When they first came to this corner of Wyoming 69 years ago, shops and restaurants in the tiny town of Cody hung banners warning “No Japs Allowed.” A local newspaper announced their arrival with the headline, “TEN THOUSAND JAPS TO BE INTERNED HERE.”
But this weekend, as hundreds of Japanese Americans interned during World War II at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center returned, many for the first time, new signs greeted them: “Welcome all Japanese Americans. Congratulations.”
They returned to see the land, now fields of lima beans and alfalfa, and to see the opening of a long-awaited museum at the site that will preserve their stories. They came to see each other.
Leading them in this pilgrimage was a pint-sized man with the improbable name of Bacon Sakatani. On Friday, the 81-year-old climbed on top of a hotel chair and screamed out marching orders:
“OK! Come on, come on! You have to get your badge. You have to take your photo. We have to get going!”
Sakatani is known as Mr. Heart Mountain, the Heart of Heart Mountain. He’s such a force within the group that an entire room honors him at the museum, which was dedicated Saturday.
He talks fast, moves quickly and knows more of the 10,000 men, women and children who lived for three years at the base of the jagged mountain than anyone else. It seems everyone — internees and their children and their children’s children — knows him or at least knows of him.
“Hey, you’re Bacon!” they call out every few minutes, their faces filled with joy at finally meeting him in person. “I’ve heard all about you.”
For nearly three decades, Sakatani, who lives in West Covina, has made it his mission to preserve the history of the internment — when the federal government forced 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes on the West Coast in the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
As the internees and their families poured into the registration room at the local Holiday Inn, Sakatani ran around at his usual frantic pace, adjusting tables, guiding photographers, checking schedules and welcoming guests.
Eizo Nishiura, with glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, caught his eye in the commotion.
“Hey, I know you,” Sakatani said, turning his name tag around to see it. “Your brother was a Boy Scout in the camp and we’d run around together.”
Nishiura, 76, nodded his head, smiling. He was 7 years old when he was brought to the dusty, wind-swept camp, six years younger than Bacon, who picked up his funny nickname as a child because someone once held him over a small bonfire like bacon. Nishiura came to Heart Mountain with his brothers, parents, grandparents and one great-grandparent.
Now, he and three of his brothers had flown in from New Mexico, Pennsylvania and California to see the desolate land that was once their home.
Many of the returning internees were children when they arrived at Heart Mountain. The experience was an adventure. They remember the baseball diamonds that turned into ice-skating rinks in the winter, the swimming hole dug by their fathers, the chipmunks and rabbits they chased in the hills when they sneaked out of the camp.
They remember the fence posts with barbed wire that caged them, the machine gun mounts and the guards in the guard towers, vigilant day and night.
Heart Mountain was one of 10 internment camps around the country, 740 acres with rows upon rows of wood- and tar-paper-lined barracks in the Shoshone Valley. Thousands came from California.
In 1945, when the war ended and the families were released — to start again from nothing in most cases — the barracks, along with the government-issued beds and the coal-fired potbelly stoves, were sold and scattered across the farmland.
Sakatani was 16 when he left the camp. His parents never spoke about the internment for as long as they lived.
Sakatani didn’t think about it much until 1982, when he heard that a group of internees, like those from other camps, were organizing a reunion. He helped create an exhibit. It was through his research that he realized the injustice of the internment.
“I was flabbergasted when I saw those headlines,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how the government had fooled us, how they misled us.”
In 1985, he helped install a memorial here for Japanese American soldiers who died in the war. In 1994, he tracked down two original barracks in the Shoshone Valley and, with help from other internees, had one put on display at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. A few years later, he urged the mayor of Powell, a town near Heart Mountain, to write a letter acknowledging that the internment was wrong.
He has traveled to Heart Mountain more than 20 times, taking back to his home in West Covina old fence posts, strings of barbed wire, and an original potbelly stove. He has collected thousands of archived documents and news clippings.
In photos of their 11 reunions — in Salt Lake City, San Jose and Las Vegas — Sakatani’s face is always missing. He was the one behind the camera, documenting their moments.
On Friday afternoon, as he made his way up a gravel road in his blue SUV, he came across Nancy Takano, 70.
She stood near the soldier memorial, staring up at Heart Mountain, its shiny peak several miles away. Her husband stood by her side. She was only 3 when her family arrived at the camp from Coachella; she has no memories of the place, save a few lyrics of a song she learned in school: Ten little black birds all in a row …
“I know I was in Block 8,” she said.
“Oh, Block 8. That was right over there,” Sakatani said, pointing far away to neat rows of lima beans that stretch for acres. “I have Block 9, so you and me were neighbors.”
Takano squinted her eyes and tried to make something out of the view, but she appeared overwhelmed.
“I wish my dad could see this,” she said in a quiet voice.
As the opening dinner got underway, Sakatani was walking toward the stage when someone shouted, “Bacon!”
It was Norman Y. Mineta, the former congressman and secretary of Transportation, who spent three years at the camp as a boy. He was a Boy Scout and befriended a local kid who belonged to the same troop, but lived outside the camp fences. That boy was Alan K. Simpson, who later became a U.S. senator.
Mineta went up to Sakatani and pulled him in for a hug. “I want to thank you for absolutely everything you’ve done.”
The next day, as a crowd gathered under a white tent to celebrate the opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, Mineta and Simpson looked on as Sakatani took part in the ceremonial ribbon-cutting with two other people. Instead of a ribbon, they cut a strip of barbed wire.
Off to the side stood the peak of Heart Mountain, which was off-limits to the internees seven decades ago.
On Sunday, a group of nearly 100 former internees, now in their 70s and 80s, will head up the mountain, many for the first time.