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The Eagles of Heart Mountain

A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America

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The impeccably researched, deeply moving, never-before-told tale about a World War II incarceration camp in Wyoming and its extraordinary high school football team—for fans of The Boys in the Boat and The Storm on Our Shores.

In the spring of 1942, the United States government forced 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona and sent them to incarceration camps across the West. Nearly 14,000 of them landed on the outskirts of Cody, Wyoming, at the base of Heart Mountain.

Behind barbed wire fences, they faced racism, cruelty, and frozen winters. Trying to recreate comforts from home, many established Buddhist temples and sumo wrestling pits. Kabuki performances drew hundreds of spectators—yet there was little hope.

That is, until the fall of 1943, when the camp’s high school football team, the Eagles, started its first season and finished it undefeated, crushing the competition from nearby, predominantly white high schools. Amid all this excitement, American politics continued to disrupt their lives as the federal government drafted men from the camps for the front lines—including some of the Eagles. As the team’s second season kicked off, the young men faced a choice to either join the Army or resist the draft. Teammates were divided, and some were jailed for their decisions.

The Eagles of Heart Mountain honors the resilience of extraordinary heroes and the power of sports in a sweeping and inspirational portrait of one of the darkest moments in American history.

Chapter One: City of Good Neighbors CHAPTER ONE City of Good Neighbors
DO YOU KNOW what your people did?”

George Yoshinaga spent the Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the same way he spent most Sunday mornings: with 10 cents in his pocket and his feet trained to Knight’s Pharmacy. Since George was a little boy, his father or one of his older brothers would press a dime into his palm and send him on the five-minute journey to pick up the San Francisco Chronicle. The Yoshinagas subscribed to the Japanese-language Nichi Bei Times, but they made it a point to buy the Chronicle on Sundays.

Sixteen-year-old George had padded his way out of their Mountain View home and down the three blocks of Dana Street until he hit Castro, the main street of the farming community. He picked up the newspaper and paid, and then, as he was making his way to the door, his classmate Chuck entered and posed that question. Do you know what your people did?

“What do you mean my people?” George replied.

A popular if unmotivated student, George was one of only a handful of Japanese Americans in his class at Mountain View High School. His peers, recognizing his charm, had elected him class president that year, which had helped boost his otherwise dubious standing as a boy with only a C average.

“They bombed Hawai’i,” Chuck said.

Hawai’i, George thought as his mind whirled. Where is Hawai’i?

Chuck scoffed and suggested that George listen to the radio when he got home. Sure enough, when George stepped back through the doorway of 267 Bush Street, his brother Kay informed him of the news: the fire, the deaths. The fighter planes lined up neatly along Oahu’s Hickam Field, half-burned and bombed and destroyed. The eight battleships, three cruisers, and three destroyers damaged. Within a few days, the death toll would be 2,403.

The next morning, George walked into Mountain View High School as he typically did. But nothing was typical anymore.

Usaburo Yoshinaga was born in 1867 on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. A rugged and rain-soaked wonderland covered in mountains and sulfuric hot springs, its most ominous feature was Mount Aso. One of the world’s largest active volcanoes, it had the unsettling distinction of producing more explosive eruptions than any other.

Usaburo had grown up in a rice-farming family, well-off enough to own land, but not so well-off to prevent him from seeking opportunity elsewhere. By his early twenties he was on a boat headed for Seattle, for a job with the railroad. Usaburo owned a dead smile and an anvil of a haircut; the outsides of his eyebrows sat a half-inch higher on his face than the insides, creating the appearance of a permanent glower. He posed for photos with clenched fists, their veins bulging.

In 1910, and decades behind most men of his generation, Usaburo began his search for a wife. For an overwhelming number of Japanese men in America at that time, this meant a search for a picture bride. It was a crude form of matchmaking: men in America would flip through pictures of selected women and pick one, and the bride would arrive by boat months later. The men often put a thumb on the scale of the process, sending photos of their younger selves—or of entirely different men—to the women’s parents. They’d lean on cars they didn’t own or borrow suits just for the photo. Once the inevitably disappointed woman arrived from Japan, she and the man would be married in a mass ceremony along with the dozens of other couples meeting for the first time. The ceremonies took place right on the dock, some just minutes after the bride fainted upon seeing her husband.

Tsuru Fukuda was twenty-one years old and had smooth skin and dark black hair, parted at an angle that triangulated her hairline back and to the right. She had wide-set eyes and a third-grade education. Tsuru and Usaburo were married upon her arrival in San Francisco, and the two quickly began the work of starting a family. Seeing little opportunity to advance in the railroad, mining, or lumber fields in which Japanese immigrants often initially worked, many struck out on their own as merchants or farmers. Usaburo had already abandoned railroad work, so the couple moved south to California’s Santa Clara Valley and began farming once again. Usaburo recognized that his ancestral skills in the rice fields would translate well to California’s strawberry market, so he set his sights there.

By 1910 Japanese farmers were producing nearly 70 percent of the state’s strawberries while cultivating less than one percent of the total farm acreage, an astounding efficiency that drew the jealous ire of white farmers. There was one problem with the model, though: after three or four years of harvests, the fruit would sap the land of its nutrients. So the Yoshinagas bounced around the lower San Francisco Bay area: San Jose to Redwood City, Redwood City to Gilroy, Gilroy to Sunnyvale, Sunnyvale to Mountain View.

This last city sat three miles inland from the southern wash of San Francisco Bay, squatting at the foot of the Santa Cruz range. Its name was self-explanatory. It had been founded as a forgettable stop on the stagecoach line between San Francisco and San Jose. By the time George entered high school, the Southern Pacific train stopped fifty-six times each day in downtown Mountain View, delivering travelers and commuters to San Francisco.

In 1931, the citizens of Santa Clara County raised $480,000 and purchased one thousand acres of farmland that lined San Francisco Bay. The land was then sold, for $1, to the United States government. The hope was that the government would improve the land and convert it into a military base, driving up property values and bringing even more jobs to the growing area. The parcel was ideal for an airport, as the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west blocked the fog that blanketed northern parts of the bay. Soon the government announced that the land would be turned into a naval air station to house the USS Macon. The Macon was the world’s largest helium-filled rigid airship, and served the Navy as a flying aircraft carrier. The building constructed to house the airship, Hangar One, is still one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world. Large enough to fit six football fields, the aerodynamic, galvanized-steel wonder makes planes and cars appear like toys from above. Later renamed Moffett Field in honor of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett—the “architect of naval aviation,” who died when the Macon’s sister dirigible, the USS Akron, crashed off the coast of New Jersey in 1933—the station was a boon for the economy, drawing more and more residents to the former hinterland.

The fields outside the small city were among the most fertile on earth. Nearly three hundred days of annual sunshine ensured robust numbers of apricots, pears, cherries, peaches, and plums. A 1936 municipal project brought six reservoirs to the Santa Clara Valley, enough to hold 16 billion gallons of water. Tomatoes and cucumbers were processed by the California Supply Company of San Francisco, which built one of the world’s largest canneries two miles outside town. Two hundred 5,000-gallon salt brine vats cured hundreds of pounds of pickles a day, and the smell of tomatoes cooking into ketchup washed through the town.

Crime was nonexistent: the city spent only 25 cents a year per resident on police protection, the equivalent of less than $4 today. It dubbed itself “the City of Good Neighbors.” “All creeds and races of people with almost every type of diverse interests [sic] are molded into a homogenous population,” reads a 1944 pamphlet produced by the city’s chamber of commerce. “A feeling of warmth and friendship is felt by the newcomers and long remembered by the visitor.”

The jewel of the city was Mountain View Union High School. Built in 1926, the Mission-style structure could hold 650 students and was designed by famed California architect William Henry Weeks, whose aesthetic legacy persists in hundreds of schools and libraries across Northern California. In less than twenty years after its construction, Mountain View was rated as the third-best high school in California. Throughout the gymnasium the words of the alma mater rang during pep rallies and sporting events: “In a valley rimmed with mountains, covered by a sky of blue, stands our Alma Mater high school, with her colors brave and true. May her standards never waver, as we onward go each day, we’ll fight for dear old Mountain View, and her colors blue and gray.” The school’s mascot was an eagle.

In class pictures, Yoshinagas and Yamijis and Okamotos stood next to Gruenebaums and Popoviches and Mendozas. The one place in the school where racial fault lines were most clear was the football team: of the twenty-eight players on the 1940–41 Mountain View Eagles squad, twenty-six were white. One was another Japanese American player, and the last was George. In a team photo, he can be seen in the lower left corner, almost slipping out of view.

George was the youngest of Usaburo and Tsuru’s five children, and the only one with an English name. He was never told why his parents picked that name for him, but from birth it was immediately clear: George was different. As with his four siblings, George’s mother sent him to Japanese-language school, but unlike them he was promptly thrown out for inattentiveness. When his family spoke at home, George would sit in confused silence, waiting to speak in English. His parents would return the silence. He was envious of the relationship others had with their parents and the easy way they communicated. His Japanese ability, he’d later say, was “zero.” In elementary school, he was sent to the principal’s office after hitting a bully with a two-by-four. There he was greeted by his sister, who was two grades ahead of him. She would serve as interpreter for her parents and the principal; all George remembers from the meeting is his father cursing in Japanese.

His relationship with his mother was warm, if quiet. In high school, he once baked a lemon meringue pie in home economics. Proud of his work, he brought the dessert home, excited to share it with his mother and sister. He tripped. The three scooped the pie off the floor and ate it anyway. His father was more volatile. When George was a boy the man stayed up one night with a baseball bat, waiting for George’s older brother. When Kay pulled up to the house, Usaburo took the bat and circled the car, beating it. Kay had missed curfew. As George aged, he drew his father’s attention both verbally and physically. He took judo and boxing lessons to defend himself from the abuse, and as he grew older, he found the football field. By the time he entered high school, George had grown bigger than the rest of his family. Standing at 5 feet, 10 inches, and weighing 170 pounds, he played tackle for the Mountain View Eagles. He wasn’t first-string, but earned his letter when the team took back-to-back Santa Clara Valley Athletic League titles in 1940 and 1941. In an award from the Mountain View Kiwanis Club, the group honored “Yosh” for “fine spirit, good sportsmanship, team work, and athletic supremacy.”

In between classes and practice he’d help manage the family farm, coordinating transportation and housing for its Mexican laborers. Usaburo died when George was thirteen, and Kay, then twenty-five, became the head of the household. As the grades ticked by, George saw his life spread before him. His father was a farmer, his brother was a farmer, and he too, would become a farmer.

Below the idyllic mist of Mountain View, the temper of the times quietly boiled. On the second floor of the Mockbee Building, right above Parkinson’s Hardware, was the local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West. Founded in 1875 by General A. M. Winn, the organization had been created to honor the legacy of the Gold Rush. Hundreds of parlors popped up throughout the state. Membership was limited to “only the sons of those sturdy pioneers who arrived on this coast prior to the admission of California as a state.” By the 1920s the purpose of the organization had shifted from nostalgia to that of virulent anti-immigration efforts. (It wasn’t difficult to foresee the shift. The man of the “sturdy pioneers” language was Willard B. Farwell, who, in 1885, wrote The Chinese at Home and Abroad. Chapter three of the book is simply titled “The Inhumanity of the Race.”) Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese immigration was to be banned, the group argued.

California was given by God to a white people,” said Native Sons grand president William P. Canbu in 1920, “and with God’s strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us.”
Tony Hoffer

Bradford Pearson is the former features editor of Southwest: The Magazine. He has written for The New York Times, Esquire, Time, and Salon, among many other publications. He grew up in Hyde Park, New York, and now lives in Philadelphia. The Eagles of Heart Mountain is his first book.

"Colorful, richly detailed, and deeply human, The Eagles of Heart Mountain mixes a fascinating history of the Japanese in the United States with a uniquely American story about one of the darkest chapters of our modern history. Brad's storytelling weaves together politics, race, and a wide cast of characters to show how sports carried a community of mistreated prisoners through World War II, a tale that ultimately stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit." —Garrett M. Graff, author of the New York Times bestseller The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

"This is an underdog story for the ages. Ripped from their homes by racist officials, Japanese-American kids learn to play football in a remote Wyoming concentration camp—and soon become an unstoppable force. Pearson is a brilliant storyteller, and The Eagles of Heart Mountain will have you rooting for its young heroes as they defy bigotry and barbed wire." —Jason Fagone, bestselling author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies

"A remarkable piece of storytelling, The Eagles of Heart Mountain manages to be simultaneously devastating and uplifting. Pearson delves deep into one of the great blights on American history, and emerges with a story of humanity and resilience, played out on the rocky football field of a concentration camp. This is a timely and utterly absorbing account of a country losing its moral way, and a group of its young citizens who never did." —Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind: A True Story of Murder, Empire, and a New Kind of Crime Lord

In The Eagles of Heart Mountain, Bradford Pearson weaves the greatness of the unlikeliest football team you’ll ever meet into the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Between fascinating details about how the camps came to exist and the on-field play-by-play narrated by Pearson, readers won’t soon forget Babe Nomura and Horse Yoshinaga.”—Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps

“Pearson succeeds in unearthing a feel-good story from a dark chapter in U.S. history. The result is a worthy portrait of triumph in the face of tragedy.”—Publishers Weekly

"A fresh look at the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II... A deep-reaching chronicle of a shameful episode in American history."Kirkus Reviews

"...an inspiring exploration of resistance and a timely examination of how the policy of Japanese incarceration impacted the lives of young people and their families."BookPage
 

"This well-written and researched book will strongly appeal to those interested in U.S. history and civil rights."—Library Journal (starred review)

"An impeccably researched, deeply moving, never-before-told tale about a World War II incarceration camp in Wyoming and its extraordinary high school football team."Military Times