Museum tells story of Japanese-American detainees

Mon Aug 22, 2011 12:18pm EDT
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By Ruffin Prevost

RALSTON, Wyo (Reuters) - It was a bittersweet return for more than 250 Japanese-American former detainees at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the state of Wyoming who gathered for the opening of a museum about their wartime internment.

A replica guard tower stands over the museum on a remote wind-swept plain where nearly 14,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in one of 10 such camps set up across the West after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Backers of the $5.5 million, 11,000-square-foot museum next to the crumbling camp say they hope it will tell the story of those once forcibly relocated there and remind visitors of the enduring civil rights lessons from that era.

"It's something like a dream come true," said Jack Kunitomi, 95, who was imprisoned in the camp with his family and who had a son born at Heart Mountain, east of Yellowstone National Park.

Scant is left of the actual camp except a walking path and the remains of a hospital building, including a tall chimney. Inside the museum, visitors can see a replica of the camp barracks, where internees were warmed by pot-bellied stoves and relied on a lone fixture for light.

The story of the camps and the more than 110,000 people confined in them, the result of wartime racial profiling, is a sometimes little-known chapter in U.S. history.

An executive order signed by then-President Franklin Roosevelt authorized "exclusion zones" on the West Coast, but it was people of Japanese ancestry, not Germans or Italians, who were relocated.

Like thousands of other men in the camps, Kunitomi joined the military after restrictions on drafting Japanese-Americans were relaxed, serving as a translator in the Pacific.   Continued...