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Japanese Americans Revisit Their Painful Past : History: World War II internees dismantle barracks at Wyoming prison camp and send it back to L.A.'s Little Tokyo as a permanent reminder.

October 03, 1994|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HEART MOUNTAIN, Wyo. — Running his hand over the 2-by-4 studs, scuffing the years of dust with his tennis shoes, Tomo Mukai looked for and found the number on the wall: 22799.

"It was our family number," Mukai, 60, said as he and his son Ron inspected the weathered barracks his Southern California family shared in the internment camp that confined thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"When I think of that number, I think of the way we lived," said Mukai, who now lives in Whittier. "I think about what my family had to give up when we rode the train out here."

Hammers pounded the roof above as Mukai last week viewed his wartime quarters for the first time in 50 years. Others who also spent time behind the barbed wire and guard towers at Heart Mountain were dismantling the building around him.

Soon the structure, about 60 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, sat piecemeal aboard a flatbed truck, destined for Los Angeles and perhaps its most important duty yet.

In early November, the building that once housed those forced from their homes on the West Coast and has since sheltered farm equipment, will go on display in Little Tokyo as a lasting reminder of the only prison camps meant for Americans who had not committed a crime.

As part of the project organized by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, about 25 former inmates last week made an unusual, and this time voluntary, pilgrimage to Wyoming and the site of their wartime incarceration. They came from California and other states not only to revisit childhood friends, but also to take a piece of their history back with them.

"This is my boyhood home," said Bacon Sakatani, 65, of West Covina, as others knocked wall studs apart and pulled nails from the bare floorboards. "Taking back this barracks is taking our whole experience back to California for our children to see."

Two barracks will make the trip from Wyoming to Los Angeles. One, where Mukai lived, will go on display Nov. 11 in the Downtown museum's new exhibition, "America's Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience." The other will await resurrection as part of a permanent exhibit in a new museum wing set to open in 1997.

Though just 8 years old at the time, Mukai remembered his first glimpse of the distinctive flat-topped peak that lent its name to the internment camp known as the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.

He remembers how winds howled as he, his parents and two brothers found their assigned stretch of the freshly built barracks that would be their home for two years. A coal-fired potbelly stove offered the sole warmth in the 20-by-20-foot room, insulated against Wyoming's frigid winters by no more than tar paper.

Barracks sat in blocks of a dozen each.

"Block 30 would be over there," Mukai's friend Keiichi Ikeda told him, pointing, as they took a break from prying apart the barracks and walked across the fields that once held the internment camp. "You were in block 27? You would have lived right over there."

"There used to be a baseball diamond right there someplace," Mukai said, aiming his finger beyond. Though they never knew each other during their days in the internment camp, Mukai and Ikeda, from Los Angeles, struck up a friendship at internee reunions in recent years.

Ikeda turned, figuring where guard towers stood. "There was one right up on this hill behind us."

Said Mukai: "I remember sledding down that hill on a sled I built myself."

A counterpart of wartime internment centers at Manzanar and Tule Lake, Calif., Heart Mountain was one of 10 desolate places where the federal War Relocation Authority sent 120,000 Japanese Americans, then thought of as a subversive threat to the domestic war effort. More than 60% were Nisei, American-born U.S. citizens.

Mostly forgotten now, except by those who lived there, Heart Mountain was the fourth-largest camp. Local work gangs lined the sagebrush scrubland with row upon row of barracks.

The camp held as many as 10,767 people, making it the third-largest city in Wyoming at the time.

Beet and barley fields now occupy much of the abandoned camp's 740 acres. But Heart Mountain remains one of the few camps where original relics still stand.

Though museum curators considered a replica of the barracks for their upcoming exhibit, they decided that an original structure would be far more impressive. "When you know you're seeing a real building where real people were forced to live against their will, it's that much more powerful," said museum spokesman Chris Komai.

Because Sakatani had returned to Wyoming to erect a memorial to Heart Mountain residents who served and died in the war, he knew some barracks survived and led the museum's effort to retrieve them.

As the buildings came down last week, a historic preservation architect was on hand, numbering each piece to ensure that once they get to Los Angeles, the barracks will retain their original look and form.

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