Last week, I visited my third Japanese-American internment camp site—Heart Mountain Relocation Center, thirteen miles outside of Cody, Wyoming.
I was nine years old when I visited my first site, Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. I remember watching my mother stare at the desolate site with tears in her eyes. At the time, I felt sad, even helpless, seeing her cry. And, when she explained I, too, would have been sent to the camps–though I am an American, born in the United States and only half-Japanese–I felt a lump in my throat, as I imagined watching the dust that whipped all around us from behind barbed wire fences. It scared me to think of being taken from my home and sent to a camp, even though I’d never been to Japan, and knew very little of the faraway country.
The experience of watching my mother relive her poignant memories, and feeling the fear of the Japanese-Americans of that era, was part of the inspiration behind my book, Broken Dolls.
The second site I visited was in Rohwer, Arkansas. Before I started writing Broken Dolls, I didn’t know Arkansas had had two internment camps—Rohwer and Jerome, both in southeast Arkansas. (For more information on Rohwer, please see the blog I posted after my visit to Rohwer in November, 2009, titled “Rohwer Whispers.)
None of the original buildings remain at Rohwer, only a few grave markers and a monument to the internees. However, at the site of Heart Mountain, part of the hospital and its smoke stack still stand. Also, a monument garden and walking path describes what the relocation center was like in pictures and essays. An Interpretive Learning Center is scheduled to open in August 2011. The building that will house the center is a replica of the barracks that covered what is now farmland in the shadow of Heart Mountain. Those barracks housed over 10,000 residents, and at the time, the relocation center was the third largest populated area in Wyoming.
Today, very little remains at the sites of most of the relocation centers. Sadly, it is symbolic of how little we remember of this era. I’m often amazed at how little people know of the internment of Japanese-Americans, but I’m also pleasantly surprised at how interested they are for more information.
Last week at the Wyoming Writers Conference, following a presentation on Heart Mountain by poet, Lee Ann Roripaugh, I spoke to David Reetz, President and CEO of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.. He described how the foundation was established to memorialize and educate the public about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Development of this memorial and its Interpretive Learning Center is an important mission today, for we must remember our history.