It is one of the ugliest chapters of American history in the 20th century, one that may be difficult to fathom from a modern perspective. Two months after imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, calling for all those of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to be taken from their homes and forcibly relocated to prison-like internment camps scattered throughout the country. The majority of those affected were U.S. citizens. Among the hundreds of thousands of detainees was future Star Trek actor George Takei, then a small child. Takei and his family were first moved to the stables at California’s Santa Anita Park before being transferred to an internment camp in Arkansas. Most of the camps have long been torn down or repurposed by now, but one, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, still stands in northwest Wyoming. Takei recently took a trip to Heart Mountain and shared the experience on his Facebook page. “I wasn’t in this camp,” he says, “but I recognize a lot.”
As Takei walks through the stark, barn-like structure, it is clear that not all the wounds from that long-ago era have healed. Conditions at the camps were spartan, to say the least. Takei remembers the walls of the internment camp in Arkansas being covered with black tar paper. On cold nights, he and his family would have to wear extra layers of clothing to keep warm. There weren’t even adequate toilets at the camp. A guide at Heart Mountain points out a racial slur that is written on the wall of the barracks: “A slap for the J-A-P-S.” Such sentiments were commonplace in America during the war, even turning up on billboards. This reminds Takei of a teacher who, even after the war was over, referred to him as “the Jap boy.” That hateful word still stings, over seven decades later.