Back in 2016, I had the opportunity to visit a notable World War II Japanese American confinement site in Wyoming. My visit to Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp moved me deeply and I want to share my experience here.
As I sit and type these words, it is February 19th, 2021. This day marks the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. The order was established in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces and enforced the removal of Japanese Americans on the west coast to relocation centers further inland.
An alarming rise in anti-Asian violence
Before diving in, I want to address the alarming rise in anti-Asian violence across the United States. As we continue to live with uncertainty and fear as the COVID-19 global pandemic rages on, tension, financial stress, and exhaustion are at an all-time high.
Combine this pandemic fatigue with a tumultous 2020 election season, a rise in hostility, and divisive language, and the result is that many in the United States are blaming Asian Americans.
It is essential that we speak out against racsim, bigotry, and hatred.
Knowing our history allows us to identify red flags in our present day lives and to actively stand up for those being discriminated against.
Where is Heart Mountain?
Heart Mountain is located in northwest Wyoming, about one hour from the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park, between the towns of Cody and Powell on highway 14A. Detailed directions are available on the Heart Mountain website, along with the most up to date admissions information.
Heart Mountain is a National Historic Landmark and includes a fantastic Interpretive Center filled with interactive exhibits, engaging artificats, and incredible photographs about the more than 14,000 people who were incarcerated there.
Why I Chose to Visit Heart Mountain
My husband was born in the United States and is a second generation Japanese American (Nisei). His mother and father were both born and raised in Japan and relocated to California where they raised their three children and have lived ever since.
Because my in-laws moved to the United States long after World War II, they didn’t experience Japanese internment. However, my father-in-law had relatives living in the United States during World War II and they were sent to internment camps, (also known as War Relocation Centers). We discovered that Heart Mountain was one of the internment camps.
While Heart Mountain is definitely not right around the corner from where we live in California, a few years ago we had an upcoming trip planned to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Our trip was scheduled for the fall and we realized that with some decent planning, we could incorporate a visit to Heart Mountain while on our trip.
What we saw at Heart Mountain
A few weeks before we left for our trip, I emailed the Heart Mountain Interperative Center, asking if there was any chance they’d have records of my husband’s relatives being held at Heart Mountain. I received a quick and enthusiastic response informing me that they did indeed have records and that they were looking forward to welcoming our family to Heart Mountain on our planned day of arrival.
We traveled to Heart Mountain after spending a few days in Yellowstone National Park. From Yellowstone, we drove to Cody, Wyoming, where we visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which houses five fantastic museums under one roof.
Because we were traveling in the fall, we experienced some cold weather and it started snowing our last day in Yellowstone. There was still snow on the ground when we arrived at Heart Mountain and the frigid temperature added to the desolate landscape. I found myself imagining the winters at Heart Mountain, spent in barracks without proper heating and adequate supplies.
It was both humbling and haunting.
In 2011, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center was opened. It is a beautiful museum offering an overview of the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Upon entering, we were greeted warmly by the staff, including the Executive Director, Dakota Russell, who showed us the records listing my husband’s family members. He made photocopies for us to keep as well.
After talking with the staff for awhile, we watched a short film, summarizing the history of Heart Mountain. We then took our time walking through the rest of the center and engaging with interactive displays, interesting replicas, photographs, and documents that capture the unique experiences of the people who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain.
The center does an excellent job of exploring the diverse ways that Japanese Americans responded to their imprisonment. It also explores the history of American anti-Asian prejudice that existed long before World War II and shows how this racism directly contributed to the forced relocation and confinement of Japanese Americans.
We had the grounds practically to ourselves and took ample time exploring all of the marked sites. The experience truly did allow us to experience a glimpe of what life must have been like for those incarcerated.
Now, as you’ve been reading through these descriptions, you may have found yourself trying to remember the specific details of how and why Japanese Internment camps were created. If this the case, you’re not alone! Here’s a brief history in case you need a refresher.
A Brief History of Japanese Internment in the United States
As I’ve mentioned, on February 19, 1942, in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland.
Military zones were created in states with a significant population of Japanese Americans, including California, Washington, and Oregon.
On March 24, 1942, government mandated evacuations began. Anyone who was at least 1/16th Japanese was forced to evacuate. People were only allowed to bring with them what they could carry and they had only six days to dispose of their other belongings.
Japanese Americans reported to centers near their homes. Then they were transfered to one of ten relocation centers located in remote areas.
From 1942 to 1945, the U.S. government interned people of Japanese descent in isolated camps.
Note: Reading that anyone who was 1/16th Japanese was forced to relocate reminded me that not only would my husband have been interned, but my children who are half Japanese, would have been interned as well. As a white woman, I would have had the option to relocate with them or to stay put. While at Heart Mountain, I learned for the first time about Estelle Peck Ishigo, a white woman married to a Japanese American man, who chose to relocate to Heart Mountain to avoid being separated.
What Were Japanese Internment Camps Like?
These camps (also known as relocation centers), were often housed in buildings at fairgrounds and racetracks never intended for human habitation. Several families usually shared a barrack and had communal eating areas. Food shortages and poor sanitation were common.
Each relocation center functioned as its own town, including schools, post offices, work facilities, hospitals, and farmland. The conditions were bleak, however, and were also completely surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire.
The end of Japanese Internment
In 1945 the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese Internment Camps were unconstiutional and the last camp closed in 1946.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066.
In 1988, Congress issued a formal apology and President Ronal Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which granted reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
Interested in learning more about Japanese American Internment?
Nearly five years after my family’s in-person visit to Heart Mountain, I am still so moved when I reflect on our experience. If you are ever in a position to visit, I urge you to do so. There is nothing as powerful as visiting in-person, but the Heart Mountain website contains a rich and important compilation of resources.
I’ve also compiled a list of books, documentaries, and museums that explore the history of Japanese internment below.
Books About Japanese Internment
The following blog post lists specific suggestions for books about Japanese Internment. There are recommendations for young readers, tweens, and teens. But adults will also benefit from these titles!
Documentaries about japanese internment
As of the time I am publishing this blog post, the following documentaries are available to view for FREE online. Ranging in length from about 15 minutes to just over one hour, be sure to review the content before deciding if it’s appropriate for your children. My personal recommendation is for middle school and up, but again, be sure to assess the content for yourself.
- The Legacy of Heart Mountain
- Injustice at Home: Looking Like the Enemy
- Manzanar: Never Again
- Oregon’s Japanese Americans
- From Hawaii to the Holocaust
Museums documenting Japanese internment
In addition to listing Heart Mountain, I’ve included a few Museums/National Historic Sites located in other regions of the United States.
- Heart Mountain World War II Confinement Site, Wyoming
- Japanese American Museum of San Jose, California
- Manzanar National Historic Site, California
- Topaz Museum, Utah
- The National World War II Museum, New Orleans – Japanese American Experiences in World War II
My sincere hope is that these resources inspire you to learn more about the experience of Japanese Americans who were forced to relocate to internment camps. So many critical lessons are available to us when we confront the wrongs that were committed and the grave consequences that followed.
Other resources you might be interested in
- How to Teach Your Kids About Racism
- Important Antiracism Resources for Families
- How to Raise Compassionate Kids
- A Special Holiday Celebrating Interracial Marriage
May we never forget this tragic chapter of Japanese internment in the history of the United States. Let us continue to learn from the past and forever honor those who suffered under racism and oppression.