1942-1946 – The Heart Mountain Years.

In the late 1930’s, war was sweeping across Europe and the hope was that the United States would not have to get involved. Back home, however, many young men were preparing themselves to defend America, if need be. George Boller, during his years at SUI (1938-1940), was involved with R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers Training Corps) and is listed here as a new cadet corporal in The Daily Iowan on December 19, 1939.

On December 7, 1941 – life across the United States changed. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and within days of that dreadful event, the United States was now an active participant in a world war that everyone had hoped would stay in Europe. But by 1942, millions of young men across the nation were recruited for the war effort and, as of July 25, 1942, George Boller was one of those young men.

Fortunately, for my dad, his flat feet kept him from being sent overseas, so he was immediately assigned as Army Private-First Class to administrative duties, serving state-side as a company clerk. His first assignment (1942-1944) was at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. The Mt. Pleasant News, in a short Wayland-section update (July 23, 1942), mentions George’s going-away dinner (above right).

My dad told me that one of the real treats of his time at Jefferson Barracks was being able to take in a few games at Sportsmans Park during the summer of ’44, the year of the all-St. Louis World Series – Cardinals vs. Browns.

As the war continued on into the fall of 1944, George was transferred to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. It’s here, a young man from Wayland, Iowa, who tragically had to leave St. Louis just prior to the World Series, met a wonderful young school teacher from Trenton, Missouri. But, before I tell you that love story, allow me to fill you in on some details surrounding this little-known World War II atrocity committed by Uncle Sam against its own citizens.

During the early days of World War II, immediately following Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) the United States government was very concerned about possible Japanese air strikes on the west coast of America. In order to “protect” the country from possible sabotage, a great injustice occurred – with every American citizen of Japanese descent who was living on or near the west coast was ordered to surrender homes, businesses and belongings, and then be relocated to ten different make-shift internment camps set up in the western mountain states of the United States.

One such location was Heart Mountain, Wyoming, named for the heart-shaped mountain peak located in the plains of Wyoming directly east of Yellowstone National Park.

As you can see from the pictures, where once there was nothing but flat land and brush, quonset huts and barracks quickly sprang up – eventually making Heart Mountain the third largest city in Wyoming during the war years (1943-1945). In order to keep order, the U.S. Army brought in a handful of soldiers, like my father, to watch over this massive community of “incarcerated” Japanese-American citizens.

My father, now a Staff Sargeant, was absolutely appalled at what he found when he first arrived at Heart Mountain in September 1944. While the soldiers had fairly comfortable barracks to live in, the living conditions given to Japanese-American citizens was atrocious. In a letter he wrote in 1994, George described his experience this way, “It was a shock to me. This was nothing but a hell-hole – with tar-papered covered barracks, central dining areas, and latrines.”

And, sadly, when it came to the racial prejudice surrounding the camp, my dad conveyed many horrific stories. The one that stands out in my mind is the story about the young Japanese-American soldier who came to visit his family who was being “housed” at Heart Mountain while he was on leave. Dressed in his U.S. Army uniform, he went into town (nearby Cody, Wyoming) to get a haircut, but the barber refused to give this brave soldier a trim – simply because of his race! God, have mercy!

In an effort to make this atrocity in American history more palatable to the public, the U.S. Government hired other American citizens to help make this make-shift community more livable. One such person was my mother, Dixie Lee Boyer, who after graduating from the University of Colorado in the spring of 1944, was offered a teaching job that paid $2,400 per year, plus room and board, working with hundreds of young Japanese-American children.

In retrospect, I’ve often wondered why my mother took this job in such a “hell-hole.” In 1944, any woman with a four-year degree in education, like Dixie had from the University of Colorado, could have secured any choice position from countless opportunities across the country. Yet, interestingly, Dixie chose to take her first teaching assignment in this desolate setting of Heart Mountain, Wyoming, working in what was, essentially, a prison camp for Japanese-American families.

The only answer I can come up with goes back to her upbringing, where in the Rock Island railroad switching yards of Trenton, Missouri, she learned from her parents how to have practical compassion for those who had less than her family had. For Dixie, teaching young Japanese-American kids who lived in cold, barren army barracks was the same ‘good work’ of God as offering a bite of food to a hungry family traveling the rails during the worst years of the depression. Click here to read more about growing up during the Depression years.

So, in the fall of 1944, in the PX (recreation center) of this U.S. Government “prison-camp” called Heart Mountain, my mother and father met for the first time. As my mom told the story, she “knew” with certainty, the very first moment she saw this handsome young soldier from Iowa, that she was going to become his wife!

Some of our most enjoyable pieces in Our Boller Family collection are a series of love letters between George and Dixie as they were preparing for their marriage. It seems that George had returned to Wayland on a two-week furlough just about a month prior to their marriage in March of 1945. Click here to get more details!

Speaking of letters, George wrote his mom, Olive Boller, a beautiful 3-page letter one week before their March 17th wedding in Billings. Above are a couple of excerpts. Click here to read the full letter.

Apparently, things moved along pretty quickly, because by spring 1945, George and Dixie took a quick three-day leave from Heart Mountain and were married at 4:35 p.m. in a Presbyterian parsonage on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1945, in nearby Billings, Montana.

In her wedding book, Dixie writes…

The bride wore a brown gabardine suit with matching accessories and a beautiful gardenia corsage. Rev. A.G. Adams performed the double-ring ceremony in a mid-Victorian parlor. The tension of such a beautiful but critical moment caused us to review our vows later, because it was impossible to grasp them fully during the wedding. It was the most wonderful moment in our lives and may we never forget our promises of love.

In reference to their honeymoon, Dixie writes…

In wartime, brides have short or no honeymoons. We were no exceptions. Following the ceremony, we and our attendants (Sergeant and Mrs. Carl B. Reuscher) had a lovely dinner at Billings Bel-Nap Hotel. We re-saw the musical comedy, ‘Naughty Marietta’. It was an odd but lovely sounding name, this new Mrs. G. E. Boller. Attended the Presbyterian Church Sunday morning, had a luxurious lunch with just us two. Monday, after sweeping our rice and carton-decorated apt., we shopped in Cody (Wyoming) and spent the rest of our 3-day pass at home in 18-B, Heart Mt.

Dixie continues…

We were home exactly 8 minutes when Mr. & Mrs. Fayette Burton, Bonnie Braska, Larna Hill (Wyrough) and the Burton children dropped in. A bride’s first venture in entertaining! After the review of 18-B, we munched peanut salad and toasted cheese sandwiches, olives, and coffee. I hope they enjoyed half my thrill in seeing my new trays and coffee server in action.

Sadly, this whole sad story of what Uncle Sam did to thousands of Japanese-Americans during the war was pushed under the rug until the 1960’s. My parents stayed in touch with a handful of men and women they met at Heart Mountain, celebrating with them when some finally won some form of retribution for this terrible “war crime.”

George, particularly, made a dedicated effort to write letters on behalf of these Japanese-Americans who were treated in such disgraceful ways. In my Boller family archives, I have a number of books and letters my dad collected over the years dealing with this often overlooked part of American history. May we, as Americans, never repeat such actions ever again.

With the war officially ending on September 2, 1945, Heart Mountain closed on November 15, 1945. So, after three-and-a-half-years of service, George E. Boller, now a Staff Sargeant, was officially discharged from the U.S. Army on January 24, 1946, completing his duty to his country that began on July 25, 1942.

With the war now ended, it was time for a whole new generation of young Americans who had literally saved the world, to come back home and begin a normal life again…in this new era of American history defined as the Baby Boomer generation!

George & Dixie Boller packed their bags, returned to the Midwest, choosing Wayland, Iowa for their first home…

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

86 Promotions Announced In Infantry, Engineering Units, The Daily Iowan, December 16, 1939, p 4

George leaves for Jefferson Barracks, Mt. Pleasant News, July 23, 1942, p 4

National Historic Landmark – Heart Mountain, Heartmountain.org

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, National Park Service, NPS.org

Heartbreak at Heart Mountain, a World War Two Japanese American Confinement Site, YellowstonePark.com

George & Dixie Marriage News Story, Mt. Pleasant News, March 29, 1945, p 1

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