George Takei, the “Star Trek” actor turned social activist and Internet celebrity, paid a poignant visit this month to Wyoming’s Heart Mountain, site of a confinement center for Japanese-Americans rounded up by the United States government during World War II.
Though the site is located near Cody, just 65 miles from Yellowstone National Park, it was not unlike the internment camp in an Arkansas swamp where he and his family were forced to live for 31/2 years in the 1940s in the aftermath of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
As Takei toured Heart Mountain, boyhood memories of barbed wire, guard towers with searchlights and cramped and drafty tar-paper barracks — living conditions that he described as “unimaginable”in his Facebook Live post — came flooding back, along with the image of tears streaming down his mother’s face as gun-toting U.S. soldiers forced his family to leave their California home. The Takeis were among 120,000 persons of Japanese descent whose lives were torn apart by Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, that authorized removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.
Takei, now 79, visited the former 740-acre “relocation center” in Wyoming — one of 10 internment camps hastily built in the nation’s interior — just weeks before it was scheduled to mark the fifth anniversary in its new incarnation as Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. Now an award-winning museum and National Historic Landmark Site, its stated mission is to “remind the Nation about the importance of tolerance and the need to balance our concern for national security with a commitment to protect the basic civil rights of all of our citizens.” It’s a message that resonates in this election year.
The grounds showcase a handful of original camp structures, including the last of more than 450 shoddily-built barracks and the hospital boiler house with its landmark red chimney. There’s also a victory garden, an interpretive walking trail, and a war memorial for the 800 Heart Mountain detainees who served with the U.S. military during World War II. (Another 85 refused to obey their draft order; 63 of those were sent to federal penitentiaries as draft resisters).
Through photographs, artifacts, oral histories and interactive exhibits — and by walking the grounds as George Takei recently did —visitors get a sense of how the 14,025 Heart Mountain internees lived day-to-day at the site that was subject to frigid winter tempertures, summer dust storms and rattlesnakes. Two-thirds of the internees were American citizens, the rest were born in Japan. Forced from their homes, they arrived at the internment camp with one suitcase — or, as the title of Steven Okazaki’s film shown in the visitor center sums up, “All We Could Carry.”
Over time, the isolated, once-barren site — which grew to be Wyoming’s third largest population center — developed into a community with fire, police and judicial systems managed by the internees, a hospital, post office, power station, water delivery system, sewage treatment plant and root cellars. There were two grade schools in the barracks and a high school, and an active recreation program with sports teams, scout troops and dances. Overall, 556 babies were born and 148 people died during incarceration.
The last of the internees left the so-called “Heart Mountain Relocation Center “on Nov. 10, 1945, three months after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Internees received $25 and a one-way train ticket to anywhere in the United States to begin their new lives. Many had lost everything.
In 1988, the federal government apologized for uprooting and imprisoning Japanese Americans, calling the episode a result of wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership.
This weekend (July 29 and 30), Heart Mountain Interpretive Center’s fifth anniversary events will include special programming, dinners and a digital story-telling workshop. Among the scheduled speakers is retired U.S. congressman Norman Mineta, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Transportation and an American of Japanese descent who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain with his family as a boy.
To learn more about the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, check heartmountain.org. Find travel information for Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country at the Park County Travel Council website or call (800) 393-2639.