Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Heart Mountain in the 21st century

The building that housed the Heart Mountain Relocation Center boiler plant and laundry stands almost alone on the prairie near Cody, Wyoming. In the foreground lies a concrete slab for a long-gone wing of the camp hospital, that was staffed by both Anglo and Nisei doctors and nurses. Two dilapidated buildings of the camp hospital (one is pictured below) still stand, windows boarded and warning signs posted to keep out vandals.

That and one wooden administration building are all that's left standing on the third-largest city in Wyoming from 1942-45, when 10,767 Japanese-Americans occupied some 400 barracks in the Big Horn Basin. They were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

During a visit last Saturday, I saw the new Interpretive Learning Center, built under the auspices of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation with donations from former camp residents, their descendants, and hundreds of others. The place is now a designated National Historic Landmark and by summer 2010, will be a stop for tourists interested in all aspects of U.S. history. The Big Horn Basin already has the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and its five museums in Cody, a new Washakie Museum in Worland (set to open in 2010), the Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis and more scenic vistas than you can see during a week's -- or possibly a month's -- vacation.

The last time I visited in summer, local birds (whip-poor-wills?) performed their "look I'm injured -- come get me" routine which they use to lure predators away from nests. I didn't fall for the ruse, as I wasn't interested in histrionic birds but was enjoying the prairie silence. I saw no similar birds this time. Was more intent on prowling the grounds and walking the history path that was dedicated in 2005. Walking the path, I finally understood the vastness of the site. It had a hospital, fire department, swimming hole, root cellars and hundreds of acres devoted to family farms. They may have used the term "Victory Garden" but it would have carried with it a load of irony.

Pres. Franklin Roosevelt may have led us through the Great Depression and World War II, but his Executive Order 9066 which led to the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans, was a black mark on U.S. history. You can be a great leader and make bonehead mistakes. You can also be a good person and make terrible decisions.

The first family physician I remember was Dr. T.K. Kobayashi in Denver. He was a staff physician at Mercy Hospital and worked with my mom, a registered nurse. His private practice was in downtown's Five Points neighborhood. He and his three Nisei partners had offices above a pharmacy owned by an African-American. Five Points was the city's black neighborhood. Those were pre-integration days when a practice called red-lining prevented people of color from living outside Five Points and a few other enclaves. Although Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr (Republican) had put his career on the line to welcome Japanese-Americans uprooted by E.O. 9066, the welcome mat did not extend to housing and schools and businesses. So my mom drove us down to the Nisei doctors in the middle of Five Points. My father, a World War II veteran, didn't go with us. He served his time in Europe, but for four years, most G.I.'s --wherever they were -- considered "Japs" their enemy.

Dr. Kobayashi and his partners had been internees. All had volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit known for its motto "go for broke." There was a movie of the same name.

The Honor Wall at Heart Mountain lists 800 internees who served in the U.S. military. Fifteen were killed in action. Some 85 No-No Boys were imprisoned for failing to report to the draft board for military duty. This led to the largest mass trial in Wyoming history.

Heart Mountain is a sad spot. Beautiful and -- in some ways -- sacred.

In my collection "The Weight of a Body," I have a story entitled "The Good Doctors." It's based on the imagined lives of those brave and frustrated doctors from my youth. Go buy a copy of the book at Ghost Road Press. It's my salute to them. Also read an earlier Heart Mountain post on this site at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow such nice beautiful pictures...... Thank u.......

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