On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the U.S., “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” This paved the way for the legal removal of anyone of Japanese ancestry from these areas, because the government feared they might support Japan during World War II. It also allowed for the legal relocation of these people to what most Americans know as internment camps.
On Aug. 11, 1942, the first evacuees arrived at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Cody and Powell. Nearly 14,000 individuals from California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona were eventually forced to leave their homes for Heart Mountain, which became the fourth-largest relocation center in the U.S. and, at its peak, Wyoming’s third most populated city.
Journalist Bradford Pearson discovered something else about Heart Mountain while on a freelance assignment in Wyoming in 2013: it was home to one of the region’s best high school football teams. The fact, which he learned at the National Historic Landmark’s Interpretive Center, piqued his interest so much, it led to a three-year research project-turned book deal.
Pearson’s findings are documented in his debut book, “The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, And Resistance In World War II America,” which will be released Jan. 5.
“I grew up in New York and didn’t know too much of the history of Japanese incarceration other than the basics that it happened and it was terrible,” he said. “So when I went out to the camp I was really blown away, and I was disappointed in myself for how little I knew about this chapter in American history.”
Pearson started pouring over any book he could find about the history of Heart Mountain, the internment of Japanese Americans and Wyoming in general. With every page, he collected bits of background knowledge that eventually brought his confidence to a level necessary for a book proposal.
Not even the most detailed memoir, however, could provide the first-person perspective Pearson needed to properly write “The Eagles of Heart Mountain.” So, in July 2017, he headed to the historic site for its annual pilgrimage. He spent time with those once interned there and families of the deceased, listening to stories about self-made sumo wrestling pits and community Kabuki performances – comforting slices of Japanese culture amid an unfamiliar, bleak landscape.
“I’m not a Japanese person or a minority in any way, so coming into this story, I was acutely aware that it wasn’t my story,” Pearson said. “I had just been granted access to tell this story by these families, and I took that very seriously. I still pushed back on a lot of things in terms of the historical record, but I wanted the characters in the book to feel honored and respected by the world.”
It soon became clear that the project required so much research, it would be a tremendous challenge on top of his existing job. So, during a meeting with Simon and Schuster in early 2018, he told the publishers he’d quit his day job as the features editor of Southwest: The Magazine if they paid him enough money. It worked.
He got the book deal in March 2018, but he didn’t write a word for the first four months. Instead, he spent the spring and early summer getting up to speed on the subject to respect not only the story of Heart Mountain, but the story of the 120,000-some Japanese Americans sent to camps across the U.S. in the 1940s.
Pearson developed several key relationships along the way, the most important of which was with star football player Babe Nomura’s daughter, Janet Morey. Once Pearson gained her trust, she encouraged other former residents and family members of deceased internees to speak to the journalist, which helped the rest of the story quickly come into focus.
As he reached out to more and more families, he dumped all the information he learned into a seemingly endless, yet searchable, Word document. This is also where he sorted through facts he found in old copies of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s weekly newspaper. Because the publication printed a sports section, Pearson was able to find team rosters, game scores and other statistics that took the story to a new, more niched level he hadn’t found in previous books on the subject.
Over the course of the next year, that enormous Word document evolved into a first draft.
“When I had the first draft in, I sent it to a couple people who were family members or Japanese American friends and just said, ‘Hey, can you read this and if anything catches your eye that is culturally insensitive or isn’t right or accurate, just let me know,’” Pearson said. “That was really helpful in terms of, again, this isn’t the life that I’ve led, and sometimes you really do need to lean on folks that have led these lives. It was really important for me to make sure that everything was accurate not only factually, but tonally and culturally.”
Pearson is from Hyde Park, New York, the childhood home of Roosevelt, so this project helped put his town’s pride and joy into perspective. The president his high school was named after and whose New Deal funds built his middle school suddenly didn’t seem like such a hero when Pearson learned he’d refused to close the camps before the 1944 presidential election.
His biggest takeaway, however, wasn’t the cruelty of the situation (though that was paramount). It was the strength of the camp internees that isn’t reflected in high school textbooks.
“Eventually, you see the resilience of these folks,” he said. “Whether that’s on the football field or in the fields growing their own vegetables or having Kabuki or Japanese calligraphy classes, they strong-armed the administration enough to say ‘You can put up our fences, but everything that goes on within those fences, we’re going to try to make it as much like home as we can.’ That’s empowering to read. The basic narrative with all of this is that all Japanese Americans went along with this, and that was their culture, to go along with it, and the way I wanted to write the book is (to show) that’s not true.”