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Heart-less Mountain

They heard the muffled anger, the stifled sob, the hollow laughter...all the human sounds...echoing through the empty barracks. But no one was there.

Heart Mountain Internment Camp, a jerrybuilt town of 11,000, that pulsated with life for three years, had vanished. The desert had reclaimed the land that yielded grain and vegetables for the internees.

Into this wasteland, moved Chester and Mary Blackburn. Two years after the last internee left, the Blackburns decided to farm here. Their story was one of several featured in a Newsweek Magazine article in July, 1987, “America’s Heroes.”

Chester and Mary chose to live with ghosts. In doing so, they came to understand and empathize with American citizens of Japanese ancestry and their parents, who had no choice, no voice. Eventually, this Caucasian couple built a monument to these ghosts.

I am one of them. My family had been in Heart Mountain since it opened in August, 1942. Four months earlier, at age 20, I had volunteered to help set up the first “permanent” camp in the Arizona desert, in the hopes that my family would be permitted to join me. I went South. They went North. But, from the day I received mama’s censored letter postmarked Wyoming, I had this single-minded goal to join them. There was something inviting about “Heart Mountain”, something benevolent, almost ethereal.

After seven months of badgering the administrative office in Poston Internment Camp, I finally received approval for transfer in February, 1943.

On the three-day train trip from Arizona to Wyoming, I tried to make myself invisible. After being confined for seven months, the glare of the real world can be frightening. I imagined “Internee #431” emblazoned across my chest. I hugged the window and focused on the passing scenery. As we wound through the Rockies, it became a winter wonderland. We climbed higher. I became aware of the creeping cold. The three-piece suit, mail-ordered from Sears, was scant protection, even inside the train.

By the time we reached Cody, I was shivering. Through the drifting snow, I spotted an Army truck waiting at the depot. The driver beckoned. I climbed into the cab, suitcase in hand. My teeth chattered so I could not speak. But the driver had his orders: Deliver #431 to Block 20, Unit 17-B.

Mama opened the door as the truck pulled up. She threw a peacoat around my shoulders and pulled me indoors. We bumped into papa and the boys huddled behind the door. Their collective arms encircled me. Sister, Dorothy, broke through the ring, hugged me tightly. I noticed her limp.

The warmth of the “homecoming” was diminished by a glance around their living quarters. In a 25x12 foot space, six cots were placed side by side against the wall. Army blankets, suspended from the ceiling, provided some privacy. A single, bare light bulb dangled from the rafter.

Mama led me to the pot-bellied stove to thaw out. She dismissed the boys, anxious to join their friends. It relieved the congestion, she said, with George, 14, and Paul, 9, out most of the time. But she bemoaned the breakdown in family unity.

She, papa, and I discussed, in Japanese, events since our separation. Dorothy, bursting to talk, restrained herself, deferred to her elders. In seven months, she had become quite Japanese. Quite a transformation for the child who had been, for nine of her eleven years, the center of attention in a Caucasion household, during a series of hip surgeries. She understood, but would not speak Japanese. On the other hand, mama’s English had improved. When I asked about the Mountain, she explained, “Cannot see today...snowing too much. Maybe, tomorrow...”

That night, safe in the bosom of my family, I slept like a baby. It was mid-morning when I awakened. The sun sparkled through the window. Mama and papa had gone to their mess hall jobs; the boys, to school. Dorothy had stayed home.

“Too slippery, outdoors.” She patted her right hip where she was last operated. She was in the hospital when we last talked, ten months earlier. I was leaving for Arizona.

I assured her then, “The Government will let you remain with the Lanphears. You’ll need follow-up care.”

Now, I mumbled weakly, “It must have been hard...”

Her eyes clouded over. She did not want to look back. Except to say: “I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t run...”

I did not want to look back, either.

“So, where is this Heart Mountain?”

Donning a peacoat, I opened the door a crack. Icy air rushed in. I stepped outside. To the right, towering in the sky, was the snow-capped peak. The mountain was not the gentle rise I had envisioned. It was silent, forbidding. Even covered with snow, it had craggy edges. What I saw was a glistening arrowhead pointed directly at the core of camp.

I shuddered and closed the door behind me. I turned my attention back to Dorothy: Seventh grade was okay; she had made friends; mama and papa took good care of her; she heard from the Lanphears. Annie and Ira were keeping her room for her the way she left it. I shared my experiences in Poston with her.

Three days later, there was little else to talk about, so circumscribed were our lives. I wrote to my Poston roommate: “Things much the same here as in Arizona. Except snow instead of sand.”

The bleakness of the place nagged at me. Camp was a dead end. Restlessness overrode my fears. I worried less about the racists out there. I thought more about the Lanphears and the Robertses in my life who knew and believed in us, who helped us “keep the faith.”

About this time, someone, somewhere, figured that imprisoning 120,000 people in ten remote camps was an enormous drain on the federal budget. Especially, considering that our only crime was being born with Japanese faces. The order came down to release us to resume productive lives.

Three months after my arrival in Heart Mountain, I received my ticket out. My uncle in New York guaranteed a job and support. He continued in business after Pearl Harbor. The East Coast Japanese did not experience the upheaval that we did on the West Coast.

Sponsorship was the key to the outside. For the young man, military service. Thousands enlisted. Young people began leaving daily for jobs all over the country. They, in turn, sponsored their parents and other relatives.

In three years, Heart Mountain was emptied. Only ghosts remained to haunt the conscience of other good Americans. Like the Blackburns.

© 2007 Sachi Kaneshiro

concentration camp heart mountain World War II Wyoming