A family's photo trove offers a window into WWII Japanese-American internment camp life

Five years after her father died, Patti Hirahara found a trove of photo negatives in his house in Anaheim. She knew her father had always loved photography and never went anywhere without a camera, but she had never seen these before.

The pictures documented the three years her grandfather, George, and father, Frank, spent incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., in one of many internment camps that helped hold more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.

Frank entered the camp in 1942, when he was still a high school student. Although cameras were considered contraband at that time, the regulations eventually loosened, and George was able to purchase photography equipment from a Sears Roebuck catalog.

Hirahara's grandfather then built an underground darkroom beneath the barracks so they could develop their images.

"I knew he had photos," said Hirahara, who was born a decade after the camps closed, "but I never knew he had this many."

Since discovering in 2011 more than 1,000 negatives — which captured images in the camp of weddings, religious ceremonies and family portraits — Hirahara has dedicated herself to making sure the world sees these photographs.

The entire collection now resides at Washington State University, her father's alma mater, and can also be seen in the Emmy Award-winning documentary "The Legacy of Heart Mountain."

But next week, a selection of these historic photographs will become available to the public through the Anaheim Public Library's Anaheim digital collection.

To mark the unveiling, a presentation by Hirahara and a showing of "The Legacy of Heart Mountain" will be held beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Anaheim Central Library.

The Anaheim collection, which is designed to showcase local history, captures four generations of Hiraharas, from their arrival to the United States in 1909, to the internment camps at Heart Mountain and the 60 years they later spent as residents of the city best known as the home of Disneyland.

Hirahara said it offers a rare opportunity to not only share her family's history but also the history of Japanese Americans.

"The majority of people still haven't heard of the incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II," she said. "The majority of schoolbooks still don't have any reference to this time in history. It's a story that needs to be told."

Hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. security began rounding up prominent Japanese Americans, forcing them from their jobs, their lives, and detaining them.

According to the Library of Congress, a wave of hysteria followed, as the Japanese Americans were demonized as spies, saboteurs and enemy agents.

In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. military to evacuate all people from "military areas" and send them to relocation camps.

When they reached the camps, "they saw spare, prison-like compounds situated on sun-baked deserts or bare Ozark hillsides, dotted with watchtowers and surrounded by barbed wire," the library recounts.

In 1944, a Supreme Court ruling halted the detention of U.S. citizens without cause, and the exclusion order was rescinded. The last internment camp closed in 1946, and reparations have since been paid.

"Even though he was incarcerated during World War II, my grandfather said he understood it," said Hirahara. "He said the American government felt they had to protect everyone. So he had no bitterness."

George Hirahara became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1954.

Hirahara, who said that her father and grandfather rarely talked about the difficult aspects of life in the internment camp, is often asked why the subjects of her father's photographs are always smiling.

"If you're having a photograph taken, and it might be your last on Earth, you want to be shown happy," she said. "This is going to preserve you for posterity, so you don't want a bad picture."

Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, whose parents were also interned during World War II, said the Hiraharas can be a window into an important — though rarely discussed — piece of American history.

"Through the lens of one family, there's a level of intimacy that the average person can connect with," he said. "Through their story, and by making that emotional connection, you're able to tell a broader story of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned. And by understanding that struggle, it's not a far leap to connect with the struggles of people today that are going through similar experiences."

While his family was still in Heart Mountain, Hirahara's father was released in 1945 and went on to become an electrical engineer. He started his career in Washington, but moved to Anaheim during the aerospace boom in Southern California in the 1950s. He then became deeply involved in the Anaheim community as a board member of the Anaheim Memorial Medical Center Foundation and a charter member of the Anaheim Family YMCA Heritage Club, she said.

"The collection shows how Japanese Americans dealt with the internment and how they rose above it," said Jane Newell, heritage services manager with the Anaheim Public Library. "I can't think of another family that would show so well how they went through something terrible but then became such a success afterwards."

In addition to Heart Mountain, the collection, which includes more than 100 photographs and documents, also shows the Hiraharas' everyday life in Anaheim, from work to birthday parties, Halloween parades and Christmas celebrations.

"They tell the story of the family but the community at large as well," said Newell. "They help to tell Anaheim's story."

To RSVP for Tuesday's event, email The Anaheim Central Library is at 500 W. Broadway.