"Temporarily Side-Tracked by Emotionalism": Wyoming Residents Respond to Relocation

 By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming

 

*First published in: Mike Mackey, ed., Remembering Heart Mountain: Essays on Japanese American Internment in Wyoming. (Powell: Western History Publications, 1998).

 

 

            After the federal government set up the Japanese-American internment camp between Powell and Cody at Heart Mountain during World War II, Wyoming residents responded to the presence of the facility in several ways. This paper will examine the various views of Wyomingites as they are demonstrated from the correspondence of a

U. S. Senator as well as the senator's view and the editorial comment of various state newspapers.

            Sen. Joseph C. O'Mahoney was a senior member of the Democratic majority of the Senate in 1942 when the Heart Mountain camp was established. First appointed to the Senate seat on the death of Sen. John B. Kendrick, his former employer, O'Mahoney won reelection in 1934 and 1940. He was a dependable supporter of the New Deal until the Roosevelt administration tried to change the composition of the U. S. Supreme Court in 1937 as a way to keep the high court was striking down what it considered crucial anti-depression legislation. O'Mahoney gained constituent support from what Wyomingites saw as principled opposition to the President.

            No single piece of evidence points to O'Mahoney's position on wartime relocation. No roll call votes were taken on the various relocation measures in the Senate throughout the duration. O'Mahoney did not speak on the floor either for or against the policy. In fact, nowhere is there a definitive statement on his position. Thus, sections of letters and reactions to correspondence during this period are all there are to go on.  Even at that, few hints appear in the correspondence until January 1943 when O'Mahoney was appointed to a special sub-committee of the Senate Military Affairs Committee to investigate the War Relocation Authority.

            One of the more explicit explanations of his position was made in two letters to Park County Democratic officials in February 1943. He had written frequently to both men during May 1942 when the senator was seeking sentiment about establishing a relocation camp in Park County.

 

            I was made a member of the subcommittee which has been going into the matter and I

                found the testimony both surprising and interesting. It was, for example, clearly brought out

                authoritative witnesses, form both the Army and the Navy, not only that 60 percent of all the

                evacuees are native-born Americans, but that most of them have been altogether loyal to

                this country. Some of the most effective work which has been done for the Navy in Hawaii, for                      

                instance, has been done by Japanese born in Hawaii.[1]

            Later, in the same letter, O'Mahoney quoted former Ambassador Grew who had appeared before his sub-committee and urged that "nothing should be done to alienate the loyalty of the American-born Japanese."

            In a letter to the manager of the Holly Sugar Company in Worland during the previous year, O'Mahoney carefully distinguished between residents of prisoner-of-war camps and relocation center internees. "...many of them are natives of this country and apparently completely out of harmony with the Japanese militarists, they are not being treated as prisoners of war." Japanese must be "relocated in a manner that will enable them to live as normally as possible," the senator concluded.[2]

            In a letter to Heart Mountain Director Guy Robertson in 1943, O'Mahoney wrote: "The treatment that we accord Americans of Japanese ancestry and even alien Japanese has a direct bearing upon the treatment given our own people in the hand of the Japanese."[3]

            L. L. Newton, editor and publisher of the Wyoming State Journal in Lander, stands out among Wyoming journalists for the unequivocal position he took on the camp. Unlike lawyer O'Mahoney, who avoided making legal arguments against the establishment of such camps, Newton flatly declared that the existence of the camps violated the internees' constitutional rights.

            A conservative Republican who supported Gov. Nels Smith and E. V. Robertson in the 1942 general elections, he seemed an unlikely spokesman for constitutional rights of internees. The camp was far from Newton's Lander home. Unlike the publishers of the Cody Enterprise and the Powell Tribune whose communities were less than 15 miles from the camp, Lander was more than 100 miles and a mountain range beyond.[4] Unlike those respective publishers, however, Newton traveled with his family to the Heart Mountain camp three months after the first evacuees arrived in August 1942.  In four consecutive issues of the weekly State Journal, Newton described what he had found at the camp in a column he titled "Travel with Your Editor." In the first installment, he stated flatly: "Let us start out this rather rambling and sketchy story of the project with a few definitions, just to get the story straight. In the first place, they are not Japs...They are American citizens born in this country with the full rights of this country, 'even as you and I.' They do not have any other loyalty than to America and are as much our people as second generation German, Irish, Italian or Scandinavian citizens."[5]

            On December 3, Newton's column continued the story by describing the interiors of the buildings and the conditions the evacuees faced. "The rooms are devoid of furniture" and the buildings are cold, he wrote. "You have camped out but you 'had everything' to do with. These people were dumped down in a new world of sagebrush and desert to be handled by a group of Caucasians who hadn't time to organize themselves, let along handle such a vast throng of folk."[6]

            Newton's columns were widely quoted by other Wyoming newspapers, but not approvingly. Newton responded to the criticisms in his final installment on Dec. 17 by asserting that he wouldn't mind "having any of them care to farm in the Lander Valley" or for the physician evacuees to treat him or members of his family. " P. S. (and pardon me)," Newton wrote, "I have had many compliments and words of approval upon these series of 'Travel with Your Editor" articles, but they have all come and only come from those who have visited the Heart Mountain center. In the words of long ago, 'Come and See.'"[7]

            In the Christmas Eve issue of the State Journal, Newton printed a front-page story about Arapahoe Indians packing beans for shipment to Heart Mountain.

  

Older tribesmen conjured to their minds the paradox of feeding the Japanese internees at Cody and killing them off in the Solomons where some of their sons are defending their country with their lives. When they learned the Japanese descent people at Cody were really Americans--born in this country and many of them also fought in the Solomons alongside of their warriors--they understand they were no different than second generation Germans, Italians and others, also loyal Americans, and gave their approval to the shipment.[8]

            Despite the editorial criticisms of his position on the Heart Mountain camp's legality, Newton was elected president of the Wyoming Press Association in January 1943.[9] The new position did not deter him from pointing out the constitutional flaws of keeping American citizens behind barbed wire. In March 1943, the State Journal ran a story headlined "Tojo of Heart Mountain Out to Get Tojo of Tokyo, Japan." The story told of Rufus Tojo's vow to avenge the good name of his family by enlisting in the U. S. Army.[10]

            Judging from the letters sent to Senator O'Mahoney, few Wyomingites shared Newton's concerns for the constitutional rights of the internees. Instead, correspondents appear to have either a financial motive for writing or opposition to camp location near their communities.

            Before the camp was established on June 5, 1942, several Wyoming constituents wrote to O'Mahoney requesting that prison camps be located in their towns. The economic benefits were of paramount concern.

            Elected officials needed to know the sentiments from constituents generally about the location of prison camps or internment centers. O'Mahoney wrote the secretary of the Sheridan Chamber of Commerce, asking about the local feelings of such a facility: "to date, no project in Wyoming is under consideration." The senator then asked if Sheridan residents would welcome such a camp if one were to be located somewhere in the state. The secretary replied in June that most people "did not wish the camp here."[11]

            The senator did receive letters favorable to establishing a camp in Worland, but because of a controversy involving the availability of water, the site was turned down. The record shows that O'Mahoney pleaded the Worland case with vigor, not only with the War Department and War Relocation Authority, but with the State Engineer's Office in Cheyenne.[12]

            The War Relocation Authority officials chose the Heart Mountain site on government land in a relatively remote but agriculturally promising area in the northern Big Horn Basin. O'Mahoney had queried Park County residents about the proposed site in May 1942. Jack Richard, editor of the Cody Enterprise, responded that "although we have no great love for the Japanese" the project would be accepted as necessary for the war effort." Paul Stock, Cody mayor, agreed, as long as "they are properly supervised....it would be perfectly all right."[13]

            Besides concerns about security, two other themes appeared in correspondence from Wyomingites over the next two years: removal of internees after the war and use of their labor for agricultural production.

            Park County commissioner Harry Atteberry warned O'Mahoney that the location of the camp at Heart Mountain might cause danger to the Willwood Dam and Corbett Dam, both small irrigation projects near Powell. He wrote that he thought Park County would accept the camp as long as the federal government could guarantee both security and "their removal from the county after the war."[14]  The removal theme was to gain added momentum as the war appeared to be winding down.

            As soon as the first group of internees began to arrive in August 1942, O'Mahoney started receiving requests from people wanting to obtain the services of the camp residents in fields or businesses. Requests from sugar beet growers were particularly numerous. G. N. Wells, vice president of the Montana-Wyoming Beet Growers Association, wrote to WRA Director Dillon S. Myer in April 1943, asking for labor. He warned that growers would be ruined if labor wasn't furnished from the Japanese ranks. "Too many of our workers are now in the armed forces," he stated.[15]

            While workers were needed for field work, other industry owners made requests for Japanese-American laborers. A Cowley canning company official thanked O'Mahoney for assisting in recruiting labor from the Relocation Center to work in his plant. Labor requests also came from a Casper bowling alley (to alleviate the "war-time pinsetter shortage") and a McFadden rancher wishing for a hired hand.[16] Fremont County farmers "feel that the crops must be harvested and this is the only solution thus far presented."[17]

            In 1944, the Casper Building and Construction Trades Council inquired if internees could be used to help in "tearing up the railroad between Shoshoni and Elco"--duplicate tracks of the Chicago and Northwestern, the iron needed for scrap metal. O'Mahoney gave similar replies to such requests. He promised that "a copy of your letter will be forwarded to the WRA."[18]

            In the fall of 1943, critics of the center pointed out that school teachers at the Heart Mountain camp were paid "in excess of other teachers in the state." Eugene T. Childers, editor of the Riverton Review and a Newton competitor, editorialized against the "teacher-grabbing policies" of the WRA. "Our Washington delegation should be flooded with protests," he wrote. The Pavillion Grange petitioned the WRA, protesting the high wages paid to camp teachers. The agriculture teacher had been hired away from them before the end of the term, the Grange petition noted, and the community demanded redress. Lander's L. L. Newton pointed out the flaw in such complaints. "The teachers at Heart Mountain are on 11-month contracts," he editorially noted, dismissing the Review editor's statements as uninformed.[19]

            From the beginning, Wyomingites complained, not about violations of civil liberties, but what they considered as "coddling" of camp residents. The letters to O'Mahoney range from mild complaints to viciously racist diatribes. A former Sheridan resident wrote in February 1943, doubting the need for a large food supply being kept at the Minidoka, Idaho, camp. O'Mahoney answered that an investigation would be held shortly to determine such matters. He added a compliment to the internees at the camp: "The War Department tells us that there has been such a demand among those Japanese [in relocation camps] to serve in our own military forces that the War Department is now raising a Japanese military contingent which is to be sent into the European Theatre of War."[20]

            O'Mahoney received a torrent of mail in April and May 1943, after the Denver Post in a series of articles accused the WRA of "pampering the enemy." One of the Post headlines read: "Food is Hoarded for Japs in U. S. While Americans in Nippon Are Tortured." The sub-head read: "Openly Disloyal Japs Pampered."[21]

            The Post article, written by sports writer Jack Carberry, prompted U. S.  Sen. E. V. Robertson to tell the New York Times that he was certain "the Japanese are being pampered." He provided no evidence and he admitted he had not visited the camp to investigate the charges.[22] While his Senate colleague talked to the press about the Denver Post story, O'Mahoney did not reply when the managing editor of the Denver paper sent a clipping of the Carberry piece and asked for O'Mahoney's reaction. This was the pattern in this response to inflammatory letters, too. Either he did not answer or he deftly made reference to a single point of common agreement he might have had with the writer.[23]

            Angry letters came in from throughout Wyoming. A Buffalo couple suggested that the Japanese-Americans be "segregated by sex because we don't need more little Japs." The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen in Sheridan wrote that if the Carberry article about "luxuries for the Japanese" were true, why was the rest of the country having to sacrifice? An Arvada man wrote that the Post article "is the bitterest pill I've had to swallow yet." A Basin man blamed the defeat of Democrats in the last election on the "information that came out of Heart Mountain project. Now comes the story told by Jack Carberry in the Denver Post and once more there is hell a poppin.'"[24]

            Glenn Neilson, president of Husky Oil Company in Cody, wrote to O'Mahoney that he was "pleased that the Denver Post had sufficient nerve to publish the articles about the camp." He claimed that he had tried to recruit labor there and they seemed to be "a lazy and shiftless lot" to him.[25]

            O'Mahoney did not respond to Neilson's letter nor to other mail that week. "The senator is ill with the flu and out of the office this week," Mary Mahan, his secretary, wrote. "I will see that he gets your letter when he returns."[26]

            The town councils of Powell and Cody met in joint session the same week the Post story ran, but it was more than merely "pampering" that concerned both groups. Both issued petitions asking for tighter security and the guarantee that the internees would be moved out after the war.[27]

            Newton of the State Journal continued to editorialize about the unconstitutionality of the camp. Others, apparently more as defenders of the War Relocation Authority and its staff than the internees, wrote to protest the "untruths" in the Post story. "[They are] ignorant of the facts," a Cody man wrote while a Hiland woman declared, "We know you are opposed to a campaign of retaliation and therefore we feel every confidence in your report. Some of [Sen. Robertson's] accusations seem about as ridiculous as a Goebbels fantasy."[28]

            Bill Hosokawa, editor of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, editorially answered the Post charges. He chastised the Cody and Powell councils stated that the people had been "stampeded by the Post articles." He noted that "it is evident that not all of Wyoming's sheep are on the hillsides." Hosokawa pointed to the curious fact that Sen. Robertson owned a significant interest in the Cody Trading Company, a firm that supplied the camp. The senator's complaints were clearly contradictory.[29]

            Meanwhile, Sen. O'Mahoney quietly consoled camp director Guy Robertson. "You have a difficult job," he wrote. Clearly, the senator accepted Dillon Myer's refutation of the Post series.[30]

            In a letter to the chairman of the Heart Mountain Volunteers, O'Mahoney made no reference to the Post charges, electing instead to salute internees who had enlisted. He wrote: "Let me acknowledge your letter of May 18 enclosing a copy of the credo adopted by the volunteers into the U. S. Armed Services from the relocation centers for Japanese ancestry persons...It is indeed gratifying to know that American citizens of Japanese ancestry have thus demonstrated their loyalty and desire to serve in the armed services of the U. S."[31]

            A center employee, Scott Taggart of Cody, accused the Post of distorting the facts, but also pointed to Sen. Robertson's statements as erroneous.

 

            ...our security lies in men like you who have grown big enough to be able to

                approach all problems from the standpoint of right and justice and the public

                interest without regard to spotted public clamor. The people of Wyoming are

                both intelligent and honest, and though many may be temporarily side-tracked

                by emotionalism they will in the long run continue to honor their chosen leaders

                who have kept their heads in periods of excitement and quiet alike.[32]

            Powell attorney Lowell C. Stephens wrote that Sen. Robertson "could speak in Philadelphia about the problems of the center although he was too busy to go the 14 miles" out there. Stephens claimed Sen. Robertson's source was Cody attorney Milward Simpson, the head of the Park County Civilian Defense. "I think you know the kind of information Milward puts out in anything connected with politics," Stephens wrote. Stephens said he had personally visited the camp and found that the "people in the camp seem to be loyal and law-abiding people and should have fair treatment."[33]

            Simpson wrote several times to O'Mahoney commenting on the camp. In one, he pointed out that the court system had been "jammed by Japanese cases." He also questioned the security arrangments at the camp after 20 guards were withdrawn by the WRA:

 

            This [withdrawal] stems from the silly namby-pamby policy of the WRA to give

                these people more freedom from restraint. They tell us that these internees will

                leave the camp and go out into useful occupations over the land. If the attitude

                of the rest, and I am dead sure it is, then by God, we don't want them out away

                from the enclosure.[34]

            Apparently unaware that many of the American citizens in the camp had lost homes and businesses on the West Coast, Simpson continued:

 

            They are a sullen, nasty lot; a good portion of them are not even American born

                or American citizens. The percentage of native born citizens who have sworn

                allegiance to the Emperor of Japan is at least 25 percent of the total...Having

                established residence for probate and divorce...it now is a question whether

                or not they have established residence from the standpoint of voting. I know

                of no member of our delegation who would want their vote.[35]

            O'Mahoney answered without specific comment, but tacitly, he disagreed. He promised to check with the army about possible security gaps. Three days later, he wrote Simpson again to report that the Army claimed the "situation was well in hand."[36]

            In 1943, O'Mahoney was appointed a member of the Senate's Sub-committee to Investigate the War Relocation Authority, chaired by Sen. Albert B. Chandler (D-Ky.). The committee met during the first part of 1943 and numerous members made inspection visits to the camps. The focal point seemed to be Tule Lake, Calif., cite of various violent incidents during the WRA's short history. O'Mahoney received one memo from the secretary of the committee, asking if he wished to "make an investigation trip West on behalf of the committee." Apparently, he declined.[37] The committee issued its report in June 1943, including testimony from Dillon Myer, J. Edgar Hoover and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. Nothing of consequence resulted from the committee's investigations except "junkets" for members.

            As U. S. Senator representing a state where an apparent majority of the population was not sympathetic to the internees, O'Mahoney demonstrated ambivalence about the camp. O'Mahoney weighed the evidence, agreed that a threat to the nation existed, and therefore, the lock-up was justified. Politically, he defended the administration's War Relocation Authority staff, but he did not become actively involved in the debates over Heart Mountain Center's "coddling." He stayed above the fray, deferring to his Wyoming colleague E. V. Robertson who, O'Mahoney may have believed, might have a stronger interest in the camp because he was a resident of Park County.

            Unlike editor L. L. Newton, O'Mahoney took no public position opposing relocation on constitutional grounds. While he cannot be charged with actively supporting repressive policies of relocation, O'Mahoney was guilty of doing nothing about the injustices. Had he spoken up (like Newton did in his small weekly newspaper far from the center of federal power), there is every possibility that O'Mahoney, a respected senator from the President's party and a leading spokesman for the New Deal, could have made a difference.


 

[1]O'Mahoney to Ed Althoff, Park County Democratic chairman, and Paul Greever, Feb. 6, 1943, Box 85, War Relocation Authority file, O'Mahoney Papers, American Heritage Center (henceforth cited as WRA file). Oddly, just ten days after the letter was postmarked, Greever, a former Congressman, died from an accidental shotgun blast in his Cody home. See Wyoming State Tribune, Feb. 17, 1943.

[2]O'Mahoney to L. E. Laird, June 16, 1942, Box 67, Japanese Evacuation file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[3]O'Mahoney to Robertson, Feb. 27, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[4]Actually, the camp was 14 miles from Cody and ten miles from Powell.

[5]"Jap Trap Misnomer for Relocation Center," Wyoming State Journal, Nov. 26, 1942, p. 2.

[6]"Evacuees Tell Story of Life at Center," Wyoming State Journal, Dec. 3, 1942, p. 2.

[7]"Japanese Evacuees Plan to Reclaim Desert," Wyoming State Journal, Dec. 17, 1942, p. 2.

[8]"Indian Pack of Canned Beans Go to Feed Japanese," Wyoming State Journal, Dec. 24, 1942, p. 1.

[9]"WPA Officers Elected," Wyoming State Journal, Jan. 21, 1943, p. 1.

[10]"Tojo...," Wyoming State Journal, March 11, 1943, p. 8.

[11]O'Mahoney to L. C. Morrison, May 1, 1942; Morrison to O'Mahoney, June 3, 1942, Japanese Evaculation file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[12]O'Mahoney to varoius individuals, Box 74, Japanese Evacuation file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[13]Richard to O'Mahoney, May 23, 1942; Stock to O'Mahoney, May 12, 1942, Box 74, Japanese Evacuation file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[14]Atteberry to O'Mahoney, May 13, 1942, Box 74, Japanese Evacuation file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[15]Wells to O'Mahoney, April 1, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[16]Big Horn Canning to O'Mahoney, Sept. 22, 1942, Box 74, WRA file.

[17]Riverton Review, Aug. 5, 1943, p. 1.

[18]Trades Council to O'Mahoney, May 17, 1944, Box 85, WRA file.

[19]Riverton Review, Aug. 25, 1943, p. 4; Pavillion Grange resolution, Sept. 21, 1943, Box 74, WRA files, O'Mahoney Papers.

[20]W. B. Johnson, Mountain Home, Idaho, to O'Mahoney, Feb. 5, 1943; O'Mahoney to Johnson, Feb. 9, 1943,  Box 85, WRA file.

[21]Denver Post, April 23, 1943.

[22]New York Times, May 7, 1943, p. 5, c. 1.

[23]Lawrence Martin to O'Mahoney, April 24, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[24]Caroll and Mabel Beckwith to O'Mahoney, May 11, 1943; H. E. Fulbright, Secretary-Treasurer, to O'Mahoney, May 12, 1943; G. E. Pollard to O'Mahoney, April 25, 1943; A. W. Coons, Basin, to O'Mahoney, April 29, 1943. Box 74, WRA file.

[25]Neilson to O'Mahoney, May 10, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[26]Mahan to Glenn Neilson, May 10, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[27]"Resolution of Policy Toward Japanese at Heart Mountain Relocation Center," adopted at joint session of city councils of Cody and Powell, April 24, 1943, Box 74, WRA file, O'Mahoney Papers. The city clerks of each town mailed copies of the resolution to O'Mahoney but, apparently, he did not reply.

[28]Fred Butler to O'Mahoney, May 30, 1943; Mrs. Robert Maigh to O'Mahoney, May 1, 1943. Box 74, WRA file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[29]Heart Mountain Sentinel, May 8, 1943, p. 2.

[30]O'Mahoney to Guy Robertson, Feb. 27, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[31]O'Mahoney to Abe Cyamanda, May 21, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[32]Taggart to O'Mahoney, May 12, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[33]Stephens to O'Mahoney, May 20, 1943, Box 74, WRA file.

[34]Simpson to O'Mahoney, April 18, 1944, Box 85, WRA file, O'Mahoney Papers.

[35]Ibid.

[36]O'Mahoney to Simpson, April 21, 1943; April 24, 1943. Box 85, WRA file.

[37]Letters from the committee, Box 85, Military Affairs file; memo from Walter Mulbry, March 2, 1943, Box 85, Military Affairs file. Committee members were: Senators James E. Murray (D-Mont.); Mon C. Wallgren (D-Wash.); Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (R-Mass.); Chan Gurney (R-S.D.); Rufus Holman (R-Ore.)