Sep 10, 2015

Wyoming Samurai: Cody man's book documents military service of Heart Mountain internees

At first, the U.S. government took them from their West Coast homes, confined them in an camp on Heart Mountain and said they didn’t want them in the military. But in the middle of fighting World War II, government brass reversed course, deciding they actually did want the Japanese Americans to serve — and that those who refused would be imprisoned.

That and other contradictions surrounding Japanese American’s military service, amid their forced relocation, proved too much to ignore for local author Mike Mackey.

“You’ve got a group of people that are supposed to be the enemy — just because they look like somebody else. Their service is originally not wanted, and then when it is wanted they go above and beyond ... and then they aren’t rewarded for that,” Mackey said in a recent interview. “And while they’re serving and dying, their parents are still locked up in camp.”

Mackey, a Powell native and Cody resident, hadn’t planned on writing another book about the Heart Mountain internment camp. (He’d already written four.) However, a planned chapter on the internees and the military swelled into his latest book, “Wyoming Samurai: The World War II Warriors of Heart Mountain.”

With diaries, interviews, newspaper accounts and other documents, “Wyoming Samurai” recounts the war through the lives of some of the Japanese Americans who served in combat and their families detained at Heart Mountain.

In protest of their incarceration and treatment by the U.S. government, more than 80 young men refused to participate in the draft. Meanwhile, more than 800 draftees and volunteers at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center served in the military. Fifteen were killed in action and more than 60 were wounded, Mackey wrote. They amassed a large number of bronze and silver stars and — eventually — two Congressional Medals of Honor.

Mackey wrote in the introduction that, “in spite of the many contradictions, Japanese American men and women would use military service as a way to demonstrate their loyalty to the government which imprisoned them. In the process, their service became legendary.”

They generally were assigned to the army’s now-famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans.

One elder internee at Heart Mountain asked a military official at the time why those of Japanese descent weren’t being allowed to serve in other divisions, like the Navy or Air or Marine corps, Mackey recounted. The official explained that serving in a single unit would bring better publicity and “rehabilitate” Japanese Americans’ image as the enemy.

“Well,” the elder internee replied. “We didn’t have the image as the enemy until you stuck us here.”

Mackey said the Japanese Americans’ sacrifices during the war did end up bringing them greater acceptance in U.S. society.

“While they (Japanese Americans) are serving and dying, their parents are still locked up in camp,” said author Mike Mackey.

One medic, James Okubo, braved enemy gunfire to reach and save the lives of 25 men over two days in October 1944. A few days later, he’d run 75 yards through machine gun fire to treat and save a seriously injured man inside a burning tank.

Okuba’s parents, meanwhile, were prohibited from returning home to Washington, though the go
vernment ultimately allowed them to leave Heart Mountain and move to Detroit, Mackey writes.

When any internee soldier visited their parents at the Heart Mountain camp, their parents would only be allowed to venture outside the center’s gates for an hour — even after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for some incarcerees to return home, Mackey said.

“Even after they say people can go home ... they still have to go through this crap at the front gate. And if they’re late, then they get hauled in by the (military police) to talk to the director, and it goes on and on,” Mackey said. “It's amazing.”

“Wyoming Samurai,” which checks in at 181 pages, is available through local bookstores and on Amazon.

~By CJ Baker, cj@codynewscompany.com

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