Heart Mountain Through the Eyes of Yoshio Okumoto

Explore life in Heart Mountain Relocation Center, home of 14,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated without due process during World War II, through the lens of one of the most prolific photographers incarcerated there.

By Heart Mountain

Heart Mountain by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The northwest corner of Wyoming is a windswept place that alternates between bone chilling winters and dry, blistering summers. From 1942 - 1945, it was also the location of the third largest city in the state, Heart Mountain Relocation Center.

One of ten camps administered by the War Relocation Authority, Heart Mountain was home to over 14,000 Japanese Americans who were forced out of their homes on the west coast and incarcerated without due process during World War II. 

Man posing by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

One of those people was Yoshio Okumoto. Born in 1903 to parents who had immigrated from Japan to Hawaii and one of eight siblings, Okumoto moved to California in 1925 to study pre-med at Stanford University.

Okumoto was still at Stanford, working as a Research Assistant in the Anatomy Department, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066-- the order that allowed for the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast-- on February 19, 1942.

Farewell Dinner Farewell Dinner by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

In May of that year, Okumoto, along with 39 students and one professor, was forced to comply with the mandatory exclusion orders and sent first to Santa Anita Assembly Center. He was later transferred to Heart Mountain, where he arrived on September 10, 1942. 

A bachelor at the time of his arrival, Okumoto was assigned a spot in barrack 29-5-B, which he split with two other bachelors. 

It is unknown when Okumoto began to express an interest in photography. It is possible that he learned from one of his roommates, James Yonemura, who had been a professional photographer in Los Angeles.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, many people baselessly feared that all Japanese Americans were spies. Acting on that paranoia, the government mandated that Japanese Americans surrender certain items that could be used for espionage; namely cameras, radios, and firearms.

Yonemura complied with the order and surrendered his cameras and equipment. In late 1942 the restrictions on photography were lifted and Yonemura was able to request the return of his equipment. As early as March 1943 Yonemura and Okumoto were documenting life in camp

Woman and Child Woman and Child by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Okumoto and Yonemura were commissioned by many of their fellow incarcerees to take formal portraits. The two photographed numerous weddings and many of the 548 babies that were born at Heart Mountain Hospital. 

Snowman Snowman by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Of more interest, however, are the photos that Okumoto took for himself. These candid moments captured by Okumoto offer a look at the daily lives of the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Heart Mountain, one that Caucasian photographers who visited camp never saw.

Collecting coal by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

A daily experience for every person at Heart Mountain in the winters was the rush to get coal. The winters between 1942 and 1945 were some of the coldest winters recorded in Wyoming in decades. 

Collecting coal by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The barracks constructed at camp were sparsely furnished and the heat for each room came from coal fired stoves. Every morning each block of 24 barracks would receive a delivery of coal that the residents then had to retrieve for themselves.

Coal Rush by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

These deliveries often became a frenzy as everyone scrambled to ensure that they had enough coal to last the day.   

Nurses by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

By population, Heart Mountain was the third largest city in Wyoming between 1942 and 1945. Like any other city it had its own schools, a fire department, a police department, and a hospital, all of which hired Japanese Americans from camp as staff members. 

Men Working Men Working by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

With his background as a pre-med student Okumoto tried to get a job at Heart Mountain Hospital, but was unsuccessful and instead fell into the most common occupation among men in camp, farm laborer. 

Men Working Men Working by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Laborers from Heart Mountain irrigated the barren land around Heart Mountain and turned it into the productive farmland that is still in use today.

Christmas Exercise Christmas Exercise by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Heart Mountain was more than just a city full of unwilling occupants. Over the course of the three years the camp operated, the Japanese Americans that lived there formed a thriving community. 

Group Picture by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

A part of any community is shared holidays, and many holidays were observed at Heart Mountain. Christmas, for example, included a children’s pageant and adults donning Santa Claus suits to pass out gifts.

Women dancing by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The community also continued to celebrate the Japanese part of the Japanese American cultural identity. 

Flowers by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The ikebana club was one of the most popular activities offered by the recreation department and the literary society featured numerous talented haiku poets. 

Men and women dancing by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Kabuki and sumo wrestling were regular community events and festivals such as Obon saw people dawning kimono and yukata to participate in the festivities.

Family Portrait Family Portrait by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The Japanese American community as a whole in 1942 fell into two main generational groups.

The first consisted of the Issei who had immigrated from Japan.

The second were the Nisei children of the Issei who had been born in the United States. Okumoto was an older Nisei.

Girls' Group by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The majority of the Nisei, however, were under 18 when incarceration began.

Parade by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Youth activities, then, were of great importance in camp. Two of the most popular organizations, especially given Heart Mountain’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park, were the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Basketball Game Basketball Game by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Sports were also a popular pastime for everyone at camp. Baseball and softball games were often played around camp and the Eagles of Heart Mountain High School competed in football and basketball against other high schools in Wyoming.

Ice Skating by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

The bitterly cold winters of Wyoming were a shock to the people of Heart Mountain who mostly came from southern California. However, that also offered the opportunity for new experiences, such as ice skating.

Incarcerated Japanese Americans created ice rinks like this one by digging a shallow pond in an empty block, then flooding and letting it freeze. Skates were usually bought from mail-order catalogs like Sears and Montgomery Ward.

Departures by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Not everyone sent to Heart Mountain stayed for all three years the camp was open. Beginning in 1943, people were permitted to leave camp and move anywhere in the United States except for the west coast.

In order to leave camp a person had to have a definite place to go. Some young Nisei, for example, were able to leave camp in order to attend college in the midwest. Many more people found jobs, often in war critical industries, and were able to leave camp to take those jobs.

Family Portrait Family Portrait by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Beginning in 1944 young men from camp also became eligible to be drafted into the Army and 800 people left Heart Mountain to serve in the military.

Men Playing Game by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

In late 1944 the United States Supreme Court ruled that Japanese Americans were to be allowed to return to the west coast.

Picnic-Shoshone River by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

With the assistance of a Stanford professor, Yoshio Okumoto left Heart Mountain on January 16, 1945 to return to California, he was one of the earliest Nisei able to return home where he resumed his old job in the Anatomy Department.

In 1953 Okumoto was listed as a contributor in an article entitled “The physical growth and development of children who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki” which was published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Farewell Dinner Farewell Dinner by Yoshio OkumotoHeart Mountain

Okumoto retired from Stanford in the 1970s and died in San Mateo, California in 1993. He is buried at the Alae Cemetery in Wainaku, Hawaii. 

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