NBC’s Tom Brokaw will be in Cody, Wyoming, tomorrow (August 20). So will Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, Los Angeles Judge Lance Ito and several other influential Japanese Americans.
All are in this small prairie town to dedicate a marvelous new interpretive learning center at the former site of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
But no words that any of these men might say are likely to have the impact of what I personally heard yesterday from Bacon Sakatani.
Heart Mountain was one of a dozen American “relocation camps” at which Japanese Americans were interned for three years during World War II, having been flushed from their homes in California, Oregon and Washington.
At this desolate Wyoming camp alone, up to 10,700 Asians were housed behind barbed wire in 468 barracks, closely guarded by armed Caucasian soldiers.
Sakatani, now 82, was one of the residents.
“I was 12 years old when my family and I were forced from our home in West Covina,” he told me. “I turned 13 on the train north from California.
”There were seven of us. We all shared one room, 24 feet square. The government gave us three meals a day, which cost them 35 to 50 cents. We were paid $12 to $19 a month, from which we had to buy our winter clothing and anything else we needed.
“We were here to prove our loyalty to the United States. We did what we were told to do. But we were wrong. We were Americans just like any white person.”
By 1946, given $25 pocket money and a ticket home, the Sakatani family had returned to Southern California and started over. “We struggled and survived” as vegetable farmers, said Bacon — who subsequently served honorably in the Korean War — but their lives were forever changed.
“As the children of immigrants, we were taught to obey,” he recalled. “But in the 1970s and ‘80s, our own children started to question our past choices.
“And they were right. The government had lied to put us in the camps. We were the victims of racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of national leadership.”
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill, championed by Inouye, which partially redressed the injustice. All relocation-camp survivors (80,000 were still alive) were awarded $20,000 and a formal presidential pardon.
A longtime advocate for the dignity of camp survivors, Sakatani serves on the advisory board of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center. Years of work have achieved fruition with the opening of this impressive new multimedia facility, one of the best curated museums I have seen in the country.
It formally opens tomorrow. To learn more, see www.heartmountain.org.