POWELL, Wyo. — The day Frank Emi arrived at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in 1943, a whirling dust storm at the bleak camp imparted a “very forlorn and desolate feeling.”
Others questioned the need for barbed wire fences and guard towers — features of a prison environment — to watch over American citizens who hadn’t broken any law.
On the site nearly 60 years later, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center will open its doors to the public, preserving the memories of those who lived in tar-paper shacks behind barbed wire fences.
Workers were busy last week installing the museum’s displays. They erected information panels, prepared the theater, and detailed the replica rooms where thousands of Japanese-Americans were held during their stay.
“We’re on pace to be open and we expect a very large crowd for the opening,” said Executive Director Steve Leger. “In fact, it’s going to be a challenge to get everyone through here. We’re expecting around 1,000 out-of-town guests.”
The center’s grand opening later this month marks the culmination of a 15-year effort to preserve the historic site, located on the eastern slope of Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell.
Founded in 1996, the Wyoming Heart Mountain Foundation raised $5 million for the center through private donations, much of it contributed by the camp’s former occupants.
“How can you teach democracy in a concentration camp?” one camp resident wrote. His words are displayed in the museum.
Most residents and many historians see the Heart Mountain camp as a concentration camp — a place where people of a particular racial, ethnic or political group are confined without charges or trials.
But as one museum display says, referring to the center as a concentration camp has fallen out of favor. Too often the term is confused with the Nazi death camps in Europe, where millions were murdered during World War II.
“Heart Mountain was not a death camp, but neither was it an internment camp,” one unnamed occupant wrote. “Internment is a lawful process for detaining enemy aliens. We were not detained under the law, and many of us were U.S. citizens.”
Museum displays suggest that the English language has no exact term for what Heart Mountain actually was. The camp’s occupants, who numbered in the thousands, will remember it as a place where they were unjustly imprisoned because of their ancestry.
“The day we got there was one of those prairie dust storms ... a very memorable sight,” wrote Frank Emi. “Rows and rows of tarpaper shacks there, and all this dust whirling. It gave you a very forlorn and desolate feeling.”
At the Western Governor’s Association in 1943, Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith suggested that all Japanese should “be kept in concentration camps, not reception centers.” He also suggested that they be “worked under guard.”
Not until 1988 did Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Rep. Norman Mineta sponsor the Civil Liberties Act, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan. Simpson and Mineta had met as Boy Scouts at Heart Mountain when Mineta’s family was incarcerated there.
While crews worked to complete the museum’s displays, Heart Mountain employees waited for a final cut of a 14-minute video documenting life at the camp.
The dedication ceremony will reunite old friends, some of whom appear in the video. Leger is pleased with the progress and says the museum will live up to its goals.
“I’m proud of the design team working out all the elements to try and get everything right to tell the story,” said Leger. “Our exhibits are told in the first person. It’s from the point of view of the internees who were here.”
Tom Brokaw will be a guest speaker for the pilgrimage dinner on Aug. 19. On Saturday, Aug. 20, a panel discussion will include Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, whose parents lived at the camp.
Joining Ito will be Irene Hirano Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council, and Melba Vasquez, president of the American Psychological Association.
Together they’ll explore the legal, psychological and legislative aspects of the Japanese-American experience and how it influenced American civil rights.
Contact Martin Kidston at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.