As the last trainload of internees from the Heart Mountain Confinement Site left in November of 1945, their lives would never be the same. So much had been taken from them, but they moved on. It was all they could do.
As retired longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News Tom Brokaw spoke to the hundred of attendees at this year’s Heart Mountain Pilgrimage last weekend at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, he praised that willingness to keep walking, even after a tremendous wrong.
“You did not let that experience define your lives,” he said.
Brokaw attended to accept the LaDonna Zall Compassionate Witness Award, which honors people who can sympathise with someone who was wronged and becomes part of their mission.
Brokaw’s history with the center goes back to its founding, when he spoke at the opening ceremony. Now, eight years later, he was among other noted dignitaries such as Japanese ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama, retired congressman and former internee Rep. Norman Mineta and retired Sen. Al Simpson.
The ceremony opened with Nisei veterans and former camp Boy Scouts raising the American flag over the center. The national anthem was sung, resonating through the crowd as almost everyone joined in.
Members of the center’s board spoke to open the event, offering thanks to the local Wyoming supporters who helped to preserve the site and support its mission.
In accepting the award, Brokaw expressed his admiration for the families and surviving internees.
“America is an idea,” he said. “What gives that idea substance is all of you and how we treat each other.”
He illustrated that concept of the American identity with a little brass clicker, the type carried by allied paratroopers dropping into Normandy in 1944. The noisemakers were used to help troopers find each other in the dark.
“It wasn’t a question of identity in that moment,” he said. “No one said, ‘Oh, I’m an Italian-American,’ or ‘I’m a French-American.’ It was just, ‘I’m an American. I’m coming. Let’s win this damn war.’”
He condemned the continued proliferation of identity politics in American life.
“Race is not a measurement of worthiness,” he said.
Brokaw’s address was followed by joint remarks from Mineta and Simpson, who also spoke to the American identity.
“I cherish the word citizen,” Mineta said. “I can remember when the signs went up ordering the removal and you were either an alien or a non-alien. My own government would not even call me a citizen. I cherish that word.”
The opening ceremony concluded with a Zen blessing and most attendees headed for several school busses bound for important parts of the site, such as the memorial, hospital and newly-renovated barracks building. Brokaw sat down with Mineta and Simpson to film an interview, then took questions from the local press.
He said he first became more familiar with the camp when interviewing Mineta for “The Greatest Generation” book.
“I think this history is very important,” he said. “Generations coming up don’t have a full appreciation of what happened here.”
Despite debate about terminology by historians, Brokaw maintains Heart Mountain can most accurately be called a concentration camp. Against that stark backdrop, he praised the Japanese Americans of Heart Mountain and camps like it as a contrast to the political discourse of today.
“Today, people tend to lead with an open wound,” he said. “‘You can’t oppose me because I was treated poorly,’ is often people’s first argument. They never had to face anything like this.”
Still, as someone who has spent much time studying the history of this country, Brokaw said the country’s potential remains great, despite it’s dark moments.
“That is the genius of this nation,” he said. “It’s the best from the ground up, not the top down, and everyone has a voice.”