Plan for former intern camp divides Wyo. county

February 19, 1992|By Donna Kato | Donna Kato,Knight-Ridder News Service

CODY, Wyo. -- Kicking the hard, cold ground with her foot, Mary Blackburn unearthed a pretty stone embedded in the dirt.

"It used to be you'd find things buried around here, like a 1943 penny or a couple of marbles," she said. But now "unless you look real close, you'd never know those people were ever here."

This forlorn site in northwestern Wyoming's Park County used to be the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a guarded camp where most of the 6,000 Japanese-Americans in California's Santa Clara Valley were required to spend World War II. Named for a nearby peak, the makeshift city was established after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order 50 years ago today authorizing the forced exodus of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to inland internment centers.

All that's left today is a cluster of memorial plaques and the crumbling ruins of a hospital wing and guard tower. The tar-paper barracks were sold to veterans who wanted to homestead the area.

But the residents of Park County have not forgotten what happened here and are still struggling to resolve their feelings. They agree the site is historically significant. But while some feel a sense of shame, others hesitate to acknowledge that the rights of U.S. citizens were violated.

Those differences have polarized the community into two factions. One group is working to turn Heart Mountain into a state-supported educational and tourism complex that will fully address the internment experience.

"We can't continue to ignore what really happened here," said Deby Williams, vice president of the Heart Mountain Japanese American Memorial Foundation, which has about 20 members.

The group's plans include a restored barracks and guard tower, a museum of art work and photographs, a reference library and an interpretive center. It has received state approval for the initial rehabilitation work, but local officials also must hold a public hearing and decide whether to approve the plan. If all goes according to schedule, the complex should open in 1997, Ms. Williams said.

But others, such as Mrs. Blackburn and her husband, Chester, want the site to remain a low-profile memorial, leaving the rural landscape and residents undisturbed. As heads of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Memorial Association, the couple oppose any changes that are too political, commercial or expensive.

Some residents share their sentiment that while the internment was unfortunate and the internees made a "unique sacrifice," it may have been necessary at the time and should not be dwelled on now.

Ironically, if it weren't for the Blackburns, who are in their 80s, the existing memorial would not be there.

Homesteaders who bought two of the barracks after the war, they believed some type of tribute was needed and made Heart Mountain their retirement project in 1973, resulting in the installment of the plaques.

"We haven't learned the lesson yet, that's why we have to have memorials like this," Chester Blackburn said.

Former internees, meanwhile, say they would appreciate a nationally prominent institution depicting the internment experience. Those who visited the site in recent years were disappointed that so little physical evidence is left.

"I guess what I considered a turning point in my life wasn't that meaningful to keep around," said Karl Kinaga, a San Jose, Calif., attorney who was 18 when he saw Wyoming for the first time and who went back about 15 years ago.

Bacon Sakatani, 62, of West Covina, Calif., who was sent to Heart Mountain with his parents and six siblings, has participated in hearings on the museum proposal and advocates a stronger role by former internees in the project, noting "there are many people out there who are reluctant to say that we were wrongfully incarcerated."

But Cody-area residents say that to fully understand the issue, one must look back 50 years. In a climate of war hysteria and fear, Cody residents learned that the government was going to build the internment camp just 12 miles north of their rustic town.

Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., was a young boy in Cody, charting allied victories on a wall map in his bedroom. "I was 10 years old when suddenly we heard that the Japanese were coming," he said. "The war was at full force, and there was a great deal of concern over this planned city of all-Japanese people."

Shopkeepers, he said, hung "No Japs" signs, but "when the internees arrived, word got around that it was mostly old folks and children, that their men were off fighting the war for us, too."

As school teachers and church groups formed relationships with the internees, the townspeople relaxed.

During a goodwill outing by Cody Boy Scouts to the camp, Mr. Simpson shared a pup tent with a fellow Scout from San Jose, Calif., named Norman Mineta, now a congressman from San Jose. Their friendship continues on Capitol Hill, where both were instrumental in the passage of the 1988 redress act that provided an official government apology to the internees.

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