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If you like Alan Simpson's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
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Alan Simpson
Alan Simpson
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Alan Simpson Interview

Statesman and Advocate

May 24, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Alan Simpson

Senator Simpson, you've talked about an experience you had as a Boy Scout in Wyoming that broadened your understanding of other people. Could you tell us how that came about?

Alan Simpson: I don't think most Americans remember, but Wyoming people sure remember...

Suddenly, in 1943, when I was 12, the third largest city in Wyoming sprung up in the sagebrush between Powell, Wyoming and Cody, Wyoming. Carpenters out there worked day and night, with lights on, building tarpaper shacks. And the carpenters were all 45, 50, 55. We thought they were ancient! But there they were, they were pretty adroit. And they built a city. And suddenly 11,000 Japanese Americans came in on the train. They were Americans who were gathered up in San José and the coast of California and taken to Santa Anita racetrack, put in the stalls, and told that they could have one bag, and that they were headed for Manzanar in Colorado, or Heart Mountain in Wyoming. And they were U.S. citizens. They were not aliens. Some were permanent resident aliens. Very few, I mean, maybe ten percent. The rest of them were called U.S. citizens, and they were all Japanese American. We didn't do that with the German Americans. We were fighting them, but we couldn't identify them. We didn't do it with the Italian Americans, and we were fighting them, because we couldn't identify them. But we could identify our fine fellow Americans. It was a total racist operation.

Alan Simpson Interview Photo
Although there was great fear. Don't forget who signed the order to do that was Earl Warren, the Attorney General in California. And don't forget who the Supreme Court Justice that upheld that was: Justice William O. Douglas. And they spent the rest of their lives trying to atone for it, and all their writings disclose it, the pain of what they did in that situation. Yet it was something to be done. We thought there were submarines off the coast. We thought they were signaling them in. There was real fear, and much of it valid. So anyway, the Scoutmaster, he's sitting there one night, and he said, "You know what we're going to do next week?" We all were tying our knots and looking around, trying to read those little magazines and books, you know, before anybody caught us. Those little books, they were marvelous. Dagwood and Blondie, terrible things. Corrupt. So we said, "What are we going to do?"

He said, "We're going to go to the Jap camp." That was what it was called. It had guard towers. It had barbed wire. It had guards in the towers, and we said, "We're not going out there. We could be killed!" He said, "No, no. You need to go." He was a Scoutmaster ahead of his time. Honestly, I can't remember his name. This was this tragedy. But anyway, we went to the "Jap camp." And here were these 12-year-olds, just like me, with San José Scout Troop Number 24, and telling the same stories, reading the same stupid little horrible books. Telling the same jokes, speaking the same language. They didn't even know where Japan was. And there's where I met Norm Mineta, this pesky little rascal, and we laughed and tied knots and did some other devilish tricks. He says that we did more tricks than I imagine.

Alan Simpson Interview Photo
But anyway, a couple of times we did that. And here they were, living in tarpaper shacks. And there'd be an older woman and the woman would say, "Come over, son. Tell me, where do you live?" "I live in Cody." "Do you have a grandmother?" "I do." "What does she look like?" "Well, she's beautiful." "How about your mother and your father?" And all the people in there were people who were either over 50 or under 16, because the people 17 through 30 were in the U.S. military, in special units, like with Bob Dole. And so it was. As a kid, it just didn't fit. Your mind couldn't run it up. Nobody spoke Japanese. Very few. And their fathers were professors.

Mineta goes off, becomes a mayor of San José, and I wrote him a letter. I said, "You remember the fat kid, tied knots?" He said, "Oh God," and he wrote. Then we got to Congress together and we're in the Congress together. A wonderful guy. And then we're on the Smithsonian Board of Regents together, and now we're on the Smithsonian National Board, and the only horrible part is that every time we see each other, we just kiss each other, hug each other, and our wives say, "God, there they are, doing it again!"

It was a great adventure, and a powerful one. The most powerful of all.

How were you affected by that experience, in the middle of the war?

Alan Simpson: Well, I'd go home at night and get out my BB gun, and shoot holes in Adolph Hitler's picture and Tojo's picture, and Mussolini's picture. I mean, that was obligatory, you did that. While in Japan, they were shooting holes in Churchill's picture, and FDR's picture, and Stalin's picture. That was the way it worked. The war ended on my birthday. September 2, 1945, was the actual end of the war. I just never figured it all out.

There was a sign on the door in the restaurant in Cody. It said, "No Japs Allowed." And yet the trusties would come into town from the camp and they were all wonderful people. And then some Cody kid would be killed on Guadalcanal, or somewhere in the South Pacific, and there'd be some racist thing on the window. "Get those..." you know. And yet, on the other side, the Japanese who were gone from the camp were serving in the U.S. Army. So there's just things you don't -- it's like the search for truth. You just give it up and go ahead with your life. Or give up the search for perfection and go on with your life, because you'll never find those things. So I never sorted that out. But there was one lawsuit that the people of America missed. They drafted about 19 of those kids -- I mean they were there for about three years -- and drafted them into the army, the U.S. Army. And they refused to go until their people were turned loose from Heart Mountain. And they went to the federal district court in Cheyenne. That's a wonderful story. Somebody ought to do a -- you talk about some of the great trials -- that one was a great one. They lost, of course, and they all were drafted. But boy they put up -- they said, "Okay, we love America, we don't even know Japan. But let my mother and my little brother out of Heart Mountain." Pretty good stuff. Somebody ought to do one on that one.

You're right. That might make a good book or a movie.

Alan Simpson: It was just a time of confusion, and then elation. The war ended, and as you know, we were getting closer to 17. The war ended when I was 14, but in those days you kind of hoped you might get old enough to go. That's a whole different game now. I think all of us kids were thinking, "Oh, we'll go over and get them. We'll go get Hitler, that dirty fink, and Benito fatso Mussolini, and Tojo. We'll get those finks." It wasn't like Vietnam days, where you feared that you would get old enough, because you were fighting a war that nobody understood. This one, everybody understood. You'd listen to the radio and hear Churchill, and it was pretty inspirational. And FDR, my old man said, "He killed all those hogs, but he's still our president."

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