Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Heart Mountain Internment Camp

I stood by the remaining guard tower that watches over the dry, windy landscape in Wyoming. This was the site of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II. Ten thousand Americans lived here in 650 barracks. Little remains of the camp now, one of ten such camps where fear triumphed over humanity. In the distance was Heart Mountain, named by the Crow people because it reminded them of the noble heart of a bison.

The camps were set up in isolated and harsh regions of the country. Barracks were hastily assembled out of green wood and tarpaper. Not insulated, as the wood dried, gaps formed between the boards and dust constantly drifted in. In winter, when temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero, the inmates had to stuff newspapers and remnants of cloth into the cracks to block the cold.

Provided only with cots, they made what furniture they could out of scrap lumber. Because rations were meager, they were forced to irrigate the land and grow their own food in order to survive.

Their crime? Being of Japanese ancestry. Without a trial or due process, they were pulled out of their homes on the West Coast and locked up. Then, in an act of chutzpah, the government still thought it was okay to draft the camp’s young men into the military. In an act of patriotism, over 800 men from Heart Mountain were willing to fight for America during the war.

Although called relocation centers, they were internment camps with armed military guards in the towers, barbed wire, and held over 120,000 people. You may not know of the Heart Mountain camp, but you have probably heard of Manzanar, the internment camp in California, because of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s book, Farewell to Manzanar, and Ansel Adams’ black and white photographs. You may know of  the Topaz the internment camp in Utah because of Chiura Obata’s moving book of watercolor paintings, Topaz Moon.

President Roosevelt, Congress, the military, even the Supreme Court said it was right to lock up Japanese Americans. But it was an immoral decision, and later they would confess that they were wrong.

When World War II ended, the United States gave $13 billion to rebuild Germany and Europe, and provided money to rebuild Japan. After being held captive for three years, each Heart Mountain internee was given $25 and a train ticket. Most no longer had homes to return to, and their businesses had been looted and destroyed. Everyone had to start over, and some people were not able to.

It would take the government more than 40 years to say it was sorry and pay partial reparations to our own people that we forced into internment camps. The bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, was co-sponsored by congressmen Alan Simpson and Norman Mineta, who met each other as young Boy Scouts at the Heart Mountain camp.

The American system of justice failed its own citizens because of “wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and the failure of political leadership.” Have we learned anything?


  1. Such an important lesson to remember. Unfortunately, we don't learn our own history in school so we can face what we've done to Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese, and more. So we don't learn much from our mistakes. I'm so glad you wrote this. Thank you.

    1. You're welcome, Elaine. We need to be reminded of such things. Perhaps we can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.