Families Flock to Heart Mountain Center Opening


Rafu Contributor


Rev. Alfred Tsuyuki of Konko Church of Los Angeles performs a Shinto blessing to celebrate the opening of the center. (Deborah Cobb for HMWF)

CODY, Wyo. — As young Boy Scouts of Heart Mountain Troop 333, Bill Shishima and Don Yamamoto were responsible for raising the camp’s American flag each morning.  Although 69 years have passed, neither has forgotten the procedure nor the expression of patriotism symbolized in the flag ceremony.

The men were called to perform the flag-raising one more time for the grand opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center (ILC) on Saturday. The three-day celebration drew more than 1,000 visitors, including 250 former internees, from across the country.

The event was also witnessed by a distinguished cadre of guest speakers, among them Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, veteran network journalist Tom Brokaw, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, U.S.-Japan Council President Irene Hirano-Inouye, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito.

However, the star of the celebration was the ILC itself, only the second interpretive center to be built on the historic site of a War Relocation Authority prison camp and the first to be constructed on privately owned land. The 11,000-squarefoot facility encompasses a multi-media collection of stories, artifacts, sounds and images.

Former Troop 333 Boy Scouts Don Yamamoto, left, and Bill Shishima with original troop flag. (ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo)

Festivities began Friday with an all-camp Pilgrimage Dinner at the Park Country Fairgrounds in Powell. Internees and their families comprised the majority of the audience, with some families boasting as many as 15 to 35 attendees representing four generations.

Prof. Eric Muller of the University of North Carolina and educator Carolyn Takeshita of Denver guided the exhibit design as Program Committee co-chairs.

Takeshita commended Muller for his tireless efforts in working with exhibit designers Split Rock Studios of Minneapolis. She also credited Sarah Bartlett of Split Rock with coming up with the idea of creating text in a first-person voice, allowing for the stories and information to come from the Issei-Nisei point of view. “It was a bold step,” she says, “but I think it really makes it a more personal experience.”

Some attendees wished organizers had allowed more time to view the exhibits but were nonetheless impressed. “They were able to put a great deal into a relatively compact space,” noted Kevin Miyazaki, a Milwaukee photographer who was among the first to view the ILC interior.

Also on hand was Alisa Lynch, chief of interpretation for the Manzanar National Historic Site, which in 2004 became the first to open an interpretive center. Lynch said the HMWF deserved to be commended for it accomplishments.

Kathleen Yuille of Milwaukee chaired the events.

A Miracle

On Aug. 11, 1942, the first trainload of Japanese Americans arrived at Heart Mountain. From August 1942 to September 1945, some 13,997 internees passed through the camp, coming from Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Yakima/Washington counties.

In contrast to the hostility that may have greeted the internees back in 1942, the Japanese Americans arriving for the weekend events were welcomed to Cody and Powell with the best of Wyoming hospitality. The wartime camp has become part of the region’s history and serves as a cautionary tale about tolerance and the fragility of democracy.  Long gone are foreboding messages in storefront windows warning the Japanese to stay away. Instead, colorfully printed signs declared, “Welcome Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei!”

Attendees over the weekend ranged in age from six months to 97 years. Many of those in attendance were donors, large and small, who had contributed toward construction of the ILC. “I came to see what they accomplished,” said donor Dr. George Kawahara, whose father, Dr. Kazuo Kawahara, was a dentist in camp.

Retired Judge Raymond Uno of Salt Lake City, a former internee who serves on the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) Advisory Committee, called its completion and opening “nothing short of a miracle.”

Former internees carry signs showing the blocks in which they lived during camp. (ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo)

Brokaw Pays Tribute

During the Friday night All-Camp Pilgrimage Dinner, Brokaw termed the commemoration “a most humbling experience,” adding, “Your presence here and your life stories…are a great tribute to your families and your citizenship. Heart Mountain and all it represents is a fitting place for renewal and reflection.”

In his book “The Greatest Generation,” Brokaw helped raise awareness of the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during the war, describing it as “one of the most shameful acts in American history.”

Speaking of the Nisei, he said, “They did not give up on this country that had so mistreated them.”

“Don’t give up on the idea that (this country) can be improved,” he concluded.

Bacon Sakatani, imprisoned behind the barbed wire as a boy and a leading proponent of education about the camp’s significance in American history, quipped that Mineta had dutifully attended nearly all of Heart Mountain internees’ reunions. However, Sakatani’s humor could not mask the internees’ appreciation of the former congressman’s pivotal role nor dilute what Mineta’s tenacious devotion has meant to his fellow Japanese Americans.

Tom Brokaw (Photo: Keith Kawamoto)

Mineta, in turn, commended Sen. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) for their long-standing loyalty in championing justice from “across the aisle” in Congress.

Mineta and Simpson met as Boy Scouts when Simpson’s troop visited the camp at Heart Mountain. Together, they steadfastly worked to help make the ILC a reality.  Simpson’s brother, Prof. Peter Simpson of the University of Wyoming, sits on the HMWF board of directors.

It Takes Courage…”

The dedication program featured a flag ceremony led by former Heart Mountain Troop 333 Scouts Donald Yamamoto of San Jose and Bill Shishima of Los Angeles, who were assisted by the Bighorn Basin Boy Scout honor guard of Wyoming. Rev. Alfred Tsuyuki of Konko Church of Los Angeles administered a Shinto purification blessing for the new center, and the Taiko Center drummers of L.A. performed, led by Rev. Tom Kurai.

The opening day was also highlighted by the world premiere of the ILC’s introductory film, “All We Could Carry,” by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki.  The Berkeley-based producer-director won an Academy Award in 1991 for the film “Days of Waiting,” which told the story of Estelle Ishigo, a Caucasian woman who chose to stay with her Nisei husband at Heart Mountain even though she could have remained free. DVDs of the film are available for sale at the new center.

Inouye provided the keynote address for the dedication ceremony. “I am most privileged to join you as you return to Heart Mountain,” he began. Classified 4C (enemy alien) shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Nisei were eventually re-classified in 1943 and permitted to join the U.S. Army.

The senator recalled his father’s words as he prepared to leave for the service: “This country has been very good to you and your family. You may have to die, but it will be a great honor.”

He mentioned that at Heart Mountain, there was an organized group of “people who resisted the draft,” demanding that their families’ rights and freedoms be restored.  “And I don’t blame them,” he declared. “It takes a lot of courage to stand up for what you believe.”

He then said of the wartime mass removal, “If we don’t watch ourselves, it could happen again.”

Inouye is president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and third in succession to the U.S. presidency.  “It wasn’t easy for me to come here, but I wanted to be here!” he told the crowd.

Thanking the organizations, government agencies, and individuals for their contributions, HMWF Vice Chair Douglas Nelson expressed particular appreciation to Irene Hirano-Inouye, who was instrumental in supporting the ILC’s development “at critical times” when she chaired the Kresge Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Hirano-Inouye, former Japanese American National Museum president and chief executive officer, was a speaker at Saturday night’s Grand Opening Gala along with Judge Ito, whose parents, James and Toshi Nagamori Ito, were confined at Heart Mountain. Dr. Melba Vasquez, president of the American Psychological Association, was also a gala speaker.

Artist Lynn Chiyeko Mikami of Riverside was born at Heart Mountain. Her mother, Mildred Toshiye Mikami, 97, lives in Torrance. (ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo)

15 Years of Planning

Finally, the cutting of the symbolic barbed wire officially opened the doors to the ILC. Sakatani, Tak Hoshizaki, and LaDonna Zall were designated for the honor in recognition of their commitment to preservation of the Heart Mountain camp and educating others about its significance in U.S. history.

Built on land owned by HMWF, the ILC is the result of 15 years of planning begun by Wyoming citizens and former internees. Dave Reetz of Powell established the nonprofit in 1996 and became its first president. Stevan Leger of Cody currently serves as the executive director.

Those who lived through the wartime experience are the logical arbiters of whether the ILC has sensitively and accurately depicted their camp memories. There are those who would like to see the exhibits expanded or the ILC’s name change, but for the most part, the center is a success.

Jack Kunitomi, 95, stood reading a panel for what seemed to be a long time. The panel described the Fair Play Committee and the resisters. He was there. He knows how it was. Then he smiled, nodded and moved to another panel.

Mineta remembered stepping into the barracks room designed to look as it did when the families first arrived 69 years ago. Extremely eloquent, he suddenly found that the words didn’t come as easily. “I stood there…it got to me.”

A Nisei woman (name withheld) from San Jose had just completed her tour. “Up ’til now, my memories (of camp) were mostly good. You know, hanging out with friends, going to school, playing. I was a young kid. I never thought much about (the injustice) of what happened. But my parents suffered. I didn’t think I would get emotional. But I couldn’t help it. I cried.”




  1. Darrell Kunitomi on

    Good coverage. Hat’s off to Ellen.

    I am grateful I could attend with members of our family. We kids were especially happy that our dad, Jack K., could return at age 95. It was his first visit back to the camp site since the war years.

    Yes, quite right on the signage — where once signs were up in windows in the small town of Cody, Wyoming, announcing No Japs Allowed or We Don’t Serve Japs, we ran into a sign of welcome on our first visit to a restaurant for our first breakfast in town — Welcome Back, Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei. Local folks were wonderful to us.

    At the banquet the serving staff was completely Caucasian. Alisa Lynch of the MNHS was there, later remarking (to the effect), Did you notice? All these whtie people serving the Japanese? I noticed. It was amazing.

    I only wish this had happened long ago, before so many of the Nisei passed. We Sansei and subsequent generations must keep the memory alive. It honors our parents and grandparents and we should bear it, celebrate it, with pride.

  2. This article covered the events at the ILC the best. Thanks to all, starting with Bacon’s non-social visit to Powell in 1992. Thanks to all the associations, memorial foundations & associations, Bureau of Reclamation, historic preservation commissions and others. Thanks to many individuals, Dave Reetz, John and Terry Collins, Pat Wolfe, Ann Noble and many more.
    The fruits of their “labor” have resulted in the ILC.

  3. Pingback: Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center Opens – Split Rock Studios

  4. nob shimokochi on

    My thanks to the founders, Dave Reetz, John Collins, Pat Wolfe, Ann Noble, LaDonna Zall, Bacon Sakatani and many others who put their heart and souls into this dream of theirs. They sacrificed countless hours and milage on their cars for many many years as unpaid volunteers.

    I also thank the newer staff. They did a great job also

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