Sam Mihara: Surviving Heart Mountain

"What was very difficult was that the government never told us where we were going. It was a big secret to all of us inside that train. So, we were in there for three days and nights, not knowing where were we going until we wound up at this place called Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell."

Sam Mihara was just nine years old when he never had the chance to finish fourth grade. In 1942, Sam and his family were forced to move to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, just outside Cody, WY. Where for the remainder of the war, many Japanese immigrants and citizens alike would be held accountable for the actions of their empire. As is a second-generation Japanese American, Sam was born in the early 1930’s and raised in San Francisco. When World War II broke out, the United States government forced Sam and his family to move, first to a detention camp in Pomona, Calif., and then to a remote prison camp in Northern Wyoming, where they stayed for three years. The camp was one of 10 in the United States.

A New Book – The Life and Times of Sam Mihara - New Second Edition

Sam Mihara was at the movies when the news broke: Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor, leaving U.S. servicemen dead. After that day in December 1941, his world was never the same. No more John Wayne or Walt Disney; now, his life stacked up to buses and trains with armed guards for personal escorts as he paid the price for a crime he never committed. Because he was Japanese, he and his family were sentenced to mass imprisonment in a desolate Wyoming camp called Heart Mountain. And in the midst of World War II, the fact that he and his brother were kids and American citizens didn’t matter.

In a new book, The Life and Times of Sam Mihara, the Paul A. Gagnon Prize winner shares his harrowing experiences with Japanese incarceration — and how he overcame a childhood fraught with adversity to become the man he is today. The text includes an appendix that outlines the most important events that marked the plight of Japanese Americans during the war, and that altered the course of American history forever.

In the newly published 2nd edition of the book, Blindsided, The Life and Times of Sam Mihara, Sam reveals more details. The additions include life before entering the prison camps, life in the first camp called “Pomona”. Also, an event at Pomona is described where his mother was almost shot. Details of daily life in the Wyoming prison camp are revealed. While in prison, Sam tells of how he was inspired to become an engineer. And he describes how he discovered important photos of the imprisonment by photographer Dorothea Lange.

Sam Mihara: The large majority of the 120,000 people on the west coast decided to go along with this government order that we must leave on a certain day and get ready to go to these prison camps.

Emy diGrappa: Hello, my name is Emy diGrappa. Each week we have new stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion and purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Sam Mihara. Sam Mihara was nine years old and he never had the chance to finish fourth grade. In 1942, Sam and his family were forced to move to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, located just outside Cody and Powell. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Mihara: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: It's hard to know where to start with this interview because you've had a lifetime of experiences, and I think what I want to ask is, first of all, what did it feel like in that moment in fourth grade? What was your emotional, and just what was your family feeling at that time, when they were being forced to relocate?

Sam Mihara: Well, when we received the word from the authority who made the decision to remove Japanese, and only Japanese, not Germans and Italians, from the western states, our parents were more concerned than I was. I was relatively young and followed the lead of my father, who I said, "We must go along with the orders." I clearly sensed that my parents were more concerned than I was, because they are citizens of Japan. They were here on a work visa, and they had not received their permanent citizenship.

Sam Mihara: As a result, they knew that I was a citizen by birth, but they were not. I sensed that they were quite worried that the government might ship them back to Japan and have to leave the kids here. So, there was a lot of anxiety at that time as to what's going to happen. When the orders came out that the entire family shall be moved, my parents simply, like many other parents, decided to go along. Very few people decided that it was wrong and decided not to go, but the large majority of the 120,000 people on the west coast decided to go along with this government order that we must leave on a certain day and get ready to go to these prison camps.

Emy diGrappa: How were you transported to the prison camps?

Sam Mihara: We went by railroad, but there was no railroad stations in San Francisco. Railroads didn't come into San Francisco, so what we did was, we took a bus to go across the bay to Oakland where the railroad terminal was, and then we rode the bus to the terminal, and then we went across the country in a train. Our train went all the way to Wyoming.

Sam Mihara: What was very difficult was that the government never told us where we were going. It was a big secret to all of us inside that train. So, we were in there for three days and nights, not knowing where were we going until we wound up at this place called Heart Mountain between Cody and Powell.

Emy diGrappa: Kind of paint a picture of what life was like when you were living at Heart Mountain, and how long did you live there?

Sam Mihara: We lived there precisely three years. Life was very difficult, especially for our family. It was difficult when we started, by moving into a single room, a 20 feet by 20 feet exactly, and when they had four, I would call them cots, military cots as bed. There was no room for anything else. No furnishings. You could barely walk around with the remaining space. So, we were in that confined area for the entire duration of three years. It was not easy.

Emy diGrappa: After those three years, how did it end up that you left and you returned to California?

Sam Mihara: Well, we knew the end was coming. We'd been following the results of the campaign in the Pacific, and clearly Japan was being defeated toward the end, but we did not know exactly when. There's a very famous case that went to the Supreme Court, which is called the defendant's by the name of, a lady name Mitsuye Endo. A lawyer filed a suit on her behalf, claiming that it was unconstitutional for her to, being an American citizen, by forcing her to these camps and being, literally, a prisoner, without justice.

Sam Mihara: That complaint went up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court finally decided, unanimous, nine to zero, to let her go, and at the same time, let everyone else go who were considered to be a loyal people to the United States. That's how we got out. It was two months before the end of the war. But, thanks to this attorney who had the wisdom to be able to file the lawsuit, that we were able to get out of the camp and go home.

Emy diGrappa: From that time, until you started speaking in schools and telling people your story, what were your feelings? Were you embittered and so saddened by what had happened to your family?

Sam Mihara: The answer is yes. I was bitter for a long time. For about 50 years, I was angry, both at the federal government, and also at the local and state government in Wyoming. The federal government were responsible for removing us from our homes, but the state government, especially the governor at that time, was responsible for demanding that our camp be made into a prison.

Sam Mihara: There was no need for that. We weren't escaping, but the people had developed a hysteria after the media started publishing headlines that alerted the local people that 10,000 of us are coming close to the town of Cody and Powell. So, we have evidence of the fact that these people who lived there at that time demanded the change in the configuration of the camp into a regular prison, with guards, and armament, and barbwire fences, and warning signs about not escaping.

Sam Mihara: I'll talk about this, this evening, but we did receive an apology from the federal government from two presidents, but we never received an apology from the governor of Wyoming before he passed on. Later on, we received a statement of regret, but there's a huge difference between the word regret and apology. So, there's a little bitterness among all of us about that fact, but the end of the situation is, at least we were able to get the federal government to apologize for this enormous mistake of our being denied our civil rights.

Sam Mihara: That's what happened, and therefore I was bitter for a long time, but I realized that it doesn't help to be bitter for 50 years, and there's a better solution than to be bitter. That is to do what I'm doing, which is to teach young people about what happened, and to think about the lessons learned, and they should be aware that it could happen to other people, and to watch out for the signs, the indications that an imprisonment were clearly there in some recent cases, or recent situations involving religious groups and racial groups. So, what I like to do is to really educate people on what happened and let them make future decisions as to whether an action like this was good or not good.

Emy diGrappa: So, when you talk to young people, how do you educate them in terms of, what should the knowledge base be and how do they make a better decision for someone else's future? Maybe not just theirs, but someone else that they can see that is in trouble?

Sam Mihara: Well, the method I use is something that I've learned over the years, and I've spoken to a lot of people, over 50,000 people, across the country. What seems to be the most effective is to tell personal stories about what happened, like I'll be talking about this evening. People who know very little about what happened, seem to be able to understand better if I explain the personal stories that happened to me, and what happened to my friends, before, and during, and after the camps. That seems to be the way that people can better remember. Hopefully, that's what I hope, that people will remember to watch out for these signs of the start of a movement to remove people and to imprison people, and they'll never forget that. So that's, the method I use in order to speak to a lot of people.

Emy diGrappa: When you left Heart Mountain and you went on to go to school, were you actually going to school at Heart Mountain?

Sam Mihara: Yes, I was in the fourth grade. I just continued on in my education. I have to admit, they did have a pretty good school system. We did not have enough teachers that were certified, and so the government hired some 35 teachers from across the country. White teachers, who came in and lived with us. They had their own barrack, and cooked their own food, and taught during the day. That way, we were able to get the kind of education that we need, especially for high school graduates who wanted to go to college.

Sam Mihara: So that, worked out well. That's one of the better stories within the camp itself is the educational system.

Emy diGrappa: Did you make some lifelong friends, kids that were your age that were also imprisoned?

Sam Mihara: Oh, yes. There are many. I've had some friends from grammar school who went with me, and some friends I developed in the camp, and a few more friends that I learned who were also at Heart Mountain after I came out of school and out of the camp. But, we've developed a longtime relationship, and we work with each other to try to tell this story to many, many people.

Emy diGrappa: Have you written a book on this?

Sam Mihara: Yes, I have. It's an autobiography. It's titled, Blindsided. It tells a personal story of what happened to me and my family, and some of my friends. I try to tie it to major events along the way, and hopefully everyone will order a copy.

Emy diGrappa: Right. Right now, when you look out there and what's going on in our political atmosphere, what do you think are the lessons we haven't learned, and what are the things that you would like to see different in the U.S. government?

Sam Mihara: Well, from time to time, I see some signs that people forget. I'll give you a couple of examples. Some potential leaders of this country make a claim that what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II is a good precedent. Precedent means an example, a good example, to be followed. That's not true. It was not a good example. It's a bad example of our being denied our civil rights, and they shouldn't do that.

Sam Mihara: So, when I hear of proposals, for example, to take all Muslims in this country and prohibit them from flying ... This happened right after 9-11. That told me that, that's wrong. Fortunately, the government stops any of these attempts to try to force airplanes, or airlines, from taking on Muslim passengers.

Sam Mihara: When, I heard that there are prison camps ... Actually, they're call detention centers, but prison camps for families of immigrants, I immediately sensed that, I wonder if there's a similarity between today's detention centers for immigrants, compared to the prisons that I was in as family members during World War II.

Sam Mihara: So, I see these signs along the way that the people haven't learned their lesson. That's what's important, and that's the lesson that we learned from the experience. Hopefully, everyone who hears my talk will realize that these are the signs that one should remember, the lessons learned that we should remember, that everyone should keep in mind when another event comes up in another race, or another religious group, or anyone else is subject to forced removal without justice.

Emy diGrappa: I'm wondering, because of just all the anger and strife that's going on in our political system, it doesn't seem like we've learned a lot, and I'm just wondering what can happen in the classroom for children and youth to really understand what their civil rights are, what is the Constitution?

Sam Mihara: In my talk, as an example, I point out what specifically is in the Constitution that makes it not only undesirable, but illegal for such an action. For example, it's right in the Pledge Of Allegiance that every child learns in school, and it simply says, "With liberty and justice for all."

Sam Mihara: When the military with arms comes to your home, and removes you from your house, and puts you away without justification, without a good reason, in other words, without justice, they're in violation of everyone's civil rights under the Constitution. I teach that, especially to young people, and I think they learn the significance. Every morning when they recite the Pledge Of Allegiance in school, I think they can get a better understanding of what that really means. That's one way to deliver the message, and I try to explain that carefully when I speak at schools.

Emy diGrappa: Do you ever give any thought, in terms of American history, that we relegated native peoples to reservations? Do you ever make any kinds of comparisons to what happened to you, to what has happened to the native people?

Sam Mihara: The answer is yes, and not only native people, going even further back, in terms of what happened during slavery. Whenever an entire mass of people, whether it's religious group or a racial group, it doesn't matter. When the entire groups of people are characterized as being undesirable and inhumane treatment is given to these people, it simply is another reminder of that, in the past, this country has not learned its lessons.

Sam Mihara: I've even heard statements from justices of the Supreme Court. For example, Justice Antonin Scalia, before he passed on, he made a speech, simply saying that, "I would not be surprised if it happened again to someone else." So, even the members of the Supreme Court haven't learned the lesson about what, basically, is the fundamental principal of the Constitution, which is their responsibility. So that, worries me.

Sam Mihara: So, I teach young people, keep that in mind, and when it comes time for you to vote, make sure you have the person in mind as to his background, or her background, and find out if they really believe in these parts of the Constitution that they're supposed to uphold. These are the kind of lessons I like to pass on.

Emy diGrappa: Well, I think it's been great talking to you, Sam. Thank you so much for your time, and I just appreciate your passion and your heart, and the fact that you are out there in the world spreading this message.

Sam Mihara: Thank you. May I mention, very simply, people can read a lot more in my book, and it's available through my website, www.sammihara.com. You can order the book and it goes into quite a bit of detail about my personal life during this ordeal. Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.