Remembering a World War II-era injustice


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 18th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio, and we are so glad you are! Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: part of our occasional series, Living History. 

Each year on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 we hear stories of valor and sacrifice.  

A different kind of sacrifice happened to many Japanese Americans after that surprise attack by the Japanese military.  Some government officials worried Japanese Americans could still be loyal to the emperor. So in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps around the western part of the United States. 

Nearly two-thirds were American citizens.

REICHARD: Seventy-five years ago today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Japanese internment, though it also ruled separately that loyal citizens must be released. 

Japanese Americans could go home, but many faced the difficult task of rebuilding their lives. Every year, former internees still gather at a camp location in Wyoming. This summer, WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg met up with two brothers who want to make sure what happened isn’t forgotten.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The Mihara brothers named Sam and Nob, spent three years of their boyhood near Cody, Wyoming. Sam say it’s a time they both wanted to forget.

SAM: I remember hating Wyoming…And I remember not ever wanting to come back for any reason at all for a long time. 

They hated Wyoming because the government forced them to live here in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Yet today, the brothers sit in the camp’s museum overlooking the former grounds. 

Sam says the brothers only came back for the opening of this museum. And, when they did, they quickly realized things had changed since World War II. 

SAM: Now when we opened this facility in 2011, we went downtown and every store window had the welcome signs of welcome Japanese Americans… That I’ll never forget. 

The Mihara brothers grew up in San Francisco’s Japantown.Their father was a journalist and their mom took care of their home.  

SAM: We moved to a nice house on a, in the heart of Japantown San Francisco and we’re very, very comfortable. 

Then….. 

PEARL HARBOR NEWS: Here is the motion picture record released by the United States Navy of the havoc wrought by the Japs sneak, sky and sea raid on Pearl Harbor. 

After Pearl Harbor, the brothers remember how there were more police in their neighborhood who didn’t let them leave Japantown. Nob Mihara recalls their father getting rid of their Japanese possessions. 

NOB: My dad had a big collection of Japanese films. And he was throwing it in the fireplace burning it all up. 

After the government issued removal orders, the Miharas reported to a temporary detention center. Three months later, they boarded a passenger train for an unknown destination. The train stopped at Heart Mountain. 

SAM: I remember getting off the train and we were surrounded by all these guards… and they piled us on the backs of these army trucks… and then they drove us right through the main gate and right straight to our barracks. Uh, that was, that was awful. 

On this day, the brothers make that same drive up the road. 

SAM: This is the best viewpoint of the camp right up here.

They walk the ground where the sprawling camp once stood under the shadow of Heart Mountain named for its heart-shaped peak. Today only a handful of the camp’s structures remain. 

When the Miharas arrived, this was a dusty plateau covered with sage brush and barracks. 

NOB: I got used to the smell of the sagebrush and this mountain. I remember seeing it all summer and into the fall. It’s like that come winter snow. All white. I remember seeing that in white and come spring it’s green. So the seasons we saw on that mountain. 

The camp had 20 blocks, each with two dozen barracks. Each building housed six families in one-room “apartments.” Two hundred fifty people had to share one cafeteria, laundry room, and bathroom facilities. 

The brothers still remember where their barracks stood. Sam Mihara points to a clump of trees about half a mile to his left.

SAM: Our barrack was just this side of that. Block 14. And on the right side, way over here, on the foothills, that’s the other end of the camp. 

Each day began with breakfast, then school. Adults worked in the hospital, cafeterias or in the fields growing vegetables. Eventually, the guards let internees leave camp boundaries to hike, swim or go into town to shop. 

SAM: Oh, it was easy to get out. NOB: Oh yeah, we snuck out many times. 

But no one tried to leave the area. 

SAM: The records indicate, not a single person actually escaped from camp. We were literally trapped. People outside would recognize us right away.

Camp life took a heavy toll on the adults who had left businesses, land, and possessions. Sometimes medical care was inadequate. The Mihara’s father had glaucoma. Unable to see a specialist, he went blind. 

After the Supreme Court ruled against holding loyal citizens, Japanese Americans could leave.

Fearing hostility on the West Coast, the Miharas first went to Salt Lake City… then eventually back to San Francisco. The family tried to put Heart Mountain behind them. In fact, nobody really talked about the injustice for decades.

SAM: A lot of Japanese, the older people, um, took the approach of, um, it can’t be helped. 

In the 1980s, former internees began pushing for an apology and financial reparations. President Ronald Reagan gave Japanese Americans both. 

REAGAN: We gather here today to right a grave wrong… we must recognize the internment of Japanese Americans was just that, a mistake. 

The Mihara brothers also didn’t want to look back. But when they did return to Heart Mountain, they realized they needed to remember and tell their stories.

SAM: I brought my grandkids here it’s important for them to know so they can pass it on to someone else. 

Today, the Mihara brothers write and speak about their experience whenever they can, bearing witness to the injustice and then the strength it took to heal.

SAM: I think we realize now that, you know, it was the decision makers of 1942 who made the awful decision, uh, and that hopefully most people today realize that it was a mistake and, uh, it shouldn’t happen to anyone else. 

NOB: Mistakes were made. We’re here to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

MUSIC: Kishi Bashi—Violin Tsunami

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Cody, Wyoming.


(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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