Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Heart Mountain Internment Camp

When you think of Wyoming, the first image in your mind is probably not that of a Japanese Internment Camp.  The government called these camps “Relocation Centers” but to some that lived there they were known as prison or concentration camps.  Heart Mountain was one of ten such internment camps scattered throughout the country that housed nearly 11,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Wyoming during World War II.  During its three years of use, it was the third largest population center in Wyoming.

Buildings were laid out in a street grid, included administrative, hospital, and support facilities and 468 residential dormitories to house the internees.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor there was a growing fear that the Japan would invade the Pacific Coast and spur an uprising of Japanese living in the United States.  Animosity and anger grew rapidly toward the Japanese.  Only two months after the invasion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which changed many innocent lives forever.  The order allowed local military commanders to designate "military areas" as "exclusion zones," from which "any or all persons may be excluded."  This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona, except for those in internment camps.  They were forced to sell their belongings, close their stores, and vacate their houses.  Then they were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps.

Signs like this one were posted throughout cities on the west coast.  The Japanese followed the instructions thinking they were dutiful Americans supporting their president and the war effort.
The Heart Mountain Relocation Center (between the cities of Cody and Powell) was selected because it was remote and yet convenient.  The site was adjacent to a railroad depot where internees could be off-loaded and processed and the Shoshone River provided a water source.  Over 650 buildings were built on dusty land where bitter cold, ferocious winds and dry heat plagued its inhabitants.  Wooden buildings were hastily erected and not insulated, plumbed, and with limited lighting.  Whole families (sometimes as many as 7 or 8) lived in one room.  Internees ate in community mess halls, showered in gang showers, and used common latrines.  While internees were free to move about within the camp, they needed a pass to leave and were no longer “free.”   

Only a few of the original building remain, including this one that was the hospital and administration buildings.
Many Japanese living in the camps tried to better the conditions and go about “normal” daily life as best they could despite being behind barbed wire in a land that was foreign to them.  To improve their food, they grew crops and took over cooking duties.  They built furniture, worked on neighboring farms to earn money, sent their children to school, and had social groups and dances.  One of the most unbelievable ironies was that young men were selected for the draft – after they had been deemed “unfit Americans.”  Over 700 were selected for service.

Once the war was over, internees were given $25 and a ticket to anywhere they wanted to go.  Many had lost their homes, businesses, jobs, and were separated from loved ones.  They were forced to start over in a country that was still hostile toward Japanese.  In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act declaring that the internment of Japanese Americans was unjustified.  Reparations of $20,000 were paid to those internees still alive. 

While we thought Cody was rodeos, cowboys, and scenic mountains this museum was one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip.  The Heart Mountain Wyoming Interpretive Learning Center tells the story of the internment camp through photographs and artifacts of its prisoners, two replicated barracks, and exhibits about camp life and the impact of the incarceration.  The Center really educated us about a government policy that we knew little about.  More importantly, it brought to light a wrong that affected many and took nearly 50 years to right.

There is a memorial walk with plaques describing the camp and commemorating the men who were interred and fought for the United States in World War II.  (In the background, to the left, is the hospital building.)
The Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center opened in fall 2011 with much of the financial support coming from the private sector.
Displays are wonderful  mix of artifacts, eye witness accounts, and exhibits.
The food was unpalatable to most internees so they took over the cooking duties.  They worked in the more than 1,000 acres of fields growing a variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables.  In addition, they raised pigs and chickens.
This is an example of what internees found when they arrived - very sparse accommodations. 
They turned their rooms into more "comfortable" places to live.  Often having to build the furniture themselves from what ever scraps they could find.
Living quarters were cramped.
In all, over 110,000 individuals were interred during the three years the camps were open.  


  1. Wonderful, unbiased article, very educational and interesting.

  2. Isn't it terrible what our country over the years has done to its citizens? Before I married Michael I lived in Powell, WY, was director of nursing for the hospital. My best friend Jane lives out the road on which the internment camp is located--I never drove past there that I didn't think about those people losing everything they had. Great post Nancy!

  3. Wow. Very interesting. It shouldn't be surprising, I suppose -- I'd simply never heard of on internment camp.


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