Lessons from Heart Mountain Internment Camp

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Japanese-American boys, Raphael Weill grammar school, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1942 just before they were sent to American imprisonment camps with their families.

UPDATE – September 2017 – Now when our nation is being torn by racial divisions and a swelling in hatred and misunderstanding, it is especially important that we remember what happened when such thinking led to the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. Because of its relevance today and the current state of affairs, we continue to provide this story on our site.

Hot Springs Co. High School student Lyle Veronica Rabarra interviewed Sam Mihara Oct. 8, 2015, about the Heart Mountain internment. You can read her story, printed in The Predator student online news here. If the link does not work, click here.

UPDATE – Sam Mihara, former rocket scientist and college lecturer, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Hot Springs County Museum on Sep. 22, 2015. There are links to other stories on our website plus references and links to other sites of importance, including the Heart Mountain Museum and Historic Site.

Memories of Heart Mountain (Wyoming) Internment Camp

Sam Mihara Image, July 2015, SMSam Mihara, former rocket scientist and college lecturer, spoke in Thermopolis, WY, September 22, 2015, about his life in Heart Mountain Internment Camp during World War II.

What if your family was living a busy and involved life, as respected members of the community, businessmen, civic leaders, homeowners, children in schools.

Then suddenly, overnight, everything is turned upside down. You are given a few days to pack what can be carried in a suitcase, rounded up by military guards, and removed from your home to a remote area where you must make a new life while inside barbed wire fences, guards in towers watching 24 hours a day.

It happened to Sam Mihara in 1942, then a nine-year-old boy living in San Francisco.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes had attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a declaration of war against Japan.

On February 19, 1942,  President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to remove people of Japanese heritage from the West Coast. The U.S. government feared that Japanese in America would act as spies or terrorists, either from a sense of loyalty or threats. The solution was to remove any possibility of such activity. Thus, all Japanese — whether immigrants or U.S. citizens — were rounded up and sent to remote camps.

The Mihara family would spend the next three years at Heart Mountain internment camp, in a desolate area of northern Wyoming. They were joined by others from California, Washington and Oregon. The camp population grew to 10,767, making it Wyoming’s third largest community at the time. By the time the camp closed, nearly 15,000 had been confined at Heart Mountain. Half were U.S. citizens.

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Sam Mihara's family in California before internment.
Japanese-American boys, Raphael Weill grammar school, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1942 just before they were sent to American imprisonment camps with their families.
Japanese-American girls in grade school just before being sent to the internment camps.
Heart Mountain internment camp in a remote and desolate area of northern Wyoming.
Japanese-Americans ready to board train for Heart Mountain internment camp, heavily guarded by military soldiers.

After the Camp

When World War II was over and the incarcerees were released from the camps, the Japanese families found little of their former lives or possessions left, despite the government promises. It took real determination to start over again.

Mihara would go on to become an engineer, a rocket scientist with Boeing, and a college lecturer. Today he serves on the board of directors of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, dedicated to preserving the history of the camps and the questions the relocation presents for our society. He is one of the few survivors of Heart Mountain who speak publicly about what it was like to become a second-class citizen and what that really means. Mihara talks of the removal from California and the daily life in the camps.

And he poses important questions for today: Could mass imprisonment happen again to others? And how do today’s headlines on immigration and citizenship play a part in influencing attitudes and laws?

Public Program…

The program was sponsored by Hot Springs Greater Learning Foundation with grant support from the Wyoming Humanities Council. The program includes photos and audiovisuals from Mihara’s family collection and from others he has gathered. If you missed the talk you can find information on our site:

  • What was daily life like in Heart Mountain Camp? Click here.
  • Is there justice? To read about the 63 resisters and how two Boy Scouts who met at Heart Mountain made a difference in U.S. law and justice, click here.
  • An interview with Sam Mihara – Hot Springs Co. High School student Lyle Veronica Rabarra:  here or here.
  • Take a tour of today’s Heart Mountain Interpretation Centerclick here for slideshow.
  • Suggested Reading
    • Grades K-3: The Bracelet, Yoshiko Uchida
    • Grades 3-5: A Boy of Heart Mountain, Barbara Bazaldua
    • Grades 9-12: Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki
    • Adult: Heart Mountain: Life in Wyoming’s Concentration Camp, Mike Mackey

Special thanks to Wyoming Humanities Council for their support of this program.

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