From an unlikely WWII-era friendship, plans for strengthening democracy

by By Christa Case Bryant, CSM Staff writer @christacbryant from POWELL, WYO.


148966Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming stands in front of the plaque honoring Heart Mountain incarcerees who served in the U.S. military. Here, he and his boyhood friend Norman Mineta, a former incarceree who became a Democratic congressman, sometimes spoke to visitors before Mr. Mineta's death in May 2022.Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

August 1, 2022

As a kid, Alan Simpson watched the tar-paper shacks shoot up in the prairie nearby, as the government hastily constructed a camp after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The signs around town went up equally fast, as 14,000 Japanese Americans, uprooted from their lives on the West Coast, were detained in the shadow of Heart Mountain, one of 10 such camps. 

“This is for their own good,” he recalls one sign saying. Others used ethnic slurs to make clear the newcomers – some of whom worked in town – were not welcome at certain establishments. Meanwhile, Gov. Nels Smith criticized California for using Wyoming as a “dumping ground” for a distrusted population. 

Among the newcomers was Norman Mineta, a kid from San Jose who loved baseball but had his bat taken away by authorities upon entering the camp. So he would sneak through the fence to the river to fish and hunt magpies, like the local boys, Mr. Simpson recalls. But Mr. Simpson might never have learned that had it not been for Glenn Livingston, his Boy Scout troop leader in nearby Cody, Wyoming.

“There are three Boy Scout troops out there and they’re all American, just like you,” Mr. Simpson remembers him saying. “We’re going to go out there for a jamboree.”

Under the guard towers manned by soldiers and searchlights, 11-year-old Al and Norm practiced tying knots, shared a tent, and built a moat around it, directing the runoff to a bully’s tent down the hill, which sent them into fits of laughter. Three decades later, Mr. Simpson was serving in the Wyoming state legislature when he learned that his old chum had also entered politics, becoming the first Japanese American mayor of a major city – San Jose, California.  

“Do you remember the fat kid who cackled and tied knots?” Mr. Simpson wrote in a letter to Mr. Mineta, describing himself. The young mayor sure did. 

That unlikely boyhood friendship, forged amid fear and hatred, grew into a bipartisan force to be reckoned with after Mr. Mineta was elected a Democratic representative to Congress and Mr. Simpson became a Republican senator. They worked their respective sides of the aisle to secure reparations for Japanese Americans, and were each respected by the other side for their bipartisan spirit. President George W. Bush appointed Mr. Mineta to his Cabinet, and President Barack Obama tasked Mr. Simpson in 2010 with co-chairing the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

148966Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science MonitorThe Interpretive Center at Heart Mountain in Powell, Wyoming, details the wartime relocation and confinement of Japanese Americans here during World War II. The building, which opened in 2011, is modeled after the original barracks.

In honor of their example, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation broke ground this weekend on the Mineta-Simpson Institute, which will be located adjacent to an existing interpretative center and provide a forum for talks, workshops, and other events to address today’s resurgent tribalism.

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Last edited 8/2/2022 9:45:02 PM

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