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.
More than 800 Heart Mountain internees later served in the U.S. Army in a segregated unit, the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The camp was also home to an organized group of “resisters of conscience” who demanded recognition of their constitutional rights before agreeing to serve.
“They resisted the draft, and I don’t blame them,” said Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel K. Inouye, keynote speaker at the dedication on Saturday.
“It took a lot of guts to come out and do something that the majority did not agree with,” said Inouye, 86, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat during a 1944 assault on German fortifications in Italy.
Many of the former internees who returned to Heart Mountain on Saturday were young children during the war, including Kimiyo Nishimura, 80, who was 11 when she arrived at the camp.
“I remember there were knotholes in the wood, and the walls didn’t reach the ceiling, so you could hear everything in the other rooms,” she recalled of the spartan barracks. “It was so awful, especially for the older people.
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, 79, was about the same age as Nishimura when he was sent to Heart Mountain.
Mineta, who served for 20 years in the U.S. House representing the San Jose, California, area, recalled a local Boy Scout gathering inside the camp where he met a young boy named Alan Simpson, from nearby Cody, Wyo.
The two shared a tent and took part in knot-tying and woodworking contests, and would later serve together in Congress. Simpson, a three-term Wyoming senator who retired in 1997 still lives in Cody, and has worked with Mineta to raise funds for the museum, the only private facility of its kind.
“What happened in the past remains in the past,” Mineta said. But he said the museum would serve an important reminder that “history always has the ability to repeat itself.”
Mineta recounted a September 13, 2001, cabinet meeting when he served as Transportation Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
He had grounded all commercial flights in the wake of the militant attacks two days earlier, and told Bush he was worried about suggestions by some that Muslims or Arabs should be banned from flying when the nation’s airports reopened.
Mineta said Bush shared his concern, and cited Mineta’s internment as an example of the wrong approach to security.
Simpson and Mineta co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the “grave injustice” of the internment camps and provided a token payment of $20,000 to former internees.
“Very few nations are strong enough to admit they’re wrong. America is strong enough, and we did so,” said Inouye, who also backed the act.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston