Like many who feasted on turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving Day, the dear friends and family around my table shared the many things for which they were thankful. When it was my turn, I said simply, “my home and my freedom,” two things that many people – but obviously not all – have the luxury of sharing in this great country of ours.
It was a cold, kind of gray and a little blustery day here in Cody, Wyoming, as it can sometimes be in November, so we put a few extra logs on the fire and cranked up the heat just a bit. Sated, dishes done, we all gathered to watch and nap through some football. All except me, because my mood had turned somber. As I walked by my double-paned picture window after dinner, I could see – just barely – the outline of Heart Mountain.
To thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, the month of November represents far more than the month during which a nation comes together for a feast and launches the festivities of the holiday season. It is the month when a three-year nightmare shared primarily by Americans of Japanese heritage finally ended.
In November 1945, the last of the incarcerated Japanese-Americans left the barbed wire fences, shoddy barracks housing and institutional food that had become central to their lives after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With that order, some 14,000 citizens were sent to the “Heart Mountain Relocation Center” and thousands more Issei (the Japanese term for Americans who had immigrated to the U.S. from Japan), Nisei (American-born second generation) and Sansei (third generation) Americans were confined to camps like it throughout the country. In all, 120,000 Japanese-American citizens of all ages were imprisoned.
The first Americans arrived at Heart Mountain in August 1942, and the last were released in November 1945. The relocation of Japanese-Americans was implemented nine months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although the incarcerated Americans were not accused of involvement in the attack, they were exiled and imprisoned. They were told it was for their own protection, while government officials, media and even neighbors used slurs like “Jap” and suggested these Americans were disloyal to their country simply because of their heritage.
It was a dark and embarrassing chapter in our country’s continuing story, and in 1988, President Ronald Reagan apologized to Japanese-Americans and their descendants and offered reparations.
As I looked out my window on Thanksgiving Day, I imagined a slow-moving line of somber and shivering prisoners leaving their three-year temporary home for who-knows-where. Their pre-1942 homes, businesses and most of their possessions were long gone. They left Heart Mountain and re-launched their lives with their American freedoms restored. There were still plenty of Americans who hissed slurs at them, and we know that re-entry presented all kinds of challenges for these returning citizens. But re-launch they did.
Instead of shopping on Black Friday, my friends and I traveled 14 miles northeast of Cody to the five-year-old Heart Mountain WW II Interpretive Center. We wandered through the replica barracks that depicted the everyday lives of those incarcerated Americans, we paused at the memorial to the more than 800 young men who fought for the country that imprisoned them, we watched the heart-wrenching video about their lives in camp. We sat quietly in the Japanese-style meditation room. And we remembered.
Until next time, I am appreciating my home and freedom in Cody, Wyoming.