Behind a WWII internment camp's barbed wire, 2 Scouts forged a lasting bond
By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: August 18, 2017
When they are together, it's not hard to see the Boy Scouts they were when they met seven decades ago, in the barbed-wire Japanese internment camp that sprawled over desolate fields. One was imprisoned here; one belonged to the only troop that agreed to a jamboree on the inside.
Norman Mineta went on to become a mayor, a Democratic congressman and a Cabinet secretary to two presidents. Alan K. Simpson went on to serve Wyoming as its Republican senator for 18 years. And they have returned to speak out against the racism that led to Heart Mountain's opening 75 years ago this month.
On this day, they are goofing around after dinner on the front porch of one of Simpson's favorite haunts in Cody, where storefront signs once read "No Japs Allowed."
They rib each other relentlessly. Simpson, almost a foot taller, bends down to plant a goodbye kiss on Mineta's head. When they hug, Mineta's face is squashed into Simpson's chest.
"You need to shave," Mineta quips.
Simpson rubs his chin and grins.
Nearby, their wives shake their heads and roll their eyes. They've seen this show before. "It's like they're 12 years old again," says Deni Mineta. "Look at the two of them."
The men take a cruise most years with their wives, but the trip they treasure most is this annual pilgrimage. Their personal story is a highlight for the former internees and their descendants, who visit and reflect on a particularly dark chapter in American history.
Two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an order ordering all Japanese Americans away from the Pacific Coast.
Mineta and his family were among 120,000 who were "relocated" inland to one of 10 internment camps that opened amid the wartime hysteria. The majority were citizens, forced to leave behind their homes, jobs, belongings and crops. Families lost everything. Mineta remembers tears streaming down his father's face as they left San Jose and headed first for a way station at the Santa Anita Racetrack, then to the Heart Mountain camp, 15 miles outside of Simpson's home town of Cody.
Simpson remembered how the rows of tar-paper barracks appeared almost overnight on a sagebrush flat. There was nothing near the camp but the railroad tracks that transported the internees. With more than 10,000 usually there, the camp dwarfed the population of Cody, then at just more than 2,500.
"The townspeople in Cody were not thrilled," Simpson said. "We didn't know who was in there except it must have been a pretty bad group with all that activity."
"I remember the day we got there in November ," Mineta said. "The wind was blowing, all this silt was hitting our faces, cold as blazes. . . . The restrooms were quite a ways away, so when it would get cold and either raining or the snow, you had to go to the bathroom at 11 or 12 at night and trudge through all that mud and muck and mire.
"And then each of the units had one single globe in the middle of the room and a potbelly stove in the middle. My job was to get the coal from the bin and then bring it — and that's what kept us warm."
He was 11.
No schools had been built for the thousands of children who were among the internees, so to keep the children occupied, camp elders decided to form Boy Scout troops.
Long before internment, scouting had deep roots in the Japanese community. Immigrant parents viewed it as a very American tradition and admired the organization's values of good citizenship, loyalty and service. When Mineta's family left their house for the train ride to the assembly center in Southern California, young Norman wore his Cub Scout uniform.
So Heart Mountain troop leaders wrote to troops in nearby towns, inviting them to participate in Boy Scout jamborees. All refused. They were afraid of the armed guards and uneasy about the unfamiliar faces inside.
"It was a confusing time," Simpson said. As a young boy, "You were sorting out your world when nobody was there to teach you what the hell was going on, but you knew it was mess."
But his troop's leader, Glenn Livingston, was "a scoutmaster ahead of his time," Simpson said. He told his young scouts that the boys behind the barbed-wire fence were just like them, and he was right: The Heart Mountain scouts, Simpson said, read the same comics and earned the same merit badges.
Even as a young kid, Simpson said: "You knew these were Americans, especially when you met the Scouts. They didn't even know where Japan was."
By chance, he was matched up with Mineta, who remembers Simpson as a "roly-poly kid with lots of hair."
Among their tasks that day was pitching a tent.
There is some dispute between the two, as usual, as they recount what happened next. Mineta claimed that when it came time to build a small moat around the tent, Simpson suggested routing it so that it would flow toward the tent of another Scout — one known as a bully.
"It was no skin off my nose, so I said 'Sure,' " Mineta recalled. By chance it rained, and the moat worked perfectly to flood the kid's tent.
"Oh, he laughed, 'hee hee hee, haw haw haw, hee hee hee,' " Mineta said. "I had to say, 'Alan, stop laughing so we can get some rest.' "
Said Simpson: "He said I laughed hideously at the event. I don't recall any cackling, but it was fun."
They spent a day together. Then Simpson went back to a comfortable life as the son of a prominent family in Cody. Mineta stayed behind the barbed wire for a year.
That might have been that, had it not been for a small news item that ran in the Cody Enterprise in 1971.
Like the thousands of other Japanese families, Mineta and his family had returned home after the war to rebuild their lives. Mineta's family was among the fortunate: A friend had taken care of their property, so they had a home. But prejudice persisted, and his father struggled to restart his insurance business.
Mineta got a business administration degree at the University of California at Berkeley, joined the Army and fought in Korea. In 1971, he was elected mayor of San Jose and became the first Japanese American to lead a major U.S. city.
Simpson, by then a young lawyer practicing in Cody, spotted an Associated Press story in the local paper about that election. Buried deep in the text was a mention that Mineta and his family had been interned at the Heart Mountain camp.
Simpson, realizing this was the same pesky kid, dashed off a note.
"Dear Norm, congratulations on being elected mayor - I have been wondering what you've been up to all these years . . ." Mineta recalled. "He still complains, to this day, that I never responded to him."
"You know, I don't remember that I did — so I fall silent whenever he's talking about that," he said with a sheepish grin.
Three years later, Mineta was elected to Congress, and Simpson wrote again. This time, the newly minted congressman wrote back.
After Simpson was elected to the Senate from Wyoming in 1978, the two former Boy Scouts finally were reunited face-to-face — 35 years after they met on the sagebrush flat.
Politically, they were opposites. Simpson is a Republican. Mineta is a Democrat.
Once, when Mineta signed on to support a gun control bill, Simpson called him up. "He said, 'You know what gun control is in my state?'" Mineta recalled. "It's how steady you hold the gun." That argument didn't persuade Mineta, but it did make him laugh.
The two were in Congress at the same time for 16 years. Outsiders thought their bipartisan friendship was curious.
Mineta, again: "One time this guy asked Alan, 'I don't understand. You're a conservative Republican, and he's a liberal Democrat, so what's the big difference between you and Mineta?' And Alan said, 'Well, I wear a 17 1/2 shoe and he wears 8.' "
In 1995, when Simpson decided he would not run for reelection, Mineta was among the first people he called. The exchange was trademark Simpson.
"He said, 'I want to talk to you, and I said, 'Why don't you come on over Wednesday at 2 p.m.,'" Mineta said. "And then he said, "May I remind you that I'm a U.S. senator, and you are a mere representative of the House?' So I said, 'Okay you imperial so-and-so, I'll come over to your side.'"
Perhaps their most memorable legislative collaboration came on the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the government formally apologized to the Japanese American internees and created a $1.25 billion trust fund to provide reparations to those who were interned. Mineta and his colleagues, including Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Spark M. Matsunaga, D-Hawaii, worked with many others for more than a decade to get the bill passed.
Simpson plays down his role in the bill's passage, but Mineta insists his friend was a key supporter despite Simpson's opposition to the provision providing $20,000 payments to living internees.
Speaking in support of the bill from the Senate floor, Simpson recounted how his trip with the Boy Scouts into the Heart Mountain detention camp had "put a new twist" on his own wartime perception of Japanese Americans "because we thought of them as something else — as aliens, we thought of them as spies, we thought of them as people who were behind wire because of what they were trying to do in our country."
Instead, he said, they were Boy Scouts from California, wearing "the same merit badges, same Scout sashes, same clothing. . . . But in my mind you had to see it, you had to have it etched on the back of the rim of your eye, to understand that these people were put in an extraordinary situation where they lost their constitutional rights in the United States of America. They were not, as I say, aliens. They were U.S. citizens."
At the site of the camp where more than 14,000 people were confined, just a few old buildings remain. They have been preserved by a nonprofit foundation as part of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, which aims to remind visitors of the need for tolerance and upholding basic civil rights when protecting national security.
Simpson and Mineta helped raise millions of dollars for the center, much of it by telling the story of their friendship. Mineta always tells people how much he treasures Simpson's humor and loyalty. Simpson always expresses his admiration for how Mineta moved on after Heart Mountain to "do good," for refusing to give in to bitterness.
In an interview in Simpson's living room, he and Mineta reflected on their long bond.
"It wasn't anything mystical," Simpson said. "It was just two boys — just two curious, inquisitive kids — pesky, good-humored, full of fun, who met each other and who remembered - at least I remembered."
Said Mineta: "He is a great friend all around. Even though he's a conservative Republican, and I'm a liberal Democrat, we're just the best of friends."
That makes them rare specimens of a nearly extinct species, as they well know.
"People may like the aspects . . . of bipartisanship. . . . And certainly an Asian and a Caucasian, there's another blend," Simpson said. "And maybe they pine for that, I don't know."
Up the hill from the center, an American flag flaps in the wind. At the flagpole's base sits a plaque with the names of 800 who were drafted or enlisted from Heart Mountain. It includes 15 internees who died fighting for the United States, two of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor.
"This is not about the past," Mineta said at the center's opening in 2011. "This is about the future . . . because history already has the ability to repeat itself, and what you are doing here is drawing that line in the sand, to say that never again will there be something like what happened here."
This summer, a record number of people made the pilgrimage, boarding yellow school buses that took them through fertile farmland. First-timers such as Mitch Homma, whose parents and grandparents were interned here, joined Bacon Sakatani, now in his 80s, who has made 30 trips to Heart Mountain since his confinement there as an eighth-grader. Raymond Uno, a judge, led 50 members of his family to see where he had been interned.
For many, the trips are a contemplation of family history that is both painful and prideful. John S. Toyama, who was born at Heart Mountain, said that one of the first times he returned to the camp as an adult, he cried.
"It was very emotional," he said. Now, he is more at peace when he sees the mountain and wanders through the center.
"There is good energy here," Toyama said, energies that he thinks helped the Japanese Americans interned at Heart Mountain survive.
The visitors also see the durability of the unlikely Boy Scout friendship as a powerful energy, a testament to resilience and mutual respect. When Mineta and Simpson arrive, the 85-year-olds are greeted like favorite uncles and dear friends. Instead of handshakes, there are hugs and kisses and, among the younger members of the crowd, plenty of selfies.
"Every year [the crowd] gets bigger, and Norm and I get smaller," Simpson jokes to the crowd. "Thanks for keeping [Heart Mountain] alive."
Later that afternoon, Mineta grips a cane and climbs slowly up the stairs to a refurbished barracks like the one he lived in for a year. Internment "was a bad memory," he had said in a previous interview. "It's something you don't forget, but you don't let that become a chain around your neck."
Now, he looks out the window.
"Same old dust is still here," he says while picking at dirt in the windowsill. His wife takes a picture.
"Smile," she says.