Friday, June 7, 2013

Heart Mountain, Part One

First let me say that I was not incarcerated in Heart Mountain Internment Camp, my father was, and he didn't speak much of his time there. In fact, I can't say he talked much about his life before he went there, or after he left. This was common amongst most who were incarcerated in a Camp.

I also don't want to make it sound worse than or equal to the Death Camps of the Nazis, or even the POW Camps that Japan had. I am just writing about what I understand happened to some American citizens after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Some prior history. Some farmers on the West Coast were being out-done by their Japanese counterparts. Eventually, they lobbied to pass laws outlawing Aliens, mainly Asian immigrants, from owning land and property and/or leasing land. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and there was talk of removing the Japanese from the West Coast, some farmers lobbied extra hard to make it happen. Why? For the most part, they wanted their land. You see, back then, they didn't consider that the Japanese were better at farming, they believed their land was better for farming than the land they had for farming.

Another factor is that this period in time was just after the Great Depression was ending. People had worked hard for a long time for what little they had earned. Many people worked in manual labor jobs, earning little for food and/or rent. Owning anything meant you were successful in some ways.

Some things I will write about happened to other Japanese that were incarcerated, some to my father. And it is important to note, that there were 10 Internment Camps, and each person and each camp had different and similar experiences. In other words, what I write and books like Farewell to Manzanar are just some perspectives, not all.

Imagine now, you are 35 years old, an United States Citizen. Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.

If you teach Japanese language schools, are a Shinto or Buddhist priest, or others with like Japanese leadership roles, you are whisked away to jail. You have no contact with the outside world until the war is over. Eventually, only the Buddhist priests are released and sent to Internment camps.

Your home and the homes of other Japanese are searched with no warrants, by....... you don't know by who. You guess that they are FBI agents. If they find anything that makes you look suspicious, you are taken away to jail and interrogated. Maybe you are let go, maybe you end up with the priests.

You could be shunned by people who you once considered friends. Not all, just some. But you can't tell who is your real friend anymore.

Your assets are frozen, and you can't access your money. How do you buy food? Pay rent? You may have a business, but hardly anyone is buying from you anymore. You sell your belongings, but so do everyone else. You have going out of business sales. You end up getting pennies on the dollar for what you own.

The Government is talking about removing you from your home and putting you in special camps. Once you get the order to Evacuate, there is no one standing up for you. Today would be different, but here's no ACLU. No riots. Nothing. So you go quietly, or go to jail.

You pack your stuff, but they are allowing only what you can carry. And no radios, knives or cameras. Today, add no TV, cellphones, laptops or tablets, nothing that you can communicate with. Anything you own, you are selling or trying to get them in storage. But you have no money. The lucky have friends who say they will store things for them, or they are kept in the now empty Japanese churches and temples.

Do you have a pet? Sorry, no pets allowed. You have to give them away or something. Maybe your neighbor or friends will care for them.

You preliminarily get sent to Santa Anita where the horse stalls are white-washed in haphazard fashion, and you have to bunk there for a few days with thousands of others just like you. It stinks like horse crap.

Finally you are on a train to... where? They don't tell you. You'll find out when you get there.

You end up in Heart Mountain Camp.  It's in Northern Wyoming. The middle of BFE. The camp is set up like a Military base camp. At first, the Governor of Wyoming did not want any Japanese in Wyoming. He was prejudiced. But he relented, and Heart Mountain with it's about 650 buildings, and holding anywhere between 9-12,000 people, was built in about 2 months.

You and your family are given a room in a barrack. Barracks are 20 feet by 120 feet, separated into 6 "rooms." 2 each are 20 X 16, 20 X 20, and 20 X 24.Each has a separate entrance.Each has one ceiling light, one electrical outlet, and one pot-bellied stove for heating, not cooking. There are twins sized cots in some rooms, some get theirs later and have to sleep on the floor until they do. If you want privacy, you try to hang "curtains" to separate the open-concept room.

Each barrack was made in a few hours with "new" wood. The wood was both the inside and outside. What? If the wood was for the roof, one side was the ceiling, one side was the roof. One side was the outside wall, the other was the inside wall. Get the picture? This "new" wood also shrank when it dried out, leaving gaps in between the planks. Most of the outside of the buildings were covered in tar-paper and roofing shingles. I do remember my father saying they had to cut cans up to make patches to nail and cover holes in the buildings.

In another separate barrack is the Mess hall, and when it it time to eat, you line-up and wait your turn. It's wartime, so food is rationed. You might get a bowl of tomatoes and rice as your meal for a few days. You eat cafeteria style with large tables and benches to sit on. At first, soldiers are the cooks and they are handing you your rations. Food is rationed in equal amounts no matter how old or "big" you were.

Bathroom and showers are in another separate barrack. the toilets are lined up with no partitions. You are now sitting next to someone else who is trying to do number 2, just like you, and the other guy, and the other guy, and the other guy.......

Heart Mountain was different in one respect. All of the other camps had two fences surrounding them. Heart Mountain only had one. If you tried to leave, you were shot. I don't know how many Japanese were shot in the other camps, but none were shot at Heart Mountain.


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