Heart MountainHeart Mountain
by Mike Mackey

A slim little book, describing the experience of the people interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, during World War II. It’s not a wide-ranging historical account of the background or the policy or the constitutional issues involved in the internment of the Japanese-Americans. It’s simply the story of one camp, of the people who lived there, and of the details of daily life.

Here are the camp schools, the fire department, the newspaper, the churches. Here are the struggles with privacy and family cohesiveness and chronic shortages. Here are the personal reactions to wrenching loss, to discrimination, to the disruptions of war. Here are ordinary people trying to maintain something like a normal life in the midst of a prison camp.

I’ve read other books about the sweep of larger issues, about the Supreme Court cases, about the meaning of all this in the light of history. But I always need to come back to the small intimate stories of life as it was lived by real people. That’s the only way history makes sense to me. Without the stories of lives as they were lived, history isn’t really history, but something more bloodless, abstract, and theoretical.

We talk about larger issues. Of course we do, because justice and liberty and citizenship and other large ethical concepts are seriously important. But talking about them as abstract ideals can so easily go astray when we forget that they all have real-life implications for the day-to-day struggles of individual people. Theoreticians may wave away these individual stories as “anecdotal evidence” which complicates the discussion. But if you or I are the person in question, what is happening to us right now is shaping our world, influencing our views, changing our set of options, influencing what we might do tomorrow. The history of the human race since we began is made up of billions of individual predicaments dealt with one day at a time.

So the individual stories have to be passed on, because they are the stuff of history. How these particular people, each acting out of their own situation and personality, reacted to what was happening to them — this is the history of the United States. Bill Hosakawa reacted by launching a camp newspaper, giving a public voice to his dislocated neighbors. Tatsu Hori designed and built a heating system for the camp high school, making the lives of those who used that building easier. The men who organized the Heart Mountain fire department saved lives and protected the vulnerable community of wooden barracks.

For some, the pressures they faced were more difficult than simply finding a way to live with dignity in an undignified situation. Young men of draft age were eventually confronted with the painful decision forced on them by the military. If they served in the military, it was to be in a segregated unit, fighting for the country which had imprisoned them without cause and was still holding their families. If they refused, they were branded as traitors and sentenced to military prisons. One by one, each man had to decide what was best for himself and do what his own conscience demanded. Tomosu Hirahara fought and died in Brussels, and Clarence Matsumura helped liberate Dachau. Jack Tono and Kiyoshi Okamoto fought the draft in the courts, and went to prison for their efforts. Mits Koshiyama refused the draft and went to prison, while his three brothers served in the military. He respected their decision, and they respected his.

Aside from the military, others faced similarly tough decisions. The opportunity to leave the camp and relocate for work elsewhere forced many to leave family members behind barbed wire. Ruth Hashimoto was offered a job as a Japanese language instructor in Michigan, and chose to go, despite the opposition of her husband who remained in the camp. Frank Hayami accepted the chance to leave for New York, though his classification as an enemy alien made it impossible for him to find work as an electrical engineer, and he ended up bussing tables in a restaurant. Mary Oyama Mittwer was allowed to relocate to Denver, where she used her skills as a writer to craft a column called “Heart Mountain Breezes”, published in the Powell Tribune. Describing camp life in a down-home folksy style to the white newspaper readers, she craftily influenced attitudes and made friends for the internees by persuading her readers to see the people she described as just ordinary Americans like themselves.

Last year, I read my way through the stories of all the people who passed through the Philadelphia Station of the Underground Railroad, and it was that piling-up of one individual’s story at a time that made something “real” in my understanding of the thing called “Underground Railroad”. Here again, it’s stories of the people who passed through Heart Mountain camp, one story at a time, one person at a time, that accumulate to make up my understanding of a thing called a “relocation camp”. Heart Mountain was made up of these people and what they did and said and wrote and thought.

All of history is the accumulated doings and sayings and writings and thinkings of every one of us, one person at a time, one day at a time.