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Past Heart Mountain prisoner tells CWC audience of ordeal during WWII captivity
Apr 21, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer
It's been a while since Sam Mihara has been to Riverton, and the circumstances of his two visits are juxtaposed by the passage of time.
Mihara recalled traveling through Riverton at night on a train headed north, guarded by armed U.S. soldiers. Mihara and his family, along with eventually 12,000 other Japanese-Americans, were forced to leave their West Coast homes and imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Park County.
Mihara spoke Wednesday afternoon at a multi-media presentation to a standing-room-only crowd at the Central Wyoming College Little Theater. He appeared at the request of Central Wyoming College's Diversity Committee.
Happy in California
His story of growing up in San Francisco in the 1930s and early 40s with his close-knit family and the upheaval they suffered after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941 kept the audience spellbound in the tradition of the tale of a classic and unnecessary tragedy.
Mihara related the number each prisoner (he won't use the word "internees") was given by the U.S. government.
Mihara's number, 26737D reflected his family in the number "26737" and his status as the second child in the family with the letter D.
"I was glad there were only four of us. Dad was A, Mom was B, my brother was C, and I was D," Mihara joked. "I would have hated to be the fourth child and be called F."
'Slap the Jap'
Mihara related tales of both overt and covert racism toward Japanese Americans on both coasts and in a very hostile Cody, Wyo. "Slap the Jap" signs were everywhere, he said, and in late 1943, when restrictions began to lift at Heart Mountain and his family was able to shop in Cody, most of the storefronts were plastered with signs reading , "No Japs."
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forced all Japanese-Americans, both Issei (immigrants from Japan) and Nisei (Americans of Japanese descent, born in America) living in California, Oregon and Washington to be evacuated by force to 10 different internment camps.
Prior to their forced removal, the Japanese living in San Francisco were forced to stay in zones at the base of the city's many hills.
"You can see the bay from just about every hilltop in San Francisco," Mihara said. "They didn't want us to watch ships arriving and leaving the harbor."
Once the citizens were forced from their homes, they were placed in temporary camps at abandoned horse racing tracks. The first to arrive were housed in horse stalls. Later arrivals were placed in flimsy temporary shacks.
From those temporary quarters they were divided into groups of approximately 12,000 and sent to camps across the arid Mountain West and into Texas and Arkansas.
Mihara told the story of approximately 100 orphans residing in three Catholic orphanages. No one knew what to do with the children, but the U.S. government's official statement displayed the institutional racism in place in the paranoid days of early 1942: "If they have a drop of Japanese blood, they must go."
The children were placed in a special "orphan village" inside the Manzanar, Calif., camp for the duration of the war.
Mihara's family was sent to the base of Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell. The hastily built compound was unfinished when Mihara's train arrived.
People accustomed to the West Coast climate were shocked during the first winter at Heart Mountain, when temperatures reached a record low 28 degrees below zero. The barracks were divided into three different family units of 16x20, 20x20 and 20x24 feet and were constructed of bare wood covered with tarpaper. Each unit had one coal burning stove as the only defense against the howling winds and sub-zero cold.
"The food was terrible at first," Mihara said. "Evidently they had no idea what Japanese people liked to eat. After the first year we were able to raise our own vegetables and a little poultry."
Privacy and close family ties are key elements of Japanese culture. Open washrooms and restroom facilities with no privacy, and large, public mess halls ,were difficult adjustments to make, particularly for older, more-traditional prisoners.
Mihara expounded on some of the idiosyncrasies of camp life. Japanese teachers earning only 10 percent of the salary of white teachers from outside, a camp police force of 40 Japanese men, ministers from Cody and Powell holding services in camp, and loyalty questionnaires that all prisoners age 17 and older were forced to take.
"My father had trouble with the wording of question 28, which read, 'Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any allegiance to the Japanese emperor?'" Mihara said.
"Dad wanted to swear allegiance to the U.S., but the wording of the question indicated you had some allegiance to the emperor before, which he didn't. He answered yes to the first half of the question but didn't answer the second, but he passed."
Health care was a concern and a tragic issue for the Mihara family. Mihara's father had glaucoma and required surgery in San Francisco to reduce swelling in his eyes. They requested he be allowed to return briefly to San Francisco for treatment, but the government refused. A few months later, he was blind.
His father went on to invent Japanese Braille in the post-war years.
Mihara's final remarks were addressed to his childhood friends and how they had endured and triumphed after their imprisonment ended in 1945. Mihara became an aerospace engineer with Boeing and developed launch vehicles for geosynchronous satellites. A friend, Kobe, became a pharmacist. Another, Sab, became a physical therapist. Two other became teachers.
Perhaps his most famous friend, Willie Ito, gained fame as a graphic artist for Walt Disney and drew the famous scene in "Lady and the Tramp" when the two dogs kiss while eating spaghetti.
Mihara's multimedia show was interspersed several times with a photograph of two cute little Japanese girls holding their hands over their hearts as they said the Pledge of Allegiance.
At the conclusion of his presentation Mihara announced that one of the little girls was his wife of nearly 60 years, Helene.
A standing ovation ensued and Mihara took questions from the audience for nearly an hour.