A high school football team’s wartime resistance

In ‘The Eagles of Heart Mountain,’ Bradford Pearson renders the lives of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II in three dimensions.

 

Most books about war center on heroes. By choosing a few actors and following their progress, a writer can briefly untangle the decisions that drove the course of events, bringing clarity and purpose to what might have been a senseless trauma. This approach gives tangible freedom and agency to ordinary people who might not have been in charge. It is an innately satisfying way to talk about history, and remarkably similar to the way we talk about sports. Who gets to be the hero, though, remains an open question. In The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America, journalist Bradford Pearson turns that lens on a group under persecution.

Between 1942 and 1946, the United States War Department imprisoned over 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent under Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin Roosevelt. Men, women and children were forced to live in in “relocation” camps around the Western U.S.; but, despite this trauma, they didn’t necessarily lose all meaningful control over their own lives. By focusing on an obscure but dramatic aspect of one camp, Pearson crafts a rich and dignified portrayal of the incarcerated Americans, the kind many victims rarely receive. We find that while their rights were erased, their humanity was not.

At Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, near Cody, Wyoming, the camp’s high school had a football team, nicknamed the Eagles. And they were really, really good. From newspaper clippings and interviews with surviving family members, Pearson is able to describe practically every pass and run the team made. He is a knowledgeable fan of the game, and his nuanced and occasionally thrilling account allows readers to see the Eagles’ success as a genuine source of hope and strength for other prisoners.

Fans crowd around the field during a football game at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in Wyoming.

Two star players, Tamotsu “Babe” Nomura and George “Horse” Yoshinaga, first met at a racetrack-turned-holding station near Los Angeles. The Nomuras were forced to leave a boarding house in Hollywood, while the Yoshinagas had to sell their strawberry farm near San Jose. Their families spent months waiting amongst the stables with no idea of their fate, but eventually, they were packed into a train and sent to Wyoming, where they traded the odors of horseshit and hay for dusty air and punishing weather. Like many prisons, Heart Mountain was chosen in part for its remote location and inhospitable terrain. Wintertime temperatures could drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Eagles played for a school built from converted barracks and heated by coal stoves. Their pads were made from cardboard, and their jerseys drooped loosely over their lean frames. After a coach from nearby Cody High School conducted tryouts and scheduled games against mostly white squads from around the Bighorn Basin, the team had only 13 days to practice before the season began. Almost no one had previous football experience, but Yoshinaga and Nomura explained the finer details to the other players. They quickly learned to transform their opponents’ fumbles and bottlenecks into breakaways.

“Replace all the bad with all the good, and for those seconds he can be just a boy doing what he loves most,” Pearson writes, describing one of Nomura’s decisive end zone sprints. “Gone from that field, gone from camp, gone from Wyoming.”

He renders people who are too often flattened by history into full human beings, and the reversal can feel exhilarating — even as it avoids confronting the perpetrators’ enduring power. 

The players managed to accomplish this at a time when Japanese immigrants (isei) and their American-born children (nisei) were being treated like enemy combatants. As Pearson points out, Asian arrivals in America had endured hostility and distrust for centuries before Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066. After the camps were occupied, the government handed residents a “questionnaire” to assess their patriotism, and when 434 people from Heart Mountain objected or refused to fill it out, they were sent to an even more appalling facility in Northern California. Given the entrenched racism of Gen. John L. Dewitt, Col. Karl Bendetsen and the other War Department authorities who approved of the camps, it can be hard to imagine anyone living in them experiencing a moment of contentment, let alone joy. And yet football, gardening, kabuki and other forms of social life flourished.

In an approach that’s common in books about armed conflict, and practically unavoidable in books about sports, Pearson depicts the Eagles as a crew of scrappy entrepreneurs, making the most of what they had. He renders people who are too often flattened by history into full human beings, and the reversal can feel exhilarating — even as it avoids confronting the perpetrators’ enduring power. Most of the people brought to Heart Mountain stayed there until the war ended, and many died before they could be interviewed. Meanwhile, Col. Bendetsen, who defended Executive Order 9066 for decades, enjoyed a long career as a corporate executive before retiring in 1973. In 1989, at Arlington Cemetery, he was buried as a hero.

Reid Singer is a journalist and former editor at Outside, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Smithsonian, and SB Nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...