CODY, Wyo.—Clouds drifted overhead, encouraged by a gentle wind. Seemingly without warning, the winds accelerated and a beautiful Wyoming afternoon turned cold and rainy.
Tats Misaka of Salt Lake City remembers all too well Wyoming’s capricious weather patterns ranging from extreme heat to bitter cold. He was one of 11,000 Japanese Americans confined in this part of Wyoming during World War II.
LaDonna Zall of Ralston, Wyo. also remembers that period and is devoting her retirement years to collecting and archiving Heart Mountain artifacts.
Misaka and Zall were among over 100 that gathered Aug. 15 to preview the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center (ILC) currently under construction off Highway 14A between the towns of Powell and Cody. The rain forced the group of local residents and former internees inside the new center, its shell about two-thirds completed.
Shirley Ann Higuchi, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board chair, began working to help support the building after mother, Setsuko Saito Higuchi, passed away in 2005. “It was her deathbed wish that this Center be completed…and now the dream is becoming a reality,” Higuchi said.
Higuchi, a Washington D.C. attorney, believes the ILC can become an important educational resource and research facility that will honor all internees, not just those who were confined at Heart Mountain. “We are making a big push to support and recognize (the achievements of) our parents and grandparents. The next six months to two years are critical,” she emphasized.
Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Director Milward Simpson observed that Heart Mountain’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park will offer an opportunity to interest travelers, adding, “It is so important what you’re doing to educate America and the world, building racial accord and tolerance.”
Former Secretary of Transportation and internee Norman Y. Mineta recalled the events that led to his life-long friendship with former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson. The two met as Boy Scouts.
“We didn’t want to go to the ‘P.O.W.’ camp,” Sen. Simpson remembers, but once he and Mineta interacted, their bond grew and has lasted 65 years. They continued to write to each other over the years and, by coincide, eventually both were elected Congress.
Sen. Simpson reminded the audience that the late Mary and Chester Blackburn “took a lot of flack” from some narrow-minded folks when they first championed the idea of preserving the Heart Mountain history.
Mineta, a Democrat, played a key role in sponsoring the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which awarded redress to Japanese American internees, and it was Simpson who spearheaded Republican support on the Senate side.
Douglas Nelson, HMWF fundraising chair, explained his involvement in the project. About 40 years ago while a student at the University of Wyoming, Nelson learned of Heart Mountain, and in 1970 authored the Pulitzer-nominated Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp. “When I finished writing that story, my wife Linda and I … stood by the road and looked toward Heart Mountain. All that was here then to mark what happened during World War II was a lonely chimney on the ridge. I said to Linda as we stood there: ‘No book can tell the real story. Only this place —this scene—this landscape can fully convey the deep meaning of what happened here.’
Nelson noted that hundreds of donors have contributed dollars and scores more have donated treasured memories, artifacts, documents, photos, art work, furnishings, and other memorabilia.
“We are especially grateful to those families, including many Wyomingites, who have entrusted the Foundation with objects and images and heirlooms.
Representative of the items received for the Center’s growing collection are photos and artifacts from the Patti Hirahara in memory of her father, Frank Hirahara.
Nelson commended Zall, who for 15 years has guided efforts to “locate, acquire, catalogue, interpret, and preserve hundreds of items that will be the heart of this Interpretative Learning Center.”
Last June, the Foundation reported that it had raised $2.6 million and was about half-way toward its $5.2 million goal.
Three weeks ago, the Foundation was awarded a federal grant of $283,000 from the National Park Service to continue the construction work on the Center. The Higuchi family added another $100,000 to the campaign fund and the Nelsons increased their pledge to $100,000. Recent grants and pledges bring the total to over $3.1 million, allowing the HMWF to break ground this fall on construction of the final wing of the Center’s shell. Grand opening of the 11,000-square foot facility and exhibits is projected in 2011.
“While this is fabulous progress, we still have a ways to go and time for many of the people we care most about is short,” Nelson added.
The event also served as Collection Day, allowing those with memorabilia to bring their items to the Center. In addition to the Hirahara photographs, Simpson donated a photo album he acquired personally. The album belonged to an internee.
At a banquet later in the evening, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal stated that he was proud that the Center is in the State of Wyoming. “We need to make this (Center) work.”
Pete Simpson, University of Wyoming history professor and brother of Alan Simpson, read from his award-winning essay in which he recounts a memorable visit to Heart Mountain as a young acolyte for the Episcopal church.
Judge Raymond Uno (retired), a former internee, congratulated the Foundation for their commitment to the mission to “truth, healing, and remembering for all time.”
Dave Reetz, HMWF executive director and president, organized both the Progress Celebration and Collection Day and the banquet.
Toward the end of the afternoon program, the rain had stopped. In the sky, a rainbow hovered above the hospital chimney, a remnant of the wartime camp. Eric Muller, a law professor at the University of North Caroline who is chairing the ILC program committee with Carolyn Takeshita of Denver, snapped a photo of the rainbow.
“It’s as if Heart Mountain was crying… and now it’s not,” remarked Alan Simpson.