It was just a few miles outside Cody, Wyoming, where the land is rugged and the weather is brutal. It's where American citizens were imprisoned behind barbed wire and guard towers for no other reason than because of their heritage. Eight out of 10 were from Los Angeles.
Judge Lance Ito's family was held there. In this Eyewitness News special, "Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain," I talk to the Honorable Lance Ito and his mother about their family's remarkable story. It's a story very few people know about.
The Hirahara photo collection tells the story of Heart Mountain through pictures. Patti Hirahara's father and grandfather had a secret dark room under their barracks. In the years they were imprisoned, they took thousands of photos of camp life. Each photo is an opportunity to see their daily struggles and how they worked so hard at making life livable. I got together with some of the people in those photos at the Japanese American National Museum, where they found images of themselves in this collection and shared their memories with me.
We traveled to Wyoming to visit the place where this camp once stood. There is now a museum and interpretive center there that keeps the memory of this camp and what happened there alive. It's a wonderful facility.
The center is there thanks in large part to a woman named Shirley Higuchi. Her mother was an inmate at the camp and dreamed of someday building a place that shows the world the unfairness of that time. After her mother passed, Shirley took it upon herself to fulfill her mother's dream.
There's the Kito family. They are owners of Fugetsu-do, a mochi shop that has operated in Little Tokyo for 110 years. While held at the camp, they found a way to make mochi, a traditional Japanese confection. The inmates would hand over their precious sugar rations to the Kitos, who would then make the delicious confection for the camp residents. Having mochi helped give families a wonderful taste of home at a time when it meant so much to them.
Most importantly, the story of Heart Mountain still resonates today. How do we define Americans? If your origin is another country does that make you any less American? In times of great crisis do we still fall into the trap of judging people by the way they look or where they are from simply because we are scared?
The lessons from Heart Mountain are invaluable and should never be forgotten.