April 21, 2016
Japanese-American recounts time in internment camp
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Sam Mihara tells the story of his boyhood years at Heart Mountain, a World War II Japanese internment camp in Wyoming, during a presentation Wednesday at SUNY Cortland.
After three years of living in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans from the age of 9 during World War II, Sam Mihara vowed to never speak of the anguish he and his family endured.
Now, 72 years later, Mihara is sharing that story, providing a firsthand history lesson of the experience to students and communities across America. And one of his stops was Wednesday afternoon at SUNY Cortland.
Mihara is a retired aeronautical engineer, having worked on many of the satellites in space today. During his 42 years with the Boeing Co., he shared only minor details of having lived in the internment camps. After he retired four years ago, Mihara said he got a call from an official at the Department of Justice, asking if he would be willing to share his story with people at the department, because they were genuinely interested.
He obliged and put together a small presentation. It received a lot of encouraging sentiments and he said many felt it should be shared with others. Mihara began giving presentations to those who asked. Word spread and before he knew it, he was booked all over the country.
“People should know what really happened,” Mihara said. “It teaches about lessons learned and although it may never happen to Japanese-Americans again, the speech shows that it could happen to others.”
Mihara’s speech attracted more than 40 students and residents; one attendee, Gretchen Herrmann, came from Ithaca to hear his story.
“It is an amazing bit of contemporary history. It is a wonderful opportunity to find out what it was like,” Herrmann said.
Mihara’s father and mother separately immigrated to San Francisco in the 1920s and eventually met. Soon after, Mihara and his brother were born. They lived a normal life until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“After Pearl Harbor, life was really difficult for us,” Mihara said. “It was hell living anywhere in the country being of Japanese ancestry.”
The next year an executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt forced Mihara, then 9, and his brother to live in an internment camp in California.
The camp had been a race track. Families lived in the horse stalls until small wooden shacks were built to accommodate the growing population. He and his family lived there for three months until they, and the other 10,000 people at the camp, were forced on a train to move to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where the situation only got worse.
Mihara presented a video of an interview with lifelong resident of Cody, Wyoming — a city near Heart Mountain — Alan Simpson, who explained what city residents thought when they heard there was going to be an internment camp near their city: They thought escapees would kill them and pushed for more prison-like conditions.
Mihara said there were 9-foot tall barbed wire-topped fences, guard towers with armed guards, signs stating that you would be shot if you passed a certain line and every person in the camp was issued a cell number and prisoner number. His family lived in a 20- by 20-foot room. They had to buy or make their own furniture. Six hundred people shared 18 toilets. They had no bathtubs except what they built out of pickle barrels. Mihara said people in the camp were able to convince the government to let them harvest their own food.
“Everyone knows the very important phrase in the pledge of allegiance, which says for liberty and justice for all,” Mihara said. “We were denied liberty. And we were denied justice.”
A civil rights attorney, James Purcell, from San Francisco, discovered one Japanese-American woman, in the Wyoming camp, who was born in America and had never even been to Japan. Purcell filed a lawsuit demanding the woman be released, stating it was unconstitutional to hold a person for three years in detention without due process. Mihara said the Supreme Court decided to let the woman and the rest of the detainees go on Dec. 19, 1944.
Mihara said he and his family stayed in Wyoming for three years, but the racial hatred in Wyoming never went away. So, they moved back to California where Mihara focused on his education.
He said during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, he, and all other living Japanese-Americans who were in an internment camp, received a signed letter from the president apologizing for the inhumane detainment, along with a check for an amount Mihara did not disclose.
Mihara said he is always open to questions and encourages people to email him —firstname.lastname@example.org — with any they may have.
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