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Reflections on Resilience: Guest Speaker Sam Mihara's Journey from Heart Mountain to Hope

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Reflections on Resilience: Guest Speaker Sam Mihara's Journey from Heart Mountain to Hope
Sam Mahira WWII Heart Mountain survivor

Sam Mihara (center) with Bullis Social Studies department.

The Upper School Social Studies Department was honored to host Mr. Sam Mihara as a guest speaker on campus. A generous Parents' Association grant provided Mr. Mihara's honoraria and travel expenses from Los Angeles.

In February of 1942, at the age of nine, Sam and his family were forcibly removed from their home in San Francisco, California. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, declaring that all 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were to be held in isolated prison camps. More than two-thirds of those incarcerated were born in the United States, and many were children. Families lost homes, businesses, and possessions and were permitted to bring only one suitcase per person.

Sam and Helena Mihara

The Mihara family was taken by train to Cody, Wyoming, where they spent three years living in the Heart Mountain prison camp. They struggled with cold winters, primitive conditions, a lack of privacy, and little medical care. Despite the significant challenges, young Sam found a way to have some fun with other children: he was a Cub Scout, and his buddies caught rattlesnakes and even went ice skating on a frozen pond. When his family was released in 1945, they had to start from scratch. Sam eventually went on to earn degrees from UC Berkeley and UCLA and had a long career as an aerospace engineer. His wife, Helene, was also imprisoned during World War II in Utah, and they have been married for 65 years. She is the girl in the famous Dorothea Lange photograph "Children of the Weill Public School - San Francisco, California, April 1942."

Last summer, Social Studies Department Chair Dr. Sara Romeyn was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and spent a week in Wyoming learning in depth about the lives of the 12,000 men, women, and children held at the camp. She had the opportunity to learn from Mr. Mihara and meet other survivors and children of survivors.

Sam Mihara

Today, at the age of 91, Mr. Mihara is the only survivor of the Heart Mountain camp who is actively touring the country and speaking to schools, government officials, and community organizations. Sam's message is simple: how do we prevent this injustice from happening again? How do we advocate for marginalized and mistreated people?

While in Potomac, Mr. Mihara had a special dinner with members of the Social Studies Department, gave a keynote address to 10th and 11th graders, and attended a luncheon with members of our APID (Asian Pacific Islander Desi) Affinity Group. Additionally, Zetong B. '25 had the opportunity to interview Mr. Mihara for her National History Day (NHD) documentary on Japanese American prison camps in World War II.

Sam Mihara
Sam Mihara

Students were asked to write reflections about the talk in the form of a thank you note to Mr. Mihara. Following are a few quotes from these letters:

Dear Mr. Mihara, 

Thank you so much for taking the time to educate us on your personal experience regarding the Japanese Internment during World War II. 

I learned a multitude of new things from your talk, including the traumatic experiences that you and many other Japanese Americans had to endure during this tragic moment in history. I had not previously known that before relocation to camps, these newly evicted Japanese families had to spend time living in horse stalls. This highly disturbing dehumanization of people deeply resonated with me and further sparked my interest and curiosity to learn more about your personal experience at Heart Mountain. I also found it interesting to hear that to supplement the food you were provided, members of the camp employed farming techniques to provide the community with better nutritional options. I also found myself surprised on multiple occasions throughout your talk, especially after you shared the terrible conditions of the camp under which many families lived, including the bathroom conditions. 

Your visit resonated with me deeply and was precious to my understanding of your situation and that of many other Japanese Americans. Likewise, your ability to strive for a higher education in a field of study that requires lots of dedication, hard work, and, most importantly, intelligence, represents what people are capable of regardless of their upbringing and situation. Your work inspires me to continue your efforts for justice and equality by educating and telling your story, depicting the horrors of the event and the success found by many, while still recognizing the immense need for continued reform. 

Best Regards, 

Benjamin B. '25

Sam Mihara

I want to begin my letter by thanking you dearly for taking time out of your day to explain your experiences with discrimination and hatred against the Japanese ethnicity. Your presentation and projection were leaking with passion and a true understanding of how and why this discrimination occurred and how to avoid it in modern times. I took away some very valuable lessons and thoughts from your presentation, which I would like to share with you.

The first lesson I took away was perseverance. Having almost everything stripped from you and your family at a young age must have been near impossible to overcome, yet you did. Finding yourself placed in awful internment camps and living in old horse stables had to have been extremely difficult to endure, yet you persevered. After all the horror was over, after not being able to do any sort of education besides the lousy grammar school in the camp, you attended one of the top universities in the country and took on the hardest profession in the entire world. That right there is the definition of perseverance, and it is something I will always remember when I find myself in a tough situation. 

Another lesson I took away from your presentation is to never forget your connections. As you explained, you made several close friends while placed in the camp that you are still in contact with today. These friendships helped you get through hard times and almost kept that little sliver of hope that there was light on the other side. These friends, specifically Willie Ito, also went on to have very successful careers, even animating for Disney! This screams that something in that camp, between you and your "buds," connected and lit a fire in your brain to go and be extremely smart and successful.

Again, Thank you so much for coming and talking to my grade. We find it so valuable that we were able to take away those lessons that we will never forget.

Thank you, Sam Mihara.

Max M. '25

Sam Mihara

Dear Mr. Mihara,

During your talk, I learned a lot of intriguing information about the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II, particularly about the conditions of Japanese American internment camps. It was fascinating to hear your accounting of the camps, and I thought your delivery was great. Your personal story sheds light on a dark chapter of American history that is often overlooked or forgotten. The camps are rarely discussed in history classes and in general, so I found your talk interesting. What surprised me most about your personal experience was how unjust and unwright it was. The way you told the story of you and your family during this time was very impactful, as I had never heard a first-person accounting of the Japanese American camps before this. Your description of the stripping of Japanese American's rights and freedoms simply based on their race was appalling and heartbreaking.

Your account brought to life the personal impact these camps had on people, as well as the heavy discrimination and prejudice that was prevalent at the time. I also thought your visit was valuable, not only because it educated us about this often-overlooked aspect of history but also because it caused us to reflect. It provided a unique opportunity for me and my classmates to reflect on current overlooked injustices in modern times. Your presentation made me think about some of the current, often overlooked prejudices and injustices, which I think are very important and valuable. Thank you once again for sharing your story with us. Your visit has left a lasting impact on me, and I am extremely thankful to have heard you speak.

Thank you,

Zach W. '25