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April 05, 2011 7:17 am

UW students explore Heart Mountain barracks

Written by Gib Mathers

Although detained Japanese departed the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in 1945, their presence left a lasting stamp on the landscape of northwest Wyoming.

The internment of Japanese residents is a sad chapter in American history, but visiting the camp gives historians a better feel for that period in history, said University of Wyoming graduate student Mac Blewer.

Over the weekend, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation provided a tour of the camp and local homes for University of Wyoming American studies students. The tour allowed the students to identify barracks used by the Japanese, and those same barracks that were later dismantled and moved to settler sites around Heart Mountain.

“These historic barracks, and the stories that surround them — from the days of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp, when they were occupied by Japanese American prisoners, through the post-war settlement times and their occupation and use by American veterans and their families — are an important part of Wyoming’s history and heritage,” said Rick Ewig, associate director of the American Heritage Center and a board member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.

Near a corner of the abandoned hospital, old green asphalt shingles, used as siding, flutter slightly in the gusty wind. Lumber, browned by the elements for more than 60 years, is exposed in places, making the facility appear forlorn.

“The Heart Mountain community has many layers of history and many stories to tell,” Blewer said, standing at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center Saturday.

The scholars started at the center, slated for completion in August, and later visited the camp and locals in the area living in homes that were once part of the camp.

“There are little pieces of Heart Mountain (Relocation Center) scattered all over Wyoming,” Brewer said.

According to the UW, around 40 surviving barracks have been relocated in Park County and south to Riverton and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Brewer said he was interested in the Japanese and the settlers who homesteaded the Heart Mountain area after World War II.

The camp officially opened Aug. 12, 1942. A month later, four or five Japanese were arriving daily by train, said Christy Fleming, director of the Heart Mountain Foundation.

“Each one of them had their own history and experience here,” Fleming said.

The area was just prairie before the camp was built. A massive landscaping effort was undertaken. Orchards planted were removed to create space for U.S. 14-A, said Dr. Eric Sandeen, who led the students’ expedition.

Prior to the internment, 2,500 men were hired in June of 1942 to build the camp. They were told to bring a hammer and saw. In two months, 456 barracks were erected, Fleming said.

Grass and sagebrush that have seized the once-bustling walkways lend a ghost town quality to the abandoned community.

“(A) very self-contained little town,” Fleming said, standing in the partial shelter of the old hospital.

Fleming said, nearly 14,000 people lived in the camp. Most were Japanese.

Some staff, such as medical personnel and military police, lived on site with the detainees, Fleming said.

The relocation camp was the third largest city in the state at the time, Brewer said as he braved a blustery wind outside the abandoned hospital.

“This is a typical Heart Mountain day,” Fleming called, raising her voice to be heard above a particularly robust gust pummeling the group.

Each block of barracks had a mess hall, laundry and restrooms. There was no cooking in the barracks, so the ambulance on site delivered warm baby bottles to mothers, Fleming said.

LaDonna Zall, now the site’s curator, was a child at the time. She watched the last of the detainees walk down the hill to board the train when the camp closed at the end of the war.

It was a windy day then too, Fleming said.

During the culmination of World War II, some homesteaders settling on land around Heart Mountain, may have occupied the barracks with the Japanese, Sandeen said.

Barracks were sold for $1 each, but it took the federal government two or three years to declare the stuff surplus materials, Sandeen said.

Sandeen said he believed it likely locals were salvaging the lumber before it was declared surplus.

The barracks were hauled away intact or in pieces to homestead sites nearby.

“A good number of them are still in sight,” Sandeen said.

Photographer Kevin Miyazaki’s grandparents, uncle and father were detainees.

“My father didn’t talk about it much when we were young,” said Miyazaki, near an interpretive plaque a stone’s throw from the camp.

According to the New York Times, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing a $1.25 billion trust fund in 1988 to pay reparations for those placed in internment camps.

Although his father was a boy at the time, Miyazaki said many Japanese lost farms, homes and businesses.

Miyazaki said he believed the internees received around $20,000 each.

“That’s how governments apologize,” Miyazaki said.

The tour involved the Foundation, the Shoshone Irrigation District, the Homesteader Museum, Powell High School faculty and numerous citizens throughout the region, said a Foundation news release. 

Folks are encouraged to contact the Foundation or the University of Wyoming if they have information regarding the relocated barracks.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link April 15, 2011 8:43 pm posted by John Chelberg

    Chester and Mary Balckburn, Thank you for all that you did to make sure that this was not a forgotten place.

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