Many of the 250 former Heart Mountain internees who made the trip back to Wyoming for Saturday’s museum dedication are in their 80s, and some are in their 90s, so it is likely to be their last visit back to where they were imprisoned during World War II. But it also may be their best trip back.
“It’s a revelation. It’s something like a dream come true,” said Jack Kunitomi, 95, who was imprisoned in the camp with his family, including a son who was born at Heart Mountain.
Kunitomi and several members of his extended family were among the more than 1,200 people who on Saturday celebrated the grand opening and dedication of the the $5.5 million, 11,000-square-foot museum located adjacent to the old camp site, halfway between Cody and Powell.
Nearly 14,000 Japanese-Americans were once imprisoned at the site, one of 10 such internment camps set up across the West after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Former internees and other museum backers say they hope the new facility — designed to evoke the spartan barracks from the camp — will tell the story of life behind barbed wire and remind visitors of the enduring civil rights lessons from that era.
It was barbed wire, in fact, and not a ribbon that volunteers, former internees and others ceremoniously cut Saturday to open the new museum. Barbed wire, common in livestock fences across Wyoming but used to fence in people at Heart Mountain, is included in the logo of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the nonprofit group that built the museum. Its motto, “From Our Heart,” was on raw display Saturday as emotions spilled forth with every reunion and remembrance.
Kunitomi said it was odd to see a replica guard tower standing watch over the new museum, just as it had when he was imprisoned behind barbed wire, the result of wartime hysteria and racial profiling. An executive order signed by then-President Franklin Roosevelt authorized “exclusion zones” along the West Coast, but it was Japanese, not Germans or Italians, who were relocated.
Among the family members returning to Heart Mountain with Kunitomi were his sons, Dale, who was born in the camp, and Darrell, a public affairs representative with the Los Angeles Times.
Darrell Kunitomi showed off a photo of his uncle, his mother’s brother, Ted Fujioka, who joined the U.S. Army at 19 after being locked up at Heart Mountain.
Like thousands of other men in the camps, Fujioka ended up joining the U.S. military after initial restrictions against drafting Japanese-Americans were relaxed.
“He was very patriotic and he was a leader among his classmates,” Kunitomi said of his uncle, who was killed in France during the war.
Kunitomi tells the story of how his uncle wanted to erect a flagpole to fly the American flag, but camp administrators would not allow it.
“Imagine the irony of agitating to erect an American flag inside your own prison camp,” he said.
Kunitomi said he was moved at the contrast between the Wyoming reception his father received during the war — when shops in Cody and Powell warned: “No Japs” — and now, with restaurants and hotels hanging banners welcoming returning internees and their families.
“Heart Mountain is the quintessential American story that way. Immigrants arrive and bad things happen to them, but they overcome that,” Kunitomi said. “Just a generation later, look where they all are now.”
Kunitomi’s father, Jack, served in the Army as a translator in the Pacific, and more than 800 Heart Mountain internees served in a segregated Army unit, the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The camp was also home to an organized group of “resisters of conscience” who demanded full recognition of their constitutional rights before agreeing to serve.
“They resisted the draft, and I don’t blame them,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), keynote speaker at Saturday’s dedication.
“It took a lot of guts to come out and do something that the majority did not agree with,” said Inouye, 86, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat during a 1944 assault on German fortifications in Italy.
Inouye recalled getting ready for church in Honolulu as a teenager in 1941 when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor was being attacked. He looked out the window and saw puffs of black smoke just before Japanese planes buzzed past his house.
“At that moment, I knew that my life had changed,” he said.
Life changed as well for thousands of Japanese-Americans living along the West Coast, where the military was far more circumspect of so-called “enemy aliens” than in Hawaii, which was isolated from the mainland.
Many of the former internees who returned to Heart Mountain on Saturday were young children during the war, including Kimiyo Nishimura, 80.
“I remember there were knotholes in the wood, and the walls didn’t reach the ceiling, so you could hear everything in the other rooms” Nishimura recalled of the spartan barracks. Only 11 years old when she arrived, Nishimura said adults had a tougher time dealing with their forced relocation than children.
“It was so awful, especially for the older people,” she said.
As Nishimura and her family members stood in line Saturday to enter the museum, she said there was a simple message she hoped visitors left with.
“This will never happen again,” she said.
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, 79, was about the same age as Nishimura when he was sent to Heart Mountain.
“What happened in the past remains in the past,” Mineta said, adding that the museum will serve as an important reminder that “history always has the ability to repeat itself.”
Mineta recounted a Sept. 13, 2001 cabinet meeting when he served as Transportation Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
He had grounded all commercial flights in the wake of terrorist attacks two days earlier, and told Bush that he was worried about suggestions by some that Muslims or Arabs should be banned from flying when the nation’s airports reopened.
Mineta said Bush shared his concern, and cited Mineta’s internment as an example of the wrong approach to national security.
Along with former Sen. Alan Simpson of Cody, Mineta co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the “grave injustice” of the internment camps and provided a token payment of $20,000 to former internees.
“Very few nations are strong enough to admit they’re wrong. America is strong enough, and we did so,” said Inouye, who also backed the act.
Simpson and Mineta have retold many times the story of how the two first met as young boys, when Boy Scouts from Cody and Powell joined their fellow Scouts behind barbed wire for a jamboree. They shared a tent and became fast friends, but they were hardly the only two old friends on Saturday recalling old times at Heart Mountain.
A host of reunions, banquets, and gatherings throughout the weekend brought old friends together to remember not only their time in the camps, but also the long effort to establish the nonprofit Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and build a museum worthy of the story it tells.
The ongoing cooperation of dedicated local backers and former internees was key, said Simpson. He reminded attendees at Saturday’s dedication that there had long been many in Cody and Powell who had fought against the Japanese during World War II, and thus were not keen on the idea of a museum or memorial at Heart Mountain.
For Ron Nomura, a Worland contractor born just before the war to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, Heart Mountain was a place that no one talked much about, and most in his family avoided until the recent push to build a museum there.
Because Nomura was 2 years old when the relocation order was issued, authorities allowed him to move to Thermopolis, where he lived with extended family members there who were beet farmers. His grandfather’s West Coast business, a nursery in Washington state, went bankrupt during the war and was seized because no one was able to pay property taxes while forced to live and work away from the West Coast.
“So we just ended up staying here because we had nothing to go home to after the war,” Nomura said.
But like so many on Saturday who recounted stories of tragedy and loss from the war years, Nomura has put the past behind him, and holds no bitterness for how things turned out.
“President Roosevelt did me a favor moving me here,” he said. “I’ve made a good life for myself here.”
DISCLOSURE: Ruffin Prevost’s wife was a paid vendor for Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation dinners held Friday and Saturday in Powell.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]