The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula isn't shying away from the fort's past as an internment camp during World War II. 

On Saturday, the museum held the grand opening of a new exhibit in the barracks building on the grounds focused on the fort’s time as an Alien Detention Center for Italians and Japanese during the war.

“It’s such an important part of Missoula’s history,” said Matt Lautzenheiser, executive director of the museum. “Unfortunately not everyone understands that we had an internment camp.”

Nicole Webb, the curator from the museum who put together the exhibit, said the work began about a year ago. The museum received grants from the Montana Office of Tourism, the Greater Montana Foundation and the National Park Service's Japanese American Confinement Sites program to expand its work on the detention camps.

The grants are paying for three different endeavors as part of that mission. One is the exhibit at the barracks, along with a documentary film about the history of Fort Missoula and its Alien Detention Center, and more interpretive signs around the rest of the fort’s grounds. The documentary is finished and will be screened for the first time in September. The interpretive signs are set to be installed next year, Webb said.

Apart from the official records kept about the camp, Webb said the museum, in designing the exhibit, drew on recorded interviews and other primary sources from the men who were kept at Fort Missoula.

“Some of the Italians had cameras with them and we have some of their photos,” she said.

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On one wall is a memorial list of the names of every person the museum has been able to document as having been interned at Fort Missoula. Throughout the barracks building, boards have been put up with short biographical information about some of the most prominent residents of the camp, including Umberto Benedetti and Alfredo Cipolato. Both men lived to their 90s. 

Cipolato’s daughter, Eletra Vandeberg, was one of the speakers at the ceremony, and was given the honor of cutting the ribbon over the door to officially open the exhibit. She said she never heard much about her father’s time at Fort Missoula from him while growing up.

“We never talked about Fort Missoula in my family,” she said.

Cipolato had lived at the camp for around two years, and although he and his wife Ann lived in Missoula after his release, Vandeberg said he didn't come back to the camp until a documentary film crew made a movie in the 1980s and wanted to interview him about his experience.

One of the only stories she did know of was when her father and the other Italians got their hands on some fruit during their internment and made it into wine, which they shared with some of the border patrol agents watching the camp.

"They had a couple drinks, played some cards, got a little rowdy. No more fruit," Vandeberg said.

She said one of the few things Cipolato had said was that he was not mistreated. He was given good food, clean clothing and was able to work.

"You can live, but you cannot leave," she said.

Webb said the fort had only been given a few months to prepare to receive more than 1,000 Italian men. Modular buildings such as the barracks dormitory were brought in and set up, each housing between 60 and 80 internees.

“Fort Missoula kind of became an escape for them," she said. "It was either be here or be in the middle of the war back at home.”

Lautzenheiser said Fort Missoula is unique among the internment camps across the country because it has more of the original structures from that era still standing. He sees it as the museum's mission to tell the story.

“It’s a very emotional and a very tough issue,” Lautzenheiser said.

Much of the rest of the information from the exhibit came from the book “An Alien Place,” written by Carol Van Valkenburg, about the history of Fort Missoula during WWII.

The barracks building exhibit will be open during the same hours as the museum, seven days a week through Labor Day.

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State senator and former museum development director Diane Sands also spoke at the opening. She told the history of how the internees had come to be at Fort Missoula. Before the United States officially entered the war, it seized merchant ships and a cruiseliner full of Italian and German people and held them until the men’s visas expired. They then needed somewhere to put all those people.

Some 1,200 Italians were sent to Missoula, while the Germans were taken to Fort Lincoln in North Dakota. None of the men brought to the fort were American citizens. Following Pearl Harbor, the government arrested prominent Japanese people living in America. A group of these older men were brought to Fort Missoula for interrogation. Because of immigration laws, they were also not citizens, Sands said.

Enlarged copies of the documents stating how the prisoners would be treated, or records from the Japanese internees' loyalty hearings conducted in a courtroom on the grounds, cover one wall of the exhibit.

Sands said the rules for treatment were very strict, because the United States was worried about the potential backlash on American citizens in other countries if Italy or Germany received word their citizens were being abused or mistreated in the camps.

Part of the exhibit, she said, was about placing the internment camps in a broader context of the state of the nation and the world at the time.

“This is part of the human response to fear when you are attacked,” Sands said.

The exhibit is also there to ensure that future generations remember what had been done and to keep it in mind if a similar situation arises. Sands likened it to talk of arresting Arabic individuals following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It’s very easy for us to say ‘this is different’ and look the other way,” Sands said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for The Missoulian.