Japanese American Internment and Resistance at Heart Mountain

Today’s post is written by Lucas Blackwood, an intern at the National Archives at Denver.

When World War II began the United States chose to remain neutral and did not join the war right away. Then, on December 7, 1941, Japan, part of the axis powers and allied with Germany, attacked the U.S. military base located at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This event set off a chain of anti-Asian American sentiment that allowed for the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans on U.S. soil.  Just two months later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order #9066. Officially, this order allowed the U.S. military to designate areas where they would keep any person so in theory this order could affect any U.S. citizen. In practice, however, these areas became the camps where Japanese Americans were relocated during WWII.[1]

Then, on March 18, 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) was created and charged with the task of caring for the 10 internment camps, where 120,000 Japanese Americans were transferred by the fall of that year. One such camp, named Heart Mountain Relocation Center, located in Wyoming, was witness to one of the most interesting draft resistance movements in American history.

Heart Mountain Relocation Center was, at the height of its occupation, the third largest city in Wyoming, and entirely self-sufficient. Heart Mountain is one of the few remaining camps that still stand in the United States today and is now kept as a historical landmark.

Notated layout plan for Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. Atlas on bottom right corner acts as key to map.
The layout plan for Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. There is a swimming pool, an area for livestock (listed here as poultry and hogs), housing blocks, a high school, a hospital, and a cemetery. While it looks like any small town, it is surrounded by guard towers and fences to keep the occupants inside. Catalog: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/27813708

It was in this camp that a Japanese American internee named Kiyoshi Okamoto created the Fair Play Committee in an attempt to fight against WRA’s selective service requirements. Kiyoshi Okamoto (alias Robert Okamoto) was a second generation Japanese American, who was relocated to Heart Mountain. When WRA started drafting Japanese American internees into the United States military, he felt as if the constitutional rights of himself and the other Japanese Americans living in these relocation camps had been infringed upon. Okamoto gathered a group of other internees and created the Fair Play committee with the goal of challenging the War Relocation Authority’s selective service policies.

The Fair Play committee, by their own words, did not believe in avoiding the selective services, just that the United States government could not expect them to join the military until their rights had been restored as American citizens. All of these beliefs, and more, are included in the meeting notes from April 5, 1944.[2]

Despite their intentions, Kiyoshi Okamoto and 64 other men who were a part of the Fair Play Committee were arrested and tried. Okamoto himself was found guilty of evading the selective service act of 1940, aiding and abetting people who were evading the selective services, and conspiracy against the United States government. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison.[3]

Typed judgment and commitment order dated 11/2/1944.
The Judgment and Commitment Document of Kiyoshi Okamoto by the district court of Wyoming, dated November 2, 1944. Catalog: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/292820

After his conviction, Kiyoshi wrote an essay about his anger with the court’s verdict. In this essay, titled “We Should Know” he expresses his anger at the United States government for allowing the civil rights of its citizens, as laid out in the constitution, to be so thoroughly ignored and breached.

Kiyoshi Okamoto and the Fair Play Committee is a wonderful example of the ways that United States citizens have come together to fight for the rights promised to them by the constitution. Today, minority groups across the U.S. still fight for their basic civil rights. While Kiyoshi may have failed, he made an impact, he fought for himself and his community when he felt like their rights were being persecuted.

[1] Executive Order 9066: Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas, NAID 124450932, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/124450932

[2] Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee Meeting Notes, NAID 292814, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/292814

[3] Judgment and Commitment against Kiyoshi Okamoto, NAID 292820, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/292820

2 thoughts on “Japanese American Internment and Resistance at Heart Mountain

  1. a recent book–FACING THE MOUNTAIN–by Daniel Brown goes into a similar story. This is a shameful but very understandable part of our WW2 history. It’s also somehow incongruous with very few of the Americans of Japanese Americans in Hawaii not subjected to this discrimination. From my understanding–they needed the Japanese in Hawaii to do the work!! Thank you for sending this information-

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