The Eagles of Heart Mountain A true story of football, incarceration, and resistance in World War II America

Bradford Pearson

Book - 2021

A painstakingly researched account details the tragic and triumphant story of the Eagles, a high school football team from Cody, Wyoming's World War II Japanese-American incarceration camp.

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New York : Atria Books 2021.
Main Author
Bradford Pearson (author)
First Atria Books hardcover edition
Physical Description
x, 388 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 307-373) and index.
  • Author's Note: Terminology
  • Part 1.
  • Chapter 1. City of Good Neighbors
  • Chapter 2. Twinkletoes
  • Chapter 3. Furusato
  • Chapter 4. How to Make It in America
  • Chapter 5. 9066
  • Part 2.
  • Chapter 6. A Question of Blood
  • Chapter 7. Japanita
  • Chapter 8. 58 Minutes
  • Chapter 9. Kannon-sama Is Crying
  • Chapter 10. "Trapped Like Rats in a Wired Cage"
  • Chapter 11. Everything Is Going Along Fine
  • Chapter 12. A Determined Effort to See the Job Through
  • Part 3.
  • Chapter 13. 13 Days
  • Chapter 14. Warriors
  • Chapter 15. Coyotes
  • Chapter 16. Bulldogs
  • Chapter 17. 4-F
  • Chapter 18. Letter from Laramie County Jail
  • Chapter 19. Boys of Summer
  • Chapter 20. Chasing Perfection
  • Chapter 21. November 4, 1944
  • Chapter 22. Going About Like Eagles
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Located in north-central Wyoming, Heart Mountain was one of 10 inland "relocation camps" where West Coast--based Japanese Americans were interned following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And, yes, while the football teams of high-school-age incarcerees from Heart Mountain would dominate their local public-school rivals--and the author profiles the games and the stars of those teams--their story pales beside that of how they and their fellow Japanese Americans would end up there, which Pearson meticulously details, from their pre--Pearl Harbor lives to the evolution of U.S. policy that created the camps, uprooted these wholly Americanized families, and shamelessly drafted young men from the camps to fight the war--and to the resistance to the draft that many of them mounted (arguing that they should be granted their civil rights first), for which they were jailed. It might not have the sports appeal of most "local team makes good" stories, but Pearson's account will fill gaps in readers' understanding of this unsavory chapter in American history.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Pearson debuts with a novelistic account of sports glory at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. Pearson sketches the history of anti-Asian immigration policies leading up to President Roosevelt's 1942 executive order authorizing the detainment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, and paints a harrowing picture of life at Heart Mountain, where detainees endured extreme temperatures, hunger, and substandard medical care. Yet more than a dozen social clubs sprouted within the camp's first year, and Heart Mountain High School started a football team coached by a former star athlete from the University of Wyoming. Most of the boys who joined were "scrawny" and had never played the sport before, Pearson notes, yet the Eagles lost only one game in two seasons and might have won a conference championship if players from a local rival hadn't refused to play them. Pearson intertwines play-by-play game recaps with updates on the war's progress, biographical sketches, and rundowns on the legal battles over internment and military draft resistance by detainees. Frequent tangents interrupt the narrative momentum, yet Pearson succeeds in unearthing a feel-good story from a dark chapter in U.S. history. The result is a worthy portrait of triumph in the face of tragedy. Agent: David Patterson, Stuart Krichevsky Literary (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In this debut, Pearson explores the history of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, which was one of ten concentration camps used for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Pearson tells the moving story of the Heart Mountain Eagles, a high school football team organized at the camp. In telling the story of the team and the internment camp itself, Pearson describes ongoing fear, racism, and discrimination, especially as surrounding rural, white communities in Wyoming refused to play against the team. The author also recounts in detail the decades-long enmity toward Japanese Americans, and how they responded to their imprisonment and treatment. The football team, which lost only one game over the 1943 and 1944 seasons, remains a backdrop to the larger story of racism and resilience--and how sports offered a way for boys to channel their frustration, anger, and disappointment. Pearson's descriptions of players and their families gives life to Japanese communities that developed in Wyoming as well as Washington State, the home of other camps, in the later part of the 20th century. VERDICT This well-written and researched book will strongly appeal to those interested in U.S. history and civil rights.--Mark Jones, Mercantile Lib., Cincinnati

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fresh look at the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In his first book, journalist Pearson immediately rejects the bloodless language that calls the imprisonment of American citizens "internment" and "relocation." It was incarceration--"an imperfect solution, implying that those imprisoned had committed crimes"--in places that should properly be called concentration camps. Those jailed were ordinary citizens, many of whose ancestors were recruited as agricultural labor and whose young were so thoroughly Americanized that they played league sports on multiracial teams. At the Bay Area's Mountain View Union High School, writes the author, "in class pictures, Yoshinagas and Yamijis and Okamotos stood next to Gruenebaums and Popoviches and Mendozas." Some players, such as Babe Nomura of star-studded Hollywood High School, would surely have gone on to college scholarships and even professional careers had they not been swept up, following Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, in the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans in such inhospitable places as Wyoming's Heart Mountain. Japanese athletes regrouped there, playing sports among themselves and then, thanks to some surprisingly sympathetic locals, against other schools on the statewide athletic circuit. Admittedly irregular--some of the players were well beyond school age, Pearson writes--the young men did their best at basketball, baseball, and football. When the military came calling, looking for recruits even among the imprisoned, many refused, going on to twofold imprisonment as draft resisters. Pearson's narrative goes on a touch too long, but his play-by-plays read compellingly like contemporary radio scripts: "As the third quarter kicked off, Kaza Marumoto found a pinch of that luck, landing on top of a Bulldog fumble on the Eagle 36. Mas Yoshiyama dropped Don Ash for an 11-yard gain, Bill ran for a short gain of 3, and Mas galloped for another 9." But sports take second place to social justice, and this book serves that cause well. A deep-reaching chronicle of a shameful episode in American history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter One: City of Good Neighbors CHAPTER ONE City of Good Neighbors DO YOU KNOW what your people did?" George Yoshinaga spent the Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the same way he spent most Sunday mornings: with 10 cents in his pocket and his feet trained to Knight's Pharmacy. Since George was a little boy, his father or one of his older brothers would press a dime into his palm and send him on the five-minute journey to pick up the San Francisco Chronicle . The Yoshinagas subscribed to the Japanese-language Nichi Bei Times , but they made it a point to buy the Chronicle on Sundays. Sixteen-year-old George had padded his way out of their Mountain View home and down the three blocks of Dana Street until he hit Castro, the main street of the farming community. He picked up the newspaper and paid, and then, as he was making his way to the door, his classmate Chuck entered and posed that question. Do you know what your people did? "What do you mean my people?" George replied. A popular if unmotivated student, George was one of only a handful of Japanese Americans in his class at Mountain View High School. His peers, recognizing his charm, had elected him class president that year, which had helped boost his otherwise dubious standing as a boy with only a C average. "They bombed Hawai'i," Chuck said. Hawai'i , George thought as his mind whirled. Where is Hawai'i? Chuck scoffed and suggested that George listen to the radio when he got home. Sure enough, when George stepped back through the doorway of 267 Bush Street, his brother Kay informed him of the news: the fire, the deaths. The fighter planes lined up neatly along Oahu's Hickam Field, half-burned and bombed and destroyed. The eight battleships, three cruisers, and three destroyers damaged. Within a few days, the death toll would be 2,403. The next morning, George walked into Mountain View High School as he typically did. But nothing was typical anymore. Usaburo Yoshinaga was born in 1867 on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands. A rugged and rain-soaked wonderland covered in mountains and sulfuric hot springs, its most ominous feature was Mount Aso. One of the world's largest active volcanoes, it had the unsettling distinction of producing more explosive eruptions than any other. Usaburo had grown up in a rice-farming family, well-off enough to own land, but not so well-off to prevent him from seeking opportunity elsewhere. By his early twenties he was on a boat headed for Seattle, for a job with the railroad. Usaburo owned a dead smile and an anvil of a haircut; the outsides of his eyebrows sat a half-inch higher on his face than the insides, creating the appearance of a permanent glower. He posed for photos with clenched fists, their veins bulging. In 1910, and decades behind most men of his generation, Usaburo began his search for a wife. For an overwhelming number of Japanese men in America at that time, this meant a search for a picture bride. It was a crude form of matchmaking: men in America would flip through pictures of selected women and pick one, and the bride would arrive by boat months later. The men often put a thumb on the scale of the process, sending photos of their younger selves--or of entirely different men--to the women's parents. They'd lean on cars they didn't own or borrow suits just for the photo. Once the inevitably disappointed woman arrived from Japan, she and the man would be married in a mass ceremony along with the dozens of other couples meeting for the first time. The ceremonies took place right on the dock, some just minutes after the bride fainted upon seeing her husband. Tsuru Fukuda was twenty-one years old and had smooth skin and dark black hair, parted at an angle that triangulated her hairline back and to the right. She had wide-set eyes and a third-grade education. Tsuru and Usaburo were married upon her arrival in San Francisco, and the two quickly began the work of starting a family. Seeing little opportunity to advance in the railroad, mining, or lumber fields in which Japanese immigrants often initially worked, many struck out on their own as merchants or farmers. Usaburo had already abandoned railroad work, so the couple moved south to California's Santa Clara Valley and began farming once again. Usaburo recognized that his ancestral skills in the rice fields would translate well to California's strawberry market, so he set his sights there. By 1910 Japanese farmers were producing nearly 70 percent of the state's strawberries while cultivating less than one percent of the total farm acreage, an astounding efficiency that drew the jealous ire of white farmers. There was one problem with the model, though: after three or four years of harvests, the fruit would sap the land of its nutrients. So the Yoshinagas bounced around the lower San Francisco Bay area: San Jose to Redwood City, Redwood City to Gilroy, Gilroy to Sunnyvale, Sunnyvale to Mountain View. This last city sat three miles inland from the southern wash of San Francisco Bay, squatting at the foot of the Santa Cruz range. Its name was self-explanatory. It had been founded as a forgettable stop on the stagecoach line between San Francisco and San Jose. By the time George entered high school, the Southern Pacific train stopped fifty-six times each day in downtown Mountain View, delivering travelers and commuters to San Francisco. In 1931, the citizens of Santa Clara County raised $480,000 and purchased one thousand acres of farmland that lined San Francisco Bay. The land was then sold, for $1, to the United States government. The hope was that the government would improve the land and convert it into a military base, driving up property values and bringing even more jobs to the growing area. The parcel was ideal for an airport, as the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west blocked the fog that blanketed northern parts of the bay. Soon the government announced that the land would be turned into a naval air station to house the USS Macon . The Macon was the world's largest helium-filled rigid airship, and served the Navy as a flying aircraft carrier. The building constructed to house the airship, Hangar One, is still one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world. Large enough to fit six football fields, the aerodynamic, galvanized-steel wonder makes planes and cars appear like toys from above. Later renamed Moffett Field in honor of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett-- the "architect of naval aviation," who died when the Macon 's sister dirigible, the USS Akron , crashed off the coast of New Jersey in 1933--the station was a boon for the economy, drawing more and more residents to the former hinterland. The fields outside the small city were among the most fertile on earth. Nearly three hundred days of annual sunshine ensured robust numbers of apricots, pears, cherries, peaches, and plums. A 1936 municipal project brought six reservoirs to the Santa Clara Valley, enough to hold 16 billion gallons of water. Tomatoes and cucumbers were processed by the California Supply Company of San Francisco, which built one of the world's largest canneries two miles outside town. Two hundred 5,000-gallon salt brine vats cured hundreds of pounds of pickles a day, and the smell of tomatoes cooking into ketchup washed through the town. Crime was nonexistent: the city spent only 25 cents a year per resident on police protection, the equivalent of less than $4 today. It dubbed itself "the City of Good Neighbors." "All creeds and races of people with almost every type of diverse interests [ sic ] are molded into a homogenous population," reads a 1944 pamphlet produced by the city's chamber of commerce. "A feeling of warmth and friendship is felt by the newcomers and long remembered by the visitor." The jewel of the city was Mountain View Union High School. Built in 1926, the Mission-style structure could hold 650 students and was designed by famed California architect William Henry Weeks, whose aesthetic legacy persists in hundreds of schools and libraries across Northern California. In less than twenty years after its construction, Mountain View was rated as the third-best high school in California. Throughout the gymnasium the words of the alma mater rang during pep rallies and sporting events: "In a valley rimmed with mountains, covered by a sky of blue, stands our Alma Mater high school, with her colors brave and true. May her standards never waver, as we onward go each day, we'll fight for dear old Mountain View, and her colors blue and gray." The school's mascot was an eagle. In class pictures, Yoshinagas and Yamijis and Okamotos stood next to Gruenebaums and Popoviches and Mendozas. The one place in the school where racial fault lines were most clear was the football team: of the twenty-eight players on the 1940-41 Mountain View Eagles squad, twenty-six were white. One was another Japanese American player, and the last was George. In a team photo, he can be seen in the lower left corner, almost slipping out of view. George was the youngest of Usaburo and Tsuru's five children, and the only one with an English name. He was never told why his parents picked that name for him, but from birth it was immediately clear: George was different. As with his four siblings, George's mother sent him to Japanese-language school, but unlike them he was promptly thrown out for inattentiveness. When his family spoke at home, George would sit in confused silence, waiting to speak in English. His parents would return the silence. He was envious of the relationship others had with their parents and the easy way they communicated. His Japanese ability, he'd later say, was "zero." In elementary school, he was sent to the principal's office after hitting a bully with a two-by-four. There he was greeted by his sister, who was two grades ahead of him. She would serve as interpreter for her parents and the principal; all George remembers from the meeting is his father cursing in Japanese. His relationship with his mother was warm, if quiet. In high school, he once baked a lemon meringue pie in home economics. Proud of his work, he brought the dessert home, excited to share it with his mother and sister. He tripped. The three scooped the pie off the floor and ate it anyway. His father was more volatile. When George was a boy the man stayed up one night with a baseball bat, waiting for George's older brother. When Kay pulled up to the house, Usaburo took the bat and circled the car, beating it. Kay had missed curfew. As George aged, he drew his father's attention both verbally and physically. He took judo and boxing lessons to defend himself from the abuse, and as he grew older, he found the football field. By the time he entered high school, George had grown bigger than the rest of his family. Standing at 5 feet, 10 inches, and weighing 170 pounds, he played tackle for the Mountain View Eagles. He wasn't first-string, but earned his letter when the team took back-to-back Santa Clara Valley Athletic League titles in 1940 and 1941. In an award from the Mountain View Kiwanis Club, the group honored "Yosh" for "fine spirit, good sportsmanship, team work, and athletic supremacy." In between classes and practice he'd help manage the family farm, coordinating transportation and housing for its Mexican laborers. Usaburo died when George was thirteen, and Kay, then twenty-five, became the head of the household. As the grades ticked by, George saw his life spread before him. His father was a farmer, his brother was a farmer, and he too, would become a farmer. Below the idyllic mist of Mountain View, the temper of the times quietly boiled. On the second floor of the Mockbee Building, right above Parkinson's Hardware, was the local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Founded in 1875 by General A. M. Winn, the organization had been created to honor the legacy of the Gold Rush. Hundreds of parlors popped up throughout the state. Membership was limited to "only the sons of those sturdy pioneers who arrived on this coast prior to the admission of California as a state." By the 1920s the purpose of the organization had shifted from nostalgia to that of virulent anti-immigration efforts. (It wasn't difficult to foresee the shift. The man of the "sturdy pioneers" language was Willard B. Farwell, who, in 1885, wrote The Chinese at Home and Abroad . Chapter three of the book is simply titled "The Inhumanity of the Race.") Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese immigration was to be banned, the group argued. " California was given by God to a white people," said Native Sons grand president William P. Canbu in 1920, "and with God's strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us." Excerpted from The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America by Bradford Pearson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.