Sam Mihara Recounts Life In An Internment Camp

In 1942, nine-year-old Sam Mihara and his family were given a week to pack up all their belongings before departing their hometown of San Francisco. Upon the executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mihara’s family was relocated to Heart Mountain, Wyo., one of the ten Japanese internment camps during World War II, where they lived in one 400-square foot room in a barrack.

Mihara was one of 120,000 Americans with Japanese ancestry detained in relocation camps. In his presentation, he shared his perspective on the racial discrimination, intolerance, and injustice towards Japanese people of his era.

“I am not going to hide history,” said Mihara. “My purpose [is] to reveal things that you won’t read [about] and you won’t hear because they are factual and they had a great impact on a lot of us,” Mihara continued.

Now a member of The Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation, a museum founded at the site of the internment camp, Mihara visited campus last Friday to inform students about the history behind internment camps in America. His presentation entitled “All That We Could Carry” detailed the plight of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, focusing on his personal experiences in his own internment camp of Heart Mountain.

The presentation was arranged by the Department of History and Social Science, the Community and Multicultural Development Office, and the Tang Institute, with the support of the Lana Lobell Lectureship Fund.

“I retired as a rocket scientist from the Boeing Company and I enjoyed my career – and about five years ago, I had a telephone call from the prison camp because they were receiving requests from many groups asking for somebody who was in the camp who can talk about the experience – they called me and said, ‘You were in the camp, can you talk about what happened?’ So I said yes, I’d be happy to talk, and that’s how it began,” said Mihara.

“My first group was a group of government lawyers who wanted to hear what happened. They were too young and one reason they came to me is, there aren’t too many of us left because the people during World War II, they’re gone. Right now if they’re living, they’re in their eighties and nineties now because of the age – so they were looking for someone who was relatively healthy and can talk and move around the country – And I’ve been very, very busy all over the country giving talks,” Mihara continued.

Growing up in San Francisco, Mihara witnessed anti-Japanese sentiments firsthand from viewing signs and propaganda in his neighborhood.

“[A] sign was made by a big advertising company in California [which] said, ‘Buy, Buy, Japs, Good-Bye’– [and] put on a corner one block from my house. Imagine if a similar sign went up one block from your house, before the order came out. That’s the nature of the degree of the problem that we had at that time,” Mihara described.

According to Mihara, once the official decree calling for Japanese-American internment was released, families had to abide by strict regulations, including an 8:00 p.m. curfew and were only permitted to travel on designated streets and boundaries. The government then registered families to organize their departure to relocation camps in California, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Mihara highlighted that the conditions at the internment camps were equivalent to those of prisons, presenting a picture of a sign mounted atop a barbed wire fence.

“The sign tells people inside ‘Do not cross. If you cross this boundary, you can get shot and killed.’ That is the definition of a prison. If you feel you’re going to get hurt, it doesn’t have to look like Alcatraz or Leavenworth. If you feel that you’re going to get hurt by crossing a certain boundary, that’s the definition of being imprisoned. And that’s the condition we had at the camps,” said Mihara.

The speaker also pointed out that Japanese occupants suffered from the lack of advanced medical facilities, education, and proper homes. In particular, he described how his father and grandfather received improper treatment due to the absence of a medical expert, which ultimately led to their blindness and death, respectively.

Another emphasis of Mihara’s presentation was the impact that photography had on shaping the public sentiment of the internment camps. The speaker discussed the works of two photographers, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, who utilized the camera to achieve drastically different effects.

While Dorothea Lange’s Smithsonian exhibit, documenting the lives of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar, prompted an official apology from the United States government, Mihara argued that Ansel Adams’ pictures, which depicted happy scenes of domestic life in the internment camps, had adverse effects.

“Why would they be smiling? My rationale here is that these people were asked to smile. That’s an indication of the kind of photography that Ansel Adams took. He never took a single picture of a barbed wire fence, a guard tower,” said Mihara during the presentation.

“My conclusion, and this is my opinion, is that he was paid to help the government look like they were being humane. That’s the power of a camera, that Dorothea Lange had [used properly] and [Adams] misused,” Mihara continued.

Auguste White ’17, an audience member, was struck by Mihara’s candid and intimate explanation of the human rights violations that occurred during the Japanese internment.

“I think he really re-enforced the humanity of the individuals who were there, and [it] was really cool to hear him talking about his experience candidly. I think he did a really compelling job of presenting the facts and having the audience realize [that] it wasn’t a matter of partisanship or what your political beliefs are, it was just simply a crime against humanity,” White said.

Christina Cho ’19 stated how the presentation changed her view on photography, and Ansel Adams, a photographer that she had respected even before the recent Addison Gallery exhibit.

“One thing I took away from this presentation is that photography and art itself is very censored in ways that I hadn’t expected it to because before. Even before the Addison Gallery, I knew who Ansel Adams was, and I’d really respected him as a photographer, but now, learning about this new side of how…photographers like [Adams] tie into history…, [being]part of kind of a giant scheme of censorship and government respecting people, it makes me think how I respect certain people and certain artists,” said Cho in an interview with The Phillipian.