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Japanese-American Internment Camp Site Reopens as Museum

  • Irina Zhorov

Most of the artifacts at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center were donated by former internees.

Most of the artifacts at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center were donated by former internees.

Wyoming's Heart Mountain once housed 14,000 detainees

The site of a Japanese internment camp during World War II has been transformed into the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center in Wyoming. The grand opening is this weekend.

During World World II, as the United States battled Japan and the other Axis powers, 14,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated at a remote camp. Ex-internees, their descendants and local residents worked together to develop a place that would tell the stories of the forced relocation and teach its visitors lessons for the future.

Back in time

The road to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, is lined with golden fields of hay in late summer. The landscape is mostly empty until a tall smokestack appears on the horizon, growing into a vertical dark line above the fields. It’s all that remains of the hospital at Heart Mountain Internment Camp. Then Heart Mountain itself looms in the distance.

Replicas of barracks have been erected where the original camp stood. They house the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center. Walking into the newly opened museum is to travel back in time, surrounded by the faces and voices of those who were held here against their will.

Steve Leger, executive director of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, stands in a replica of a lived-in barracks room.

Steve Leger, executive director of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, stands in a replica of a lived-in barracks room.

Steve Leger, the center’s executive director, leads the way past an exhibit showing the internment orders that were posted in Western cities.

In the hysteria that followed Japan’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-American families across the West were ordered to pack what they could carry and get on trains headed to isolated camps like the one at Heart Mountain.

At the time, the camp was the third largest town in Wyoming.

Exhibits follow the timeline, from normal life on the West Coast to sudden deportation. The history is written as first-person accounts with recorded testimony by ex-internees.

Acknowleding internees' plight

Ten Japanese internment camps were set up during the war. Only two have established centers to acknowledge and pay tribute to what internees went through. The museum at Manzanar, in California, is run by the federal government.

Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, stands next to a life-size photo of her parents taken in the camp.

Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, stands next to a life-size photo of her parents taken in the camp.

Heart Mountain was set up by a private non-profit organization. Shirley Ann Higuchi, whose parents were interned here as children, is the chairman of the mostly Japanese-American board responsible for running the center.

She learned only recently about the importance of Heart Mountain to her parents, who were second-generation Japanese-Americans, or Nisei.

"When this experience occurred, the Nisei, being the quiet American and not talking much about this, their philosophy was to always look ahead, to endure, to keep on pushing forward and don’t look back," says Higuchi. "I think part of what occurred during that process was they really didn’t have the time to really process this and grieve and get angry."

This learning center, she says, is one way to help the Japanese-American community do that and heal.

Time for reflection

Board member Doug Nelson says that the issues addressed by the center are relevant today, as the nation confronts a different enemy.

"Throughout American history, but you don’t have to think too much beyond today, the effort to balance our national security with our protection of people’s individual civil rights has always been in time of war or national anxiety, has always been a difficult balancing act."

In that respect, Nelson hopes the center will provide the opportunity for education, as well as reflection.

A replica of one of the camp’s watch towers in the exact place where it once stood. The smoke stack of the hospital is in the background.

A replica of one of the camp’s watch towers in the exact place where it once stood. The smoke stack of the hospital is in the background.

He notes that during the war, some of the camp’s neighbors accepted the argument that Japanese-Americans were a threat to the United States. Others rejected that idea, and sympathized with and befriended internees. In fact, it was local residents who wanted to establish the center and got former internees involved.

In addition to their memories, those who spent time here contributed artifacts and photographs.

Higuchi walks from a life-size image of her parents as adolescents at the camp to a more recent photo taken at an annual reunion. Several generations of internees and their families smile as they stand atop Heart Mountain.

Higuchi reads a quote from an elderly man who returned for the reunion. "I return to Heart Mountain to grieve, for all that was taken from us, our homes our lives, our voices. I return to Heart Mountain to celebrate the strong spirit that helped us survive, the traditions we kept and treasured and the bravery, creativity and courage of people who faced prejudice and hardship with dignity and determination. I return to Heart Mountain to remember."

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