BILLINGS - George Takei on Tuesday stepped into an original barrack at a Wyoming internment camp that housed some of the 14,000 Japanese-Americans that were detained there during World War II.
“This looks like the inside,” he said, comparing it to a similar barrack he grew up in at an internment camp in the Arkansas swamp. It was wider than he remembered, and the cracks in the wall were covered up better than when he moved in.
“(My father) covered it up so we didn’t get the wind or the dust coming in,” he said.
Takei, the internet celebrity and "Star Trek" actor who portrayed Hikaru Sulu, visited the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Cody for the first time Tuesday at age 79, exploring the museum and grounds at the national historic landmark.
His family was locked away by the U.S. government along with more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans spread across 10 camps during World War II. Takei moved to the easternmost camp in the swamps of Arkansas at age 5 and was later moved to the Tule Lake camp in California.
Takei recently produced a musical, “Allegiance,” that played on Broadway, fictionalizing the story of internees at Heart Mountain. The play takes some liberties with history, mixing events that occurred in different camps. It's described as "inspired by" true events.
Takashi Hoshizaki, 90, knows the story exactly as it happened.
'Barbed wire, guard towers'
Hoshizaki, who was imprisoned at Heart Mountain with his family, is now a member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates the museum and works to preserve the camp.
His family of eight of lived in two apartment rooms of the six rooms their barrack was split into. Initially, he enjoyed life at the camp — Boy Scouts, playing with other kids, working on model airplanes.
“I was 16,” he said. “I didn’t know much about anything. I realized that something was amiss.”
When his draft notice came, “I had already decided that if they tried to draft me, I wouldn’t be going,” he said.
He and 62 other men refused to join the U.S. military after being drafted, but it wasn't to object to fighting. They were fighting for their rights, he said.
“(It was) a means of bringing this to the forefront, in a court of law, what had happened to us,” he said. “Give us our civil rights back, get our family back to where they came from and we will gladly serve.”
He was initially shuttled between Cody and Heart Mountain as a detainee among detainees before he ended up in jail in Casper.
“We ended up basically filling up the county jails in Wyoming,” Hoshizaki said.
Hoshizaki and others were sentenced to three years in federal prison. It was the harshest penalty handed down to any internees at any camp who refused their draft notice, he said.
“We were sort of the forerunners,” Hoshizaki said. “They wanted to make sure we didn’t start up a groundswell of resistance.”
He was sent to a prison in Washington, while others were sent to Texas. But prison didn’t perturb him.
“It was the same thing — barbed wire, guard towers,” he said. “I would miss my family of course, but otherwise it was the same.”
Hoshizaki was released for good behavior after serving two years, as were most internees. He rejoined his family in Los Angeles; his father had been able to rent out their house while the family was imprisoned, and they moved back in after.
In 1947, President Harry Truman pardoned more than 1,500 draft resistors. When another letter in the mail told Hoshizaki that he needed to fight for his country, this time in Korea, he answered the call and served two years in the military.
More than 800 Japanese-Americans detained at Heart Mountain answered their call in World War II, going on to fight in the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Fifteen of them died.
“Those that went were heroes,” Takei said, swapping camp stories with Hoshizaki and former internee Sam Mihara, who's also on the foundation board of directors.
Later, he told Hoshizaki, “You’re a hero … You guys resisted on American principles.”
Hoshizaki is proud of the stand he took, but he declined to call his actions heroic in an earlier conversation.
“No, not in a way,” he said, not finishing his thought. He recalled his mother being upset at the prospect of him going to jail, and that his family “never really talked about it.”
Many families never really talked about the complicated decisions internment forced upon them. The museum’s exhibits note that many Japanese-Americans initially considered internment their duty as Americans, and that differences in opinion were often divided on generational lines.
Only those who were kids in the camps are left to tell the stories today.
Mihara recalled bathroom arrangements in his own barrack, which became more difficult on cold winter nights.
“We only had one choice at night, and that was to have a chamber pot,” he said. The alternative was trekking outside.
“My mother had one,” Takei said.
The actor often lingered at exhibits after others moved on. He paused at a placard about places where internees were assembled before they were shipped to camps, calling to his husband, Brad.
“This is where we were,” he said, pointing to the section about Santa Anita, where his family briefly lived in a horse stable.
'Telling the story'
“Ten years ago, I would say, he’s the guy from 'Star Trek,'” Brad Takei said.
But long after George Takei was done playing Hikaru Sulu, he found fame again as a social media maven. His influence has become so pervasive that a recent Taco Bell commercial casts him as the internet embodied. Pages representing Takei are known for posting punchy memes and articles that often carry a liberal tilt; Takei advocates from several progressive causes.
“That’s been an important thing for George, to be able to reach younger people,” Brad Takei said. “The younger people have to keep telling the story.”
An entourage filmed Takei for a Facebook Live video as he walked out to the barrack and viewed the interior. Takei also plugs “Allegiance” frequently on his pages.
Part of the mission of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation is to make sure the story of Japanese Internment remains relevant in modern times. The foundation has spoke out increasingly over the last year, as election-year rhetoric has targeted Muslims and refugees from the middle east.
“We’re facing the same type of situation,” Hoshizaki said. “I don’t have a new answer for that. We’re trying to get the story out so that it won’t happen to any other group.”