Friday, September 6, 2013

Heart Mountain

Written by Karen.
"But, I'm an American citizen....how could this happen?"  We had just walked into the interpretive center of Heart Mountain, just outside of Cody, Wyoming.  The recorded voices and life-sized pictures of men, women and children of Japanese ancestry greeted us at the front door, and the sharp gut kicks that resulted as we wandered throughout the interactive exhibits came hard and often.  

I knew just the bare historical facts about the round up of persons that were of Japanese ancestry and living on the Pacific Coast during WWII before we visited Heart Mountain.  But, despite my lack of historical knowledge about the Japanese-American internment on American soil, I wanted to stop and visit, even if it meant that we would have to backtrack a bit.

Here's the background: On February 19, 1942, some six weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the forced removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the west coast. Even more staggering, this sweeping executive order included Japanese-American citizens.  

By August of 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) had quickly erected 10 camps, also called Relocation Centers - complete with towers around the periphery secured by guards with guns and barbed wire - in remote areas of our country.

One of these camps was Heart Mountain.  During the time this camp was in use, there were more than 10,700 men, women and children all living here at Heart Mountain behind barbed wire simply and only because they were of Japanese ancestry. 

It is hard to bear witness to this museum. It is a series of poignant pictures, movies, interactive exhibits, oral histories, personal belongings, life-sized re-creations, and documents that provide a small glimpse into the lives of affected Japanese-Americans during the 1940's, and how this experience completely altered the course of their lives - financially, familial, personal - after they were released in 1945. 

We leave the interpretive center and climb the hill to see the remnants of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center: the foundations, the buildings that are barely standing, the swimming hole, the vegetable gardens, the guard watch tower, so much still remains.  We are told that the former Heart Mountain Relocation Center has the highest level of historical integrity out of the 10 internment camps.  

I stare at the large American flag that flaps in the wind at the top of the hill, and wonder at the reservoirs of strength that the human spirit can muster under adversity.  The wind whips the grasses around so they are in constant motion.  This place is still desolate.  I can see for miles.  It is getting cold.  I shiver, but I'm not ready to leave just yet. 

I consider the incongruity of the overlapping historical markers that surround me: the American flag, the barbed wire, the watchtower, the armed guards, the hastily built and flimsy wooden shacks that became cramped homes, the lasting memories, and the incredible personal losses.  

As I stand on the hill overlooking the Heart Mountain camp, with the oral histories given by survivors of this internment camp still ringing in my ears and historical pictures of camp life superimposed over the desolation in front of me, I begin to feel a creeping sense of gratitude that historical exhibits - like this - can be witnessed so many years later. That the images, documents and memories of those who lost so much haven't been bulldozed over, or re-written, or just forgotten.  That I - some 70 years later - can feel sorrow and anger over the consequences of actions made before my time.  

I look over the waving grasses whipping around in circles and watch the ominous gray clouds gather together for extra strength and know that I will remember: the anger, the sadness, the despair, the disbelief, the strength, the perseverance, and the hope shown by those who walked in - and out - of these gates.   

The posting of information from Executive Order 9066
An exhibit that showed the luggage allowed for a family and the size of home at Heart Mountain. The rest of their belongings, including homes, businesses, and cars were left behind and mostly lost.

Examples of toys, art, books and dolls made at Heart Mountain during the internment
The military draft was still in effect at Heart Mountain
Layout of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp
Remaining security watch guard tower
Remaining buildings

Views of where a majority of the daily life activities at the internment camp occurred.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very moving blog entry. Steve S

Observers of Life said...

Thanks Steve!