never again.'"

Above the new interpretative center, the ridge once covered with barracks has reverted back to sage brush, leaving little evidence of the massive camp compound that housed over 10,000 people from 1942 - 1945.

Yet, in one area of the ridge a paved footpath with scattered kiosks provides information about the camp. The Wall of Honor lists the names of hundreds of Japanese Americans who, though imprisoned at Heart Mountain, enlisted in the military. The Wall stands proud under the flag which those young men fought and died to defend while their families were detained behind barbed wire. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is.

On Saturday, it was interesting to hear the conversations of others as they stopped to read the informational plaques. Internees would present a detail that was not mentioned on the plaque or expand on those what were, creating an image with their words, their hands, and their memories.

At one sign along the path, this gentleman from Billings, Montana explained that he helped build the camp. (Only a few original buildings are still on the site: the hospital complex can be seen in the distance.)

Construction began on June 15, 1942 with a crew of 2,000 laborers. A 20 x 120 foot barracks with 6 rooms was constructed in 58 minutes. The first internees arrived August 11, 1942 and others soon followed. The Heart Mountain camp covered 740 acres; however, the living center was one mile square and guarded by 156 armed MPs, nine guard towers with search lights and a barbed-wire fence. According to the National Park Service, the relocation camp reserve encompassed 46,000 acres.

The Heart Mountain Foundation obtained 50 acres of the original camp site for the memorial and the Interpretative Learning Center. The remaining acres belong to the government or to private individuals. Much of the property surrounding the Foundation land is being farmed.

The land where the camp was located has healed; hopefully, the ancestors of those who lived here, behind the wire, can also be healed.


  1. We can learn a lot from the past.

  2. I am so glad they finally got it done. I used to drive by when I went to Powell and think it was so necessary. BTW the little cemetery on FE Warren in Cheyenne also has some German and Italian POWs buried there from WWII.

  3. Beautiful country, but sobering history lesson there. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  4. After the War, it took years before people really found out about these camps. I remember my cousin trying to find out info 45 years ago, in order to write a college paper on the subject. She was searching and searching for facts.


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