It was a marvelously incongruous scene: At a quarter to 11 on a Saturday night, the nation’s two most powerful Japanese American politicians sat side-by-side in a Dairy Queen in the dusty frontier town of Cody, Wyoming.
Daniel Inouye, the senior member of the U.S. Senate, and Norman Mineta, who served as Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration and Secretary of Transportation in the second Bush administration, were enjoying icy Slurpees before bedtime.
The Democratic leaders were a long way from home. Inouye, 86, is from Hawaii. Mineta, 79, is from California.
They had visited Cody, along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans, to dedicate a world-class interpretive learning center at the former Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a World War II internment camp that is now a National Historic Landmark outside of Cody.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Mineta, who had spent part of his childhood at the camp, and a bitter reminder of wartime prejudice for Inouye, who gave his right arm fighting for his country in Italy but still was denied service at white-owned businesses when he returned home.
I had met Inouye on several occasions in the early 1970s, when he would drop by the newsroom of the Honolulu Advertiser for conversations with the editors. Just out of college, I was a young reporter at that now-defunct newspaper.
I reminded the senator of those days during our Dairy Queen visit. His face broke into a wide smile.
But both he and Mineta had been deadly serious when they discussed the ramifications of racial hysteria at the dedication ceremony earlier in the day.
As Secretary of Transportation, Mineta was the lone Democrat in the Cabinet when al-Qaida terrorists staged their shocking “9-11” attack on New York City in 2001.
In the wake of that violence, “this (internment) came very close to happening again,” Mineta recalled. “A large group of Arab Americans were very concerned about the rhetoric of the time.
“But when I sat at a cabinet meeting two days after the attack, on 9-13, President Bush said, ‘We don’t want to happen here what happened to Norm in 1942.’ For our president to make a statement like that was really remarkable.”
Inouye recalled that as a 17-year-old in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941, he watched in dismay as the smoke from the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor billowed into the Pacific skies. Soon thereafter, he received a “4C” draft classification.
“4C is a designation of an ‘enemy alien,’” he explained. “This was both horrifying and insulting. I never considered myself anything but an American. So like many others, I petitioned the U.S. government to let us demonstrate our loyalty to the U.S. by serving my country.”
He served in Italy in 1943 and 1944, and was awarded a Medal of Honor and Purple Cross after suffering near-terminal injuries, including the loss of his right arm. Yet when he returned to his country, even in his native Hawaii, he encountered people who told him, “We don’t serve people like you.”
It was 1988 — 29 years after Hawaii became a state and Inouye was first elected to the Senate — that Congress passed a bill offering redress to survivors of the internment camps. Approximately 120,000 had been secluded in a dozen of these camps for three years during World War II, having been flushed from their homes in California, Oregon and Washington.
At Heart Mountain alone, up to 10,700 Asians were housed behind barbed wire in 468 barracks, closely guarded by armed Caucasian soldiers.
“Few nations are strong enough to admit they did wrong,” Inouye said.
“We are now looking into the future, but to forget the past, we may be repeating the past.”