Day 7, August 11, 2016
As I am sure you all know, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and changed the course of World War II for the United States. Shortly after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized military commanders to create zones from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” Western Washington and Oregon, southern Arizona, and all of California were designated as Exclusion Zones in March 1942. The Executive Order defined Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and German Americans as peoples to be excluded from these areas. Interestingly enough, I am unaware that we ever actually relocated Italian or German Americans… Remember this readers, there will be a quiz…
After we toured the Eagle Butte coal mine, we headed west on our drive from Gillette to Cody, Wyoming. We drove over the pass on Highway 14 Alternate, which was for me a beautiful, windy, curvy road with some steep grades on the way up and back down. For my mom it was a terrifying, white-knuckle experience where she was afraid to look at the scenery and often sucked in her breath when she felt like I was driving too fast (which was basically the whole time)… It’s all a matter of perspective…
Getting back to Roosevelt and Executive Order 9066 – we had a destination in mind before we reached Cody. The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, in Powell, Wyoming – although it was probably better known as the Heart Mountain Japanese Internment Camp. We arrived at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center about an hour before they closed, which ended up being plenty of time. It is a modern museum, opened in 2011, with a great movie, showing interviews of many of the internees speaking about their experiences. The oldest internee interviewed for the movie was 21 at the time; the youngest was 11. So while it doesn’t offer the perspective of those who were older when they were interned, it does provide a lot of good (and often sad) information about the prisoner experience.
There are also exhibits depicting what a room in the camp, shared by an entirely family, would have looked like. There were exhibits on work life, recreation, school for children, activities the internees participated in to protest their captivity, and service in the armed forces by the Nisei (Japanese American citizens who were born in the U.S. to Japanese immigrants), who felt that volunteering for service would be a way to prove they were loyal to the U.S.
We explored the museum, and I discovered that, rather surprisingly, the exhibit continued into the restroom. I’m never one to turn away from an interesting bathroom! The curators here designed bathroom stalls with mirrors on all sides – to simulate the lack of privacy that the internees experienced, sharing a restroom with hundreds of others without so much as a stall partition. Not my idea of a good time…
After taking our time at the Interpretive Center, we drove a short way to the site. There isn’t a whole lot there now, but there are some hospital buildings and a guard tower remaining, and walkways and foundations of other buildings. There is one area of the site where signs show visitors where various buildings once stood – the school, barracks, even a crudely dug swimming hole. Wandering around Heart Mountain feels extremely lonely and desolate now, and it is difficult to imagine what it would have been like when thousands of Japanese were incarcerated there. Many of these families lost everything during their internment; their property was sold on the cheap, their belongings were stolen, and their lives were completely uprooted.
Heart Mountain isn’t for everybody; the site does require you to use your imagination to see what it “used to be” rather than what it is now, which is a large field with a few remaining buildings and a lot of concrete building foundations. It is important to understand though, what we did to a whole group of our citizens under the guise of National Security. It is perhaps more relevant lately than it has been in a long while.
After leaving Heart Mountain, we continued the rest of the way to Cody, where we had dinner at Bubba’s BBQ, sharing a meal of beef brisket, pulled pork, spare ribs, potato salad, new potatoes and the veggie mix. Yum!
Costs and Fees: $7 per person at Heart Mountain War Relocation Center.
Distance for the Day: Gillette, WY – Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, Powell, WY – Cody, WY (4 hrs, 22 min, 248 miles)
Hotel for the night: Rodeway Inn – Cody, WY