The striking outline of Heart Mountain could be seen through cloudy blue-streaked skies when former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, known for having adopted the term “The Greatest Generation” for his book about the heroes of WWII, took to the Wyoming stage greeted by a standing ovation.
One of a host of celebrity speakers at this year’s Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, he properly noted the courage and honor of those incarcerated at these former barbed-wire enclaves, and then elaborated on the massive injustice of it all.
As I looked around the audience, I searched for former detainees who were the object of his praise, only to see but a handful of them. Traveling to the remote site in Wyoming wasn’t easy for any of us, but hardest by far for those actually imprisoned there, now burdened with canes and hearing aids.
Even the hardiest of them all, Bacon Sakatani, “Mr. Heart Mountain,” no longer took groups to the top of Heart Mountain like he did more than a decade ago, leaving the job of tour leader on the rugged climb to “youngsters” like popular singer Kishi Bashi, another of this year’s famous personalities grabbing the attention of the 300-some pilgrims.
Brushing elbows with notables like Brokaw, former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, former Senator Alan Simpson, Judge Lance Ito, and KABC anchor David Ono, not to mention an entire delegation from the Japanese Foreign Ministry, including the Japanese ambassador himself, gave a starry quality to the annual event. Not often does one get to trade jokes with a former senator, talk to a JA icon about the people you know in common, and practice your best bow with a consul general.
As I looked around the adoring crowd, I flashed back to another pilgrimage I had just attended three weeks earlier in Idaho. At the Minidoka Pilgrimage, the spotlight was on people far less famous. At the grand opening ceremony for the sparkling new interpretive center, all former incarcerees — most with no name recognition — were given center stage as they were asked to cut the ribbon to mark the historic occasion.
Former detainee Yosh Nakagawa was featured to talk about the accomplishments the center represented, while tears were shed all around for having it there to tell the story that no one wanted anyone to forget.
If you ask me, people like Nakagawa are the real celebrities. Sadly, during the three days at Heart Mountain, they were not found on stage but more often lost in the back of the room. Not as mobile and watchful as they once were, the aging Nisei managed to find a quiet spot away from the hubbub to sit and rest.
Friends like Nori Uyematsu and his wife Rose, or David Nakamura and his sister Margaret Cooper cheerfully took their unmarked seats in the back of the banquet room, content to stay away from the limelight of VIPs like the Japanese delegation who spread themselves across the front row.
The Nisei are the last people left who directly suffered the slings and arrows of the government that incarcerated them, and yet have managed to endure with the gaman that has been passed on by their elders, those Issei whom they in turn would regard as “The Greatest Generation.” Despite fading short-term memories and physical ailments, they have a lot to tell, and a lot that we can learn from.
I now understand why they often let out a chuckle when recounting the old “fun” days of camp or manage to find a bright spot in the isolation and humiliation of life behind barbed wire. I have come to understand that the pain buried underneath is sometimes too awful to share.
One example of their ability to look on the bright side is a story I’d never heard before from Tak Hoshizaki, who spent two years in a federal penitentiary for refusing to be drafted until his family’s freedom was restored. When asked how he survived life in prison, he recalled with a tiny grin creeping onto his face, “It wasn’t so bad. I learned how to play the piano from a guy in jail.”
Boarding the plane back to Los Angeles, Nori and Rose Uyematsu were being helped by kind airline attendants who recognized the difficulties faced by a nearly 90-year-old passenger as he struggled to keep his wife’s bags intact while barely managing his own. As he picked up a toiletry kit that fell out of one of his wife’s carry-on bags, he smiled broadly as others scrambled to help.
My heart broke a little when Nori said that this was his last pilgrimage. Yet in typical Nisei “it’s-not-so-bad” fashion, he quickly added, “But I’m so glad you asked me come to this one. I got to spend time with my good friend Raymond Uno, who I met playing marbles on my first day at the Pomona Assembly Center. We have been friends ever since.”
People like Uyematsu represent the best of “The Greater Generation,” a group that faced the worst kind of hardships with endless cheerfulness and patient endurance. I hope we can continue to give them all the honor and respect they deserve, and do everything we can to let them know how much we appreciate them before they’re all gone.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The rafu Shimpo.