Museum Tells Story of Japanese-American Detainees

By Ruffin Prevost

(Reuters) – It was a bittersweet return for more than 250 Japanese-American former detainees at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the state of Wyoming who gathered for the opening of a museum about their wartime internment.

A replica guard tower stands over the museum on a remote wind-swept plain where nearly 14,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in one of 10 such camps set up across the West after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Backers of the $5.5 million, 11,000-square-foot museum next to the crumbling camp say they hope it will tell the story of those once forcibly relocated there and remind visitors of the enduring civil rights lessons from that era.

“It’s something like a dream come true,” said Jack Kunitomi, 95, who was imprisoned in the camp with his family and who had a son born at Heart Mountain, east of Yellowstone National Park.

Scant is left of the actual camp except a walking path and the remains of a hospital building, including a tall chimney. Inside the museum, visitors can see a replica of the camp barracks, where internees were warmed by pot-bellied stoves and relied on a lone fixture for light.

The story of the camps and the more than 110,000 people confined in them, the result of wartime racial profiling, is a sometimes little-known chapter in U.S. history.

An executive order signed by then-President Franklin Roosevelt authorized “exclusion zones” on the West Coast, but it was people of Japanese ancestry, not Germans or Italians, who were relocated.

Like thousands of other men in the camps, Kunitomi joined the military after restrictions on drafting Japanese-Americans were relaxed, serving as a translator in the Pacific.

More than 800 Heart Mountain internees later served in the U.S. Army in a segregated unit, the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The camp was also home to an organized group of “resisters of conscience” who demanded recognition of their constitutional rights before agreeing to serve.

“They resisted the draft, and I don’t blame them,” said Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel K. Inouye, keynote speaker at the dedication on Saturday.

“It took a lot of guts to come out and do something that the majority did not agree with,” said Inouye, 86, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat during a 1944 assault on German fortifications in Italy.

Many of the former internees who returned to Heart Mountain on Saturday were young children during the war, including Kimiyo Nishimura, 80, who was 11 when she arrived at the camp.

“I remember there were knotholes in the wood, and the walls didn’t reach the ceiling, so you could hear everything in the other rooms,” she recalled of the spartan barracks. “It was so awful, especially for the older people.

Former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, 79, was about the same age as Nishimura when he was sent to Heart Mountain.

Mineta, who served for 20 years in the U.S. House representing the San Jose, California, area, recalled a local Boy Scout gathering inside the camp where he met a young boy named Alan Simpson, from nearby Cody, Wyo.

The two shared a tent and took part in knot-tying and woodworking contests, and would later serve together in Congress. Simpson, a three-term Wyoming senator who retired in 1997 still lives in Cody, and has worked with Mineta to raise funds for the museum, the only private facility of its kind.

“What happened in the past remains in the past,” Mineta said. But he said the museum would serve an important reminder that “history always has the ability to repeat itself.”

Mineta recounted a September 13, 2001, cabinet meeting when he served as Transportation Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.

He had grounded all commercial flights in the wake of the militant attacks two days earlier, and told Bush he was worried about suggestions by some that Muslims or Arabs should be banned from flying when the nation’s airports reopened.

Mineta said Bush shared his concern, and cited Mineta’s internment as an example of the wrong approach to security.

Simpson and Mineta co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the “grave injustice” of the internment camps and provided a token payment of $20,000 to former internees.

“Very few nations are strong enough to admit they’re wrong. America is strong enough, and we did so,” said Inouye, who also backed the act.

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Cancer Docs Hail ‘Serial Killer’ Cells in New Leukemia Treatment

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania transformed the white blood cells of patients suffering from late-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia into “serial killer” cells capable of annihilating cancer cells within the body.

While only three patients were enrolled in the study, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine, the results were startling, as two of the patients experienced full recovery and are still in remission more than a year later.

The two patients achieved 100 percent remission – no cancer cells remaining – for up to a year, while the third patient achieved a 70 percent reduction in cancer cells, a strong anti-tumor response, researchers noted.

The third patient improved but still had cancer.

“We put a key onto the surface of the T-cells that fits into a lock that only the cancer cells have,” said Dr. Michael Kalos, director of translational and correlative studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and an investigator on the study.

The results provide “a tumor-attack road map for the treatment of other cancers,” including those of the lung and ovaries as well as “myeloma” and “melanoma”, researchers added.

Kalos said past efforts to use the technique, known as “adoptive T-cell transfer,” failed either because the T-cell response was too weak or proved too toxic for normal tissue.

“[The serial killers] can kill one tumor cell and then go and kill another, and we found in all three of our patients that the T-cells killed at least a thousand tumor cells, and that’s the first time that has ever been shown anywhere near that kind of efficiency,” said Dr. Carl June, the lead author of the study, in a video released with the research.

Scientists for the first time used gene therapy to successfully destroy cancer tumors in patients with advanced disease – a goal that has taken 20 years to achieve.

“We knew [the therapy] could be very potent,” Dr. David Porter, director of the blood and marrow transplantation program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a coauthor of both studies, told The Los Angeles Times.

Although in 2006, Rosenberg published the first study in which T-cell receptors were used for gene therapy, combined with chemotherapy, in 17 people who had advanced melanoma.

The research group plans to treat four more patients with Leukemia before moving into a larger Phase II trial of the study. This type of Leukemia affects the blood and bone marrow and is the most common form of the cancer.

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