Daily Life at Heart Mountain

Heart Mountain internment camp covered 46,000 acres and officially lasted August 1942 to September 1945.

The first trainload of internees arrived at Heart Mountain internment camp, August 11, 1942. There were 468 “tarpaper” barracks sectioned into 20 blocks with administrative areas and living quarters. The barracks were divided into small “apartments,” the largest 24×20 feet. Each was furnished with a stove for heat, a light fixture in the center of the room, and an army cot and two blankets per person. Each block had a mess hall, a laundry area and shared toilet and shower facilities.

There were also nine guard towers with high-beam searchlights, 124 soldiers and three officers in the camp, along with 200 administrative employees.

Doctors and dentists were recruited from internees. There were both Japanese and Caucasian nurses who worked in the hospital.

A weekly newspaper began in October 1942 by a Japanese journalist.

Schools opened in October 1942, but there were few supplies and little furniture. Chalkboards were made by painting plywood black. A new high school was built and opened in May 1943, with regular classrooms, a library, auditorium-gymnasium, machine shop, wood shop and home economics room. There were also craft and hobby classes for adults — sewing, knitting, woodcarving, flower arranging, bonsai, calligraphy, haiku poetry and traditional board games.

Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs — popular before the war — were encouraged at Heart Mountain, where the natural environment lent itself to hiking and recreational camping. The Japanese troops held meetings and jamborees with scouts from Cody and Powell.

Young teenagers gathered for sports — baseball, basketball — and social gatherings, including dances. Religious organizations held activities; and after a Buddhist church was organized, kabuki theater and some annual Japanese festivals were observed.

There were many types of jobs in camp, although even skilled workers were paid a fraction of what Caucasian workers received. Internees dug a 5,000-foot canal and cleared several thousand acres of sagebrush to begin growing their own food in spring 1943. They raised peas, beans, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables never before grown in the region. They also raised their own cattle, hogs and chickens.

In addition to agricultural work, Heart Mountain had a garment factory, cabinet shop and sawmill. A silkscreen shop produced posters for the Navy and other camps.

Some internees were allowed to work in nearby towns or attend colleges in other states. In early 1945, internees were allowed to return to the West Coast; each person was given $25 and a train ticket. With little to return to, many remained at Heart Mountain until November 1945 when the last train pulled out. After that, the land and residential barracks were sold off.

Heart Mountain Interpretive Center

Today, little is left of the original camp facilities — a hospital boiler house, two hospital buildings, an administrative building, a concrete vault from the high school, a root cellar for winter food storage, and a large excavation that was once a camp swimming hole.

Through the efforts of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Heart Mountain was designated a National Historical Landmark in 2007. The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center opened in 2011. The exhibits in the Center emphasize the experience of incarceration, the diverse personal responses of Japanese Americans to their imprisonment, constitutional issues, violations of civil liberties, and broader issues of race and social justice in America. These issues are important in today’s society as we still deal with immigration, race and social justice.

The staff of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation are dedicated to preserving the site. More importantly, they are gathering the stories of the former incarcerees and preserving those stories for future generations.

Read more about their work: www.heartmountain.org

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