Journey to Heart Mountain

By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

Heart Mountain high school campus scene. Classes were housed in tarpaper-covered, barrack-style buildings originally designed as living quarters.
National Archives

“The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.” This quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt reads on the title card of the 1951 film “Go For Broke!,” which tells the story of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regiment during World War II, the most highly decorated U.S. military unit for its size and length of service, from their time at boot camp to the regiment’s famed rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Mountains. Several of the actors in the film served in the regiment themselves; one such actor, Lane Nakano, came to the 442nd from the Heart Mountain Internment Camp near Cody.

Of 75 identified camps across the country – most in remote landscapes like Wyoming – the Heart Mountain Internment Camp is one of the best-preserved. In 2007, it was made a National Historic Landmark; in 2011, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation opened the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, a museum dedicated to documenting and remembering the people who lived there. At the time of its closure in 1945, Heart Mountain was the third-largest city in the state, with a population of over 10,000 people. Next Wednesday, Heart Mountain’s executive director, Aura Newlin, will be at the Riverton Museum to give a free presentation about the interpretive center and the camp itself. 

A session of the court at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, from the records of the War Relocation Authority.

In 1942, amidst growing racial tensions and fears that Japanese Americans could be spies or saboteurs, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The language of executive order is vague and complex, essentially stating that the Secretary of War and designated military commanders could forcibly relocate and incarcerate people who were considered a potential threat to national security without trial, and take “such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance.” In practice, this was widely interpreted as a reference to Japanese Americans; more than 125,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes behind and move to “relocation centers” (alternately referred to as internment camps, internment centers and concentration camps). Families with small children and elderly grandparents traveled long distances to desolate areas, often leaving behind their property – in many cases, this property was taken over by White neighbors in their absence, and was never returned to them. According to a 1942 poll conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion, only 1% of Americans opposed this forced relocation at the time. 

All kinds of people were interned at Heart Mountain – from war heroes and movie stars like Lane Nakano to Heart Mountain’s Fair Play Committee, a group of people who resisted the draft on the grounds that Japanese Americans shouldn’t have to fight for the same government restricting their civil liberties; from ordinary citizens to legislators like Norman Mineta. The Heart Mountain Interpretive Center offers glimpses of what life was like in the camp for these people, and also documents some of the histories of their later lives – such as Mineta’s lifelong friendship with Al Simpson, a Cody native who met and made friends with Mineta when Simpson’s Boy Scout troop went to visit the internment camp’s Boy Scout troop. 

Newlin, a Riverton native and a descendant of people who were incarcerated at Heart Mountain, was named executive director of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation this past spring. However, she was involved with the foundation long before becoming executive director, serving as board secretary and then interim director before moving into this new position. Previously, she worked as a professor of anthropology at Northwest College in Powell. 

Now, she will be returning to Riverton to share her knowledge and insights about this chapter of American history with her hometown – including her parents, who still live in Fremont County. Newlin’s talk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Riverton Museum; this event is free and open to the public.