American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone

Minidoka 1

Aki and daughter Midori before a replication of a March 1942 public notice ordering the evacuation of “all Japanese persons” signed by Lt. General John L. DeWitt.

By Aki Mori

Vaughn Hillyard (NBC News):  “Should there be a database system here that tracks the Muslims in this country?”  
Donald Trump: “There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases, I mean, there should be a lot of systems. And  today you can do it…”

Hillyard: “But Muslims specifically? How do you actually get them registered into a database?”
Trump: “It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures. And we can do that.”

(An exchange following a Trump campaign event on November 20, 2015.)


Our family’s first road trip to a national park took an unplanned and introspective turn when three hours past Boise on our way to Yellowstone I noticed a highway exit sign indicating the approach of a town called Minidoka. Thankfully my wife Katie was driving at the time, which freed me up to pull out my smartphone and confirm that we were approaching the site of a World War II Japanese-American Internment Camp. Just in time, we veered rightward and exited successfully.

As Katie began following the street signs towards Minidoka, I loaded up my GPS only to learn that the Internment Camp was actually located a full hour to the west of town — we had long since passed the site. Knowing that we could visit Minidoka Internment Camp on our return trip home, we tracked back onto the freeway. In full research mode by that time, I then learned that there was yet another Japanese-American Internment Camp on the opposite, Wyoming side of Yellowstone called Heart Mountain.  Minidoka’s name I recognized; Heart Mountain’s I did not. We visited both.

As Asian-American parents (I am Japanese, and Katie is Chinese) it was not a difficult decision to visit these solemn, historic sites with our daughters Midori (12) and Ayumi (9) even if it reduced our time in Yellowstone. For Midori, who is already openly strategizing her pathway to becoming a Senator, then Secretary of State, and then President, these improvised field trips were especially educational and at times moving.

Minidoka 2

Midori (right) and Ayumi in front of a guard tower reconstructed by Boise State University graduate students in 2014 and placed in its historical location, .about 130 miles southeast of Boise.

The solitary monuments at Heart Mountain and Minidoka, as barren as they were, rewarded us richly with hours of ensuing conversations as the four of us drove across the fittingly and quintessentially American landscapes of the Mountain West.  The topics flowed naturally and effortlessly: military service, FDR, patriotism, racism, the Vietnam War, the protests of the ’60s, the Holocaust, heroism, immigration…

Having now returned home to Portland, I find myself reflecting on the role of one man in particular.  Lt. General John L. DeWitt was in charge of the Western Defense Command when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Described on a National Park Service website as having a “history of prejudice against non-Caucasian Americans,” DeWitt was the figure who masterminded the internment scheme and zealously, effectively, and infamously rationalized its implementation to FDR, Congress, and the Supreme Court. To a House Naval Affairs committee in 1943, he testified, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.”

Dewitt was never censured for his remarks before Congress.  All told, a staggering 110,000 men, women, and children were removed from their homes and incarcerated into one of ten government relocation camps as a result of this man’s xenophobic imagination.  Following the war, he was appointed as the commandant of the Army and Navy Staff College.  In 1954 he became a full general by special act of Congress for his services in World War II.  It angers me to read on a National Archives web page that DeWitt’s career never suffered from his actions.

Minidoka 3

The author’s daughters, Ayumi (foreground) and Midori, explore an original WWII internment barrack that was located at a county fairground and returned to Minidoka.  There were an astounding 432 such barracks at Minidoka alone.

I follow politics obsessively. By the time Donald Trump offered his comments above on the establishment of a Muslim database, his credentials as a racist xenophobe were already well-established. So I focused less on the bigoted elements of his words and more on his dimwitted belief in “good management.”

But Heart Mountain and Minidoka cause me to realize eight months later that I was the simpleton. Franklin Roosevelt authorized deportation with Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Minidoka received its first trainloads of internees on August 10, 1942, and Heart Mountain one day later on August 11, 1942. Shockingly, the identification and relocation of thousands of Japanese-Americans to these two camps were accomplished with ease in a matter of six months.

Good management — it can happen when the conditions are right.

Related reading:  Midori Mori, My visit to Heart Mountain

Aki Mori began his public education career as a special education teacher in California. He is now entering his fifth year as a high school assistant principal in the Portland area. He reads only non-fiction, regrets that President Obama wasn’t more like Teddy Roosevelt, has started to pray again after having quit 15 years ago, and lives for his daughters and wife.


Editor’s note: I met Aki in 2009 after I published an op-ed piece he submitted to The Oregonian. What caught my attention then? One of his first jobs as an educator was in Union City, California — the working-class, Mexican American town where I attended school through the fourth grade.

Tomorrow: Gil Rubio, Fate and destiny


8 thoughts on “American internment in the shadows of Yellowstone

  1. I guess it’s not so strange it happened in the US. There is a history of racism. What’s so awful is that it doesn’t look like we’ve learned much in the 70 years since the wars end. If you were to ask me 30 years ago if it could happen again, I would have said no. Since the mid-nineties and the severe right turn of the Republicans, I would say yes. Thank God we are becoming a more diverse nation. Only immigration and diversity can save us from that kind of catastrophe.

  2. It is an uneasy time here in the USA, trump has made it ok it express hate for another culture or race, but we need to remember Minidoka and Heart Mountain and remember that is not the true America.

  3. In Portland, one should visit the Oregon Nikkei Museum just off of Burnside on 2nd between Couch and Davis in “China Town” (which was originally Japan Town before the internships!

  4. Aki – Thank you for this story at this moment in our American history. We seem to have very short memories. As I’ve been saying for some time now, even if Trump slithers away, it will take years if not generations to put that awfulness he exposed in too many Americans back in that genie’s bottle. I’ve known all along that slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was merely code for “Make America White Again.”

    My sadness comes from seeing what I thought was real progress that I witnessed in my lifetime – the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, rights being given to the LGBT community – and it just seems like in the last year – poof! All that progress is gone. It’s hard to believe that one man could inspire so many people to proudly accept racism, xenophobia, etc., again. The parallels to Hitler are real.

  5. Aki, looks like you were “Accidental tourists” or maybe it was destined – given all the political turmoil now. Good way of framing it in that context. Snow Falling on Cedars was my first introduction in fiction to Japanese internment. A few years ago I stumbled on an event organized by the Oregon Historical Society to mark the 100th anniversary of the “Ghadar” rebellion a pan-Indian mutiny against British occupation. Apparently there were many Indians who lived in the Dalles area and in Astoria in the early part of the last centure and they formed a Ghadar group. According to historian Johanna Ogden – ” Life was not idyllic for Asian Indians in Astoria. Racist and anti-immigrant justifications were used to argue for their expulsion from the mill, cut their wages, or justify individual acts of physical violence. The Bellingham riots are another famous instance of violence against these “Hindoos” as they were called when mob of 400 to 500 white men attacked East Indians to get them out of the work force.

  6. Aki, always so good to read your voice. This is a piece of history that has deeply troubled me since reading about it in “An Invisible Thread” in junior high or high school. It makes Trump’s sentiments all the more disturbing because it really is possible with “good management” and the right propaganda.

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