Hope on Heart Mountain
The greatest freedom can come from taking down the fences in our mind

A young Japanese American boy talks to his friend through the barbed wire fence of an internment camp

Memories of Childhood, by Roger Shimomura

Having recently returned from Munich where I visited Dachau, acts of our own inhumanity and how we choose to treat each other are front of mind and heart.

It isn’t every day you find out you’ve been living on a side of history that makes you cringe. I spent my youth blissfully ignorant in a lot of ways. It wasn’t until university that I learned about the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans here in our homeland during World War II. We had just been bombed at Pearl Harbor in a brutal attack. Americans were devastated and scared. All I knew from history class was that fateful event sparked our entry into World War II – and in joining the Allies, we fought against dictators who were doing terrible
things to people.

I don’t know what horrified me more, the fact that our response to being attacked would also include acts that would hurt multiple generations of innocent people right here in our country or the fact that this mass incarceration was completely absent from every history book provided throughout my sisters’ and my education.

It’s tough enough to realize that a baseless act against thousands of people took place in America, in the very country where they lived and planned for their future, but our country’s own failure to acknowledge the act to the next generations of proud Americans seems almost as bad. It’s hard to reconcile with our pledge to uphold liberty and justice for all.

As a write this, I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Wyoming. By the time you read this, I’ll have already made my way there. One of the places I’m most looking forward to going is the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.

Of the more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent – over 60% of which were U.S. citizens – that were rounded up and held captive in camps after Pearl Harbor was bombed, many wound up at Heart Mountain.

Less warm and welcoming than it sounds, Heart Mountain did not have much in the way of heat or ventilation, let alone creature comforts.

It was not a death camp by any means, but people died there during their confinement and the rest mourned the loss of the life they had been living before being forced to give up their homes, possessions and livelihoods.

But like all moments of ugliness, there was beauty, a “collateral beauty” as my friend Andrea would smile and say. People formed schools and friendships within the confines of the barbed wire fence.

And in some cases beyond the confines of the fence.

Guard tower at Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp

Photo by Ilene Bergelson

Norman Mineta, a 11-year old boy interned at the camp with his family, met Alan Simpson, a 11-year old Caucasian boy who lived 10 miles away.

“How did the paths of these two boys cross?” you might ask.

Boy Scouts.

The scoutmaster inside the camp decided to invite scouts from the outside. Thankfully, the scoutmaster of a nearby troop accepted the invitation. It surprised the local scouts to learn that there were Boy Scouts on the other side of the barbed wire fence of the “Jap Camp,” and that they, too, were Americans.

Those two boy scouts became friends and later reconnected in their adult life, discovering they both had gone on to serve their country in government posts, one as a Democrat and the other as a Republican.

Friends to this day, Norman and Alan have seen Presidential administrations come and go, all while working across the aisle to benefit the citizens they represent. Some would say that the aisle dividing their parties isn’t much less of a barrier to their friendship than the barbed wire fence that separated their communities 75 years ago.  The way Norman and Alan have transcended both gives me hope for the rest of us.

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