Sam Mihara was 9 years old in 1942 but he didn’t have the chance to finish fourth grade as he normally would have.
Instead, he and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Mihara described it as a “prison” just outside Cody and Powell.
“We had no idea when we were going to be released,” said Mihara, who is now 86. “The facilities were designed to be relatively permanent — they had a high school and a hospital — and so it was obvious that we would be there for quite a long time.”
Months before, the Imperial Japanese Navy had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II and unleashing what the National Archives describes as a “rash of fear” about national security. That led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign an executive order, No. 9066, which authorized the relocation of 120,000 or so people of Japanese descent from their homes on the West Coast to the United States’ interior.
Mihara and his family were included in that number.
Taken from their home in San Francisco, they were sent to Pomona, California, where they were kept in what was called an “assembly center,” a holding facility built on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.
It took the federal government about three months to build 10 relocation centers like Heart Mountain across California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas.
When those centers were completed, the Miharas were sent to Heart Mountain. They stayed for three years.
Nearly eight decades after arriving at the relocation center, Mihara has lived a full life, working as an aerospace engineer for Boeing for over 40 years. More recently he has become a public speaker and written “Blindsided,” a book about his wartime experience. On Friday he will be at Teton County Library, where he’ll speak about mass imprisonment in America.
The talk, part of the library’s “Power Trip” series, is set to run from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and Mihara said he sees it as a chance to share his experience and to discuss the national climate that led to the internment.
One of the main points he wants to communicate is the root cause of the Japanese internment: “racial hatred, mass hysteria and some of the leaders who failed to honor the Constitution.”
A grievous error
The relocation centers that Japanese Americans were first sent to, Mihara said, were supposed to be exactly that: relocation centers. So that was what the government called them.
“Those names were given by the government before the decision was made to turn it into a prison,” Mihara said. “It was literally a camp without a fence, without guards, without a prison condition.”
That changed shortly after the relocation and internment began.
Mass hysteria — like Mihara, the federal government later described that as one of the causes for the internment, along with racial prejudice and “a failure of political leadership” — reached new heights. Mihara said governors of the states where the camps were located ordered them turned into prisons.
“There was hysteria among the public that we would escape and come into town and cause great harm,” Mihara said, like by perpetrating “a massive suicide attack on the towns of Cody and Powell.”
That sort of attack never happened.
Two conflicting Supreme Court rulings were issued on Dec. 18, 1944. Korematsu v. the United States upheld the idea that “prevention of espionage was more important than civil rights,” Mihara said, while ex parte Endo stated that loyal citizens could not be detained, contradicting the rationale behind the Korematsu decision. That legal conflict has been credited with causing President Roosevelt to issue a proclamation ending the internment.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford called the internment “wrong.” In 1980 a congressional commission, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, reinforced that point: No person of Japanese descent had committed crimes against the United States during the war.
“The history of the relocation camps and the assembly centers that preceded them is one of suffering and deprivation,” the commission’s report read, “visited on people against whom no charges were, or could have been, brought.”
Eight years later, President Ronald Reagan issued a formal government apology to the detainees, which included monetary compensation and, as Mihara said, the word “apology.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush followed suit, beginning the process of sending redress payments and formal statements of apology. That led the government to pay out $1.6 billion to 82,219 former relocation center inmates, which, according to the National Museum of American History, was “an amount that did not compensate for their total losses.”
Looking to the future
After the war Mihara finished school and graduated with engineering degrees from the University of California-Berkeley and University of California-Los Angeles. He went on to enjoy a 42-year career at Boeing, where he worked as an aerospace engineer, sending rockets into space. Toward the end of his career he spent time “explaining to people in the government what rockets are all about.”
Still, he never talked about his experiences in Heart Mountain at work.
“I didn’t think there was a need to,” Mihara said. “I think most people knew that it was part of my background.”
In 2011 he spoke out publicly for the first time when the people restoring Heart Mountain — it currently operates as a museum dedicated to preserving the relocation center and educating the public about the internment — invited him to speak at a conference, where he told a crowd of about 100 people about his experience.
Most of those people “knew very little about these camps,” Mihara said. “You figure they’re relatively young. They weren’t born until well after World War II.”
Mihara has spent the past nine years or so giving talks across the country, both for public audiences and at schools like his alma maters, as well as Yale University, Harvard University and other institutions.
He said it’s important to speak about the internment because he’s heard “some leaders in this country” talk about the internment as a “precedent” or “a good example of what could be done.”
Mihara said that sort of thinking is off base, as were discussions about preventing Muslims from flying post 9/11, which “in other words is profiling of a race.”
When he heard that migrant families were being detained at the border more recently, Mihara visited the detention centers, interviewing attorneys as well as current and former detainees about their condition. He also tried to decipher whether the root causes of the detainment of migrants were the same as the Japanese internment.
There were “similarities,” he said, but “in many, many cases, today’s problems are far worse.”
In his talk Mihara will connect his experience to the experience of those two groups, though he recognized that “each situation is different.”
He also stressed that what happened in World War II is “not a precedent.” It profiled Japanese who were “completely loyal.”
“It was a bad decision,” Mihara said. “And it should never be applied again.” ￼