Pearl Harbor, Heart Mountain

A pleasant sunny, muggy Hawaiian morning that smelled of seawater and steel.

A miserable blustery, rainy Wyoming afternoon that smelled of snow and mud.

One caused the other. And it could happen again.

Two summers ago, my family visited Pearl Harbor, just west of Honolulu. We’ve all read about the infamous attack time and time again, and I knew a lot about Pearl Harbor. I could name all the battleships on Battlefield Row, knew the timelines, and understood the multipronged attack that lured the United States into World War II. When I stood on the USS Arizona Memorial, gazing at the ghostlike shell of a ship just below the water, when my 5-year-old daughter spotted oil rainbows in the water, I could, for a moment, hear the explosions and the planes and the screams of pain and death and smell the smoke and the blood. When the attack ended, 2,471 American servicemen and civilians had died, another 1,213 were wounded, and Pearl Harbor had become a national shrine for the American fallen of all our wars.

The flag over the USS Arizona Memorial, June 2015. Photo by Brad Lyons
The flag over the USS Arizona Memorial, June 2015. Photo by Brad Lyons

Then, this past October, I visited Heart Mountain Relocation Center, between Cody and Powell in northwestern Wyoming. Built in the months after Pearl Harbor, during the desperate first months of a war we were losing, Heart Mountain detained almost 14,000 Japanese Americans during its more than three years of operation. A shameful part of American history, these Americans weren’t given the option to relocate to Heart Mountain or the other relocation centers scattered across the western half of the country. They were forcibly moved. The centers provided some measure of home; students continued their education, a hospital offered medical care, and semblances of community such as a camp newspaper and dances were allowed. But the 650 barracks were abysmal, the camp prisonlike. The early winter weather the day I visited made it far too easy to imagine the Wyoming wind tearing through the cracks in the poorly built barracks far too easy. Residents had some freedom within the walls, but let there be no doubt: those residents were interred, held against their will.

Barracks and chimney, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming. Photo by Brad Lyons
Barracks and chimney, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming. Photo by Brad Lyons

Just as there’s not much of the devastation left at Pearl Harbor, there’s not much of Heart Mountain left, either. A guard tower stands near the highway turnoff, and there are a few old barracks, the hospital’s chimney, and a short footpath with plaques detailing life at the camp. When the camps closed in the months following the V-J Day, most Americans went on as though internment had never happened. Most of the Heart Mountain camp has been erased from existence, and I assure you I never learned about internment in history classes.

Pearl Harbor caused Heart Mountain.

And if we’re not careful, the ongoing persecution of Islamic Americans may yet cause another roundup of Americans who look different from those in power, who have beliefs different from the majority of Americans (or, more likely, a vocal minority) but who still share a belief in justice and equality and freedom. That another Heart Mountain could possibly occur, unthinkable not too long ago, is a horrifying shift in American politics. In these xenophobic times, it is our obligation as people of faith, as people urged to love the strangers among us, as people who follow Jesus who was a refugee as a child and oppressed and executed by a foreign empire, to keep that from happening again.

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Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.