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Yakima Valley's Residents of Japanese ancestry found ways to thrive at Heart Mountain

Frank Hirahara, of Yakima, looks toward Heart Mountain on Feb. 15, 1945. (The Hirahara Family Collection, Anaheim Public Library, courtesy Yakima Valley Museum)

Esther Boyd received the Western Union telegram the morning of Sept. 1, 1942.

“Arrived safely in Wyoming ten am Monday conditions satisfactory regards Shiz Harada,” it said.

Harada would write Boyd in Wapato several times from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center about 14 miles east of Cody, where he and more than 1,000 Yakima Valley residents of Japanese ancestry would live for the next three years.

Tosh Umemoto, another Valley resident, recalled arriving as a teen with his parents and six siblings.

“... The first thing I noticed was seeing all the tar-papered barracks, then the barb-wire fences, guard towers with sentries,” he recalled in a written statement years later.

“Shortly after receiving our assigned block, barrack and unit (number), we were loaded on open trucks to Block 21 — Barrack 6 Units A & B, which was to be our address for the next three years.”

Saturday marks 75 years since the opening of Heart Mountain, which housed more than 10,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, most from California but also from the Yakima Valley. Many were American citizens, born here to immigrant parents.

They were among approximately 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry forced into 10 remote prison camps as a result of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. That order would eventually include 1,017 Yakima Valley residents.

Before Heart Mountain closed in November 1945, its residents endeavored to create normal routines as best they could. Amid those routines, several from the Valley distinguished themselves through their education, their work, their expertise and their talent.

Kara Matsushita from Yakima served as society editor of the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel. Yone Kubo of Parker was one of its photographers. A father and son, George and Frank Hirahara, documented Heart Mountain life through more than 2,000 photos.

The minister of the Yakima Buddhist Church conducted services in a barracks that housed its Amida Buddha, transported from Wapato and back home again after the war ended.

Youngsters became Brownies and joined Girl and Boy Scout troops. Boys participated in a Scout drum and bugle corps. A young woman from Wapato, Hisako Takehara, was chosen by the Heart Mountain High School student body as Campus Popularity Queen, and a Wapato man, George Iseri, pitched for the Heart Mountain All Stars in 1945.

And Valley residents helped farm the dusty, wind-scoured earth.

“Been working every day hauling spud and onion. It’s tough waking up early to do this hard work all day. But one must eat ...” Harada wrote in a letter to Boyd on Feb. 6, 1945.

Their accomplishments and everyday routines provided stability in an unfamiliar land Estelle Ishigo recalled in a 1975 Yakima Herald-Republic article by Maurice Helland.

“In the distance a row of barracks stood in cactus-covered sand, on ancient weirdly jagged wasteland that spread far into the wide horizon. There lay the camp at the foot of a lonely mountain,” she said.

Stark arrival

Yakima Valley residents arrived at Heart Mountain on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 from the Portland Assembly Center in Portland, Ore., where they had lived since early June.

The guard towers Umemoto described were among nine at Heart Mountain, all staffed with military police and high-beam searchlights. The camp had 200 administrative employees, 124 soldiers and three officers.

The 46,000-acre camp included 468 barrack-style buildings sectioned into 20 blocks that served as administration areas and living quarters.

The barracks contained apartments, some single rooms and others slightly larger for families of up to six. Each unit featured a light fixture in the center of the room, an army cot with two blankets and a cylindrical stove for heat.

“Coal was dumped in two areas per block where families from 12 barracks had to pick up and carry to their units,” Umemoto wrote. “During winter months we had to carry in a lot of coal.”

Every block included a mess hall, unpartitioned toilet and shower facilities and a laundry.

In their first month at Heart Mountain, Valley residents mourned the loss of two from their community. Shinjiro “Kaho” Honda of Seattle, who organized the senryu poetry circle in Yakima — the first in the United States — arrived on Sept. 1 and died on Sept. 3. He was 65 and as a widower, had decided to join his 19-year-old daughter, Teresa Yoshi Honda of Yakima.

Another young woman from Yakima died on Sept. 27. Amy Furuta, 29, was “a victim of toxic thyroid” who for 19 days “fought a game battle for her life under an oxygen tent,” according to a camp bulletin from the time. Survivors included her mother and two brothers.

She was the fifth person to die at Heart Mountain by that point, with at least one birth in that time.

Ayako and James Minatani of Toppenish arrived at Heart Mountain on Sept. 1 and six days later, she gave birth to a son, Steven.

Drive to produce

Despite the challenges the land posed, Heart Mountain had one of the most successful agriculture programs of all the camps, introducing crops that had never been grown in the region.

As with their agricultural success in the Yakima Valley, irrigation was key for farmers. In the spring of 1943, internees began working on an irrigation project that included a 5,000-foot canal. They cleared sagebrush from several thousand acres and planted peas, beans, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon and other crops, according to information at the Yakima Valley Museum.

Despite the skepticism of local farmers that crops were possible so late in the season, the autumn harvest yielded 1,065 tons of produce. The following year, 2,500 tons was harvested.

Internees also raised cattle, hogs and chickens for their own consumption.

“The farmers from Wapato in the Yakima Valley of Washington were especially helpful in teaching the methods they developed for growing crops in an area with a short growing season,” Eiichi Edward Sakauye wrote in his book, “A Reflection on the Heart Mountain Relocation Center — A Photo Essay Heart Mountain.”

“Since the Heart Mountain region has only 109 growing days, these techniques were essential if the crops were to be harvested before the first frost in early September.”

Two of these techniques were hot caps or tents and hot beds, Sakauye wrote.

“The hot caps of that time were waxed paper coverings placed over planted seeds of cucumbers and melons to provide extra warmth for seed germination, plant growth, and protection from frost,” the book notes.

Heart Mountain residents could leave for work or other reasons, mostly agricultural jobs that could last for weeks.

Tosh Umemoto was 15 and his brother Yosh was 13 when they and four other internees signed a request work on the sugar beet crop in Lyman, Neb., about 350 miles away. They traveled by bus and stayed in a house that belonged to the farmer’s son, his wife and their toddler.

“After a month or so of topping beets, back-breaking work, we returned to Heart Mountain. Started school about 3 to 4 weeks late,” Umemoto recalled.

“School was held in barracks same as our (quarters). Classes were held in different units or barracks depending on subjects you took, so you went from barrack to barrack,” Umemoto wrote.

Eddie Iseri, 88, of Zillah recalled his teachers with fondness.

“We got the best education in those three years. The teachers had so much compassion,” he said.

Harada said as much in his February 1945 letter to Boyd.

“Yes, I really miss good ole Yakima Valley. Wish I could be there always,” he wrote.

 

*This article was originally published on YakimaHerald.com on August 5, 2017.

 

© 2017 Tammy Ayer

heart mountain internment Washington World War II Wyoming Yakima