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CORRECTED: FEATURE: Wyoming museum keeps Japanese-Americans' internment story alive.

HEART MOUNTAIN, Wyoming, Aug. 23 Kyodo

Nob Shimokochi still remembers the hardship he suffered as a Japanese-American during World War II. ''We used to say the pledge of allegiance in camp. 'With liberty and justice for all,' we said, and that irritated me like a pebble in my shoe.''

''I used to say 'liberty and justice for some' but I didn't say it very loudly. I was afraid the FBI would make me disappear.''

Shimokochi, 82, is one of more than 14,000 Japanese-Americans who were taken to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming 70 years ago. Forced by the U.S. government to leave their homes on the West Coast due to the belief that their Japanese ancestry made them a military threat, they lived in barracks in the barren desert for up to three years.

On Aug. 20, 250 former internees returned to the prairie where the internment camp used to stand to meet old friends and see their experiences memorialized in the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, a new educational facility which opened the same day.

The center is shaped like the barracks in which they lived and located nearby the original camp site. It took the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, formed by a group of former internees, their families and supporters, 15 years and $5 million in private donations, most from internees themselves, to complete the project.

It is their hope that future generations will never forget that in the United States, a country which enshrines liberty in its constitution, wartime hysteria once led to the racial profiling and mass incarceration of innocent people. The lesson carries a warning, Sen. Daniel Inoue, who is of Japanese descent, told the opening ceremony. ''If this happened in this great nation and if we don't watch ourselves, it could happen again.''

From 1942-1945, 10 camps throughout the country imprisoned 120,000 Japanese-Americans. But the new center is only the second of its kind, and the first to be planned and built by former internees themselves.

Shimokochi, originally from Los Angeles, was only 13 when he and his family arrived by train at the camp. They were given mere days to dispose of their possessions and pack only what they could carry to the dusty camp in the shadow of Heart Mountain, more than 1,000 kilometers from their homes.

He remembers the stress of the experience, and using newspapers to cover gaps in the thin walls that separated his family from the six others in the same building. What little sleep they could get was interrupted by searchlights from the guard towers.

''Laying there on my straw mattress, I was totally confused,'' said Shimokochi. ''I had learned that the constitution guaranteed civil rights, so how come I was in a concentration camp?''

''The feelings (on opening this center) are bittersweet,'' said Shirley Higuchi, chairwoman of the foundation whose mother and father first met at the camp. Building the center was her mother's dream. ''Although this is a magnificent project that we are all proud of, it also memorializes what happened during World War II.''

Visitors are surrounded by life-size photos of former internees as they imagine the turmoil of being displaced. The center avoids the explanatory mode of traditional museums and tells the internees' story in the first person using quotes and video clips. Photographs taken by internees show life before, in, and after the camp.

One room recreates what internees saw when they first arrived: empty wooden barracks with the wind bringing dust through gaps in the walls. The opposite room shows what barracks looked like after a family moved in and did their best to make it their home: a painting here, a wall fashioned from a sheet, rough wooden furniture, shoes, a teddy bear, and other small comforts.

Collecting the pots and pans, suitcases, furniture, and other pieces that bring the museum to life has been a 12-year labor of love for LaDonna Zall. She grew up in the nearby town of Powell and was 10 years old when she watched the last train of internees depart with tears in her eyes. As acting curator for the museum she has collected and saved more than 6,000 artifacts from life at the camp.

The exhibits reflect a wide range of experiences, from labor strikes at the camp hospital to the high school sports teams, farming at the camp, and Boy and Girl Scout troops.

The happy memories are what Maye Yasuda Umemoto, 81, remembers best. Maye came from a farming family, and living at the camp meant she didn't have to work. ''We just played and played,'' she said.

Her granddaughter Kelsi McGamm, 25, who only ever knew about the fun her grandmother had, said visiting the center gave her an even greater respect for what the older generations had to overcome.

In the racist climate of the war, many Japanese-Americans strove to prove their loyalty to their countrymen. One display honors the more than 800 Heart Mountain internees, Shimokochi's brother-in-law among them, who entered the military. Fifteen of them died in combat.

It also remembers the nearly 90 people who became conscientious objectors, stating they would serve in the military after their constitutional rights were restored.

They organized a movement called the Fair Play Committee -- holding meetings, posting flyers, and writing editorials on their beliefs -- that professor Eric Muller, who helped plan the center's content, calls ''unique among all the camps.''

''History always has the ability to repeat itself,'' Norman Mineta, a former Heart Mountain internee who served as U.S. secretary of transportation when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks occurred, told the crowd of more than 1,000 at the opening ceremony.

''It came very close on Sept. 11,'' Mineta said, recalling talk of banning people of Middle Eastern descent from airplanes or even ''rounding them up'' in the panic-filled days following the hijackings. ''What you are doing here is drawing that line in the sand to say 'never again.'''

Before the dust settled at the new museum's grand opening, Higuchi announced the foundation's plans to collaborate with lawyers, policymakers, psychologists and researchers to learn from the internment experience and suggest practices for dealing with wartime hysteria and avoiding civil rights abuses.

''For the old people here, it's a kind of closure. We can now turn the job of telling our story over to the center,'' said Bacon Sakatani, a former internee and one of the foundation's board members. In between sentences, he calls out to a friend -- the weekend was not only a grand opening, but a reunion.

It was a chance for Shimokochi to laugh with the family who once stayed in the shack next to his on their way to camp. For Sakatani, it was time for an eighth climb up Heart Mountain itself. It was a point for all the internees to look back and see how far they had come.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Sep 6, 2011
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