Barracks and Boy Scouts: Norman Mineta's story

By Intern Mia Calabretta
(Detail) Black and white photo of gathering in center of camp with buildings in background. Boy Scouts line up while community watches. In background, high mountains with snow on top.

Here at the museum, we're busy preparing for this year's National Youth Summit. The program is an interactive webcast event bringing together students, scholars, teachers, policy experts, and activists in a national conversation about important events in America's past that have relevance to the nation's present and future. This year, we'll examine Japanese American incarceration in World War II. Many people don't know enough about this chapter in our national history, and I wanted to share one story I find particularly moving: that of Boy Scout turned political leader and civil rights activist, Norman Mineta.

Mineta spent part of his childhood in Japanese American incarceration camps and went on to become the first Asian Pacific American to serve in a presidential cabinet and the longest-serving secretary of transportation. Today, he shares his story of surviving the incarceration camps and will be speaking at the museum on May 17, 2016.

Painting of man wearing suit, tie, and glasses. He smiles and looks at viewer.

Mineta was born in San Jose, California, to a first-generation immigrant Japanese family. His father, a successful businessman, owned an insurance company, which provided a comfortable life for his family. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, changed life as they knew it forever. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, granting the government the authority to incarcerate any and all persons who could be collaborating with the enemy. Construction began on the crudely built camps, placed in the deserts throughout the mountain west and interior of the West Coast. With little preparation, many families were forced to sell off items they could not carry with them, including cars, radios, homes, and businesses.

On May 29, 1942, the Minetas and many of their neighbors boarded a train from San Jose south to the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. He told an interviewer, "That day I was wearing my Cub Scout uniform, had a baseball, baseball glove, baseball bat, and so as I got on the train, then the MPs [military police] confiscated my bat on the basis it could be used as a lethal weapon. So they confiscated the bat, and I got on the train with my baseball and baseball glove."

As hard as the experience was for Mineta as a young man, his father also struggled with leaving home. "There were only three times when I'd seen my dad cry," Mineta told an interviewer with the Japanese American Project of the Oral History Program at California State University. "Once on the seventh of December, 1941; the second time was when we left on the train to go to camp; and the third time was when my mother passed away. I remember on the seventh of December, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was in the little office at home, crying, and saying, 'Why did they do it? Why? Why?'"

As the camps neared their final stages of completion, the Mineta family moved to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Black and white photograph of desolate scene with cabins/buildings on right, boys walking, and a mountain in the distance.

Many parents strove to maintain a sense of normal life for their children in the camps. Although they were able to attend makeshift schools, there was a lack of resources as well as activities for children and students. Some parents were able to organize Boy Scout troops within the camps. Mineta recalled, "Somebody had written to the Boy Scouts of America and said, 'Please send organizers to come and help us organize the Boy Scout troops.' So we all became Boy Scouts." Scout troops eventually sprung up in each of the 10 incarceration camps.

Despite their limited ability to attain some scouting achievements—such as working toward badges that required hiking, swimming, or cooking lessons—the boys were able to maintain a sense of community and were very active. They played sports together, camped nearby, and were even given the opportunity to travel to Yellowstone National Park. During a time of questioned allegiance, the Boy Scouts faithfully raised and lowered the American flag every day and continued to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some scouts went on to serve with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team that consisted of only Nisei soldiers (children born in the U.S. to Japanese-born parents), which became one of the most decorated units for their bravery in battle during World War II.

Black and white photo of gathering in center of camp with buildings in background. Boy Scouts line up while community watches. In background, high mountains with snow on top.

Envelope with six orange stamps and five cancellation marks stamped on them. Illustration on left includes two Boy Scouts, three planes, and a pile of scrap metal.

Eventually, the Scouts wanted to extend an invitation to their neighbors from outside the camps to join them in a jamboree. Neighboring troops were reluctant, intimidated by the barbed wire, search towers, and propaganda they had heard about the Japanese American prisoners of war. Eventually, Mineta recalled, "[S]omeone finally said, 'Hey, hold it. These are Boy Scouts of America. They read the same manual you do, they wear the same uniform, they go after the same merit badges you do,' and so finally, the Boy Scouts from Cody came in." After their arrival, Mineta was paired up with young Cody, Wyoming, resident Alan Simpson, who became a lifelong friend. This short video introduces their story.

The two initially grew close during Mineta's time at Heart Mountain, and they continued corresponding into their young adulthood. They were reconnected as their political careers developed. Simpson went on to become a senator, representing Wyoming for 18 years; he assisted Mineta, then a congressman from California, in attaining reparations for the incarcerated Japanese Americans through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

Photograph of Pres. Reagan at a desk signing document. Around him, about nine men and one woman.

After the successful passage of the Civil Liberties Act, Mineta continued his career in politics. He served in President Bill Clinton's cabinet, then was offered the position of secretary of transportation in incoming President George W. Bush's administration. He was appointed in early 2001. On September 11, 2001, he was involved in the grounding of aircraft in the air following that day's terrorist attacks. He also acted as an example to those blinded by fear after the attacks. After his experiences in the camps, he knew all too well the effects of racial profiling and hate crimes, and how easily America could slip into crisis once more. He strove to ensure that the same atrocities committed to his and many other American families did not occur again in the wake of such a tragedy.

Today, Mineta has formally retired from politics but continues to share his story—and we are thrilled that he'll be part of our local National Youth Summit on May 17, 2016, at 11 a.m. EDT. The program is free and open to the public, and high school classes are encouraged to attend. For those who live beyond the Washington, D.C., area, please join us on the National Youth Summit webcast at 1 p.m. EDT, where speakers will include Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu, who refused to report to an incarceration camp at age 23.

Mia Calabretta is an intern for the Youth Civic Engagement Program and an American Studies major at California State University, Fullerton.