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.

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