A visit from Santa Clause. Photo credit: Hirahara Collection, WSU Libraries, MASC.
A visit from Santa Clause. Photo credit: Hirahara Collection, WSU Libraries, MASC.

PULLMAN, Wash.–Washington State University will soon be home to the largest private collection of photos taken at the Heart Mountain (Wyoming) Japanese Internment Camp during World War II. In addition, the National Park Service announced it is providing WSU with a $49,217 matching grant to help digitize and preserve the collection which includes over 2,000 original black and white photo negatives.

Housing up to 10,767 people on 46,000 acres, the Heart Mountain internees — originally from California, Oregon, and Washington — formed the third largest city in Wyoming during the war.

Cameras were initially banned inside the camp, but in 1943 internees were allowed to purchase photography equipment. The photographs in this collection, taken by George Hirahara and his son Frank between 1943 and 1945, depict everyday life in this harsh environment from both an adult’s and student’s perspective. Frank’s daughter has provided a portion of the collection to WSU and plans to personally deliver the final batch of newly discovered negatives in September.

Trevor Bond, head of WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, called this collection of images one of the most significant gifts ever donated to the WSU Libraries.

“This diverse collection of professional grade photos documents the full range of internment camp life,” he said. “Other Heart Mountain internees sought out George and Frank Hirahara for their expertise in photographing intimate events such as engagement celebrations, weddings, and family portraits.”

Helen Yamamoto. Photo credit: Hirahara Collection,
Helen Yamamoto. Photo credit: Hirahara Collection,

The Hirahara family resided in Yakima, Wash. when World War II began. Like so many other Japanese Americans on the West Coast during that time, they were forced to relocate — eventually ending up at Heart Mountain.

After graduating from Heart Mountain High School, Frank Hirahara attended Washington State College (now known as Washington State University) where he majored in electrical engineering and participated on the track team.

His skills as a photographer were discovered when he served as photo editor of the 1944 Heart Mountain High School “Tempo” Yearbook. After graduation in 1948, he moved to Portland, Oregon to work as an electrical engineer for Bonneville Power. In his spare time he became a member of the Oregon Camera Club and won a first place award in competition. His photos were also exhibited in the Club’s 56th Annual Salon in 1951 and at the Maryhill Museum of Fine Arts in Maryhill, Wash. as part of the Oregon Camera Club exhibition that same year.

Kaoru Inouye as a science teacher - April 12, 1944. Photo credit:  Hirahara Collection,
Kaoru Inouye as a science teacher - April 12, 1944. Photo credit: Hirahara Collection,

“I am delighted that with the support of the National Park Service we will be able to preserve and make the Hirahara Collection available for research,” said Bond. “More than 1,000 images will be scanned and made accessible online in a user friendly format.” Bond estimates the images will be accessible online by October 2012.

WSU will use some of the grant funding to create an online exhibit and develop new curriculum based on the Hirahara photographs for courses at WSU. The project will help create a new emphasis on the history of Japanese immigration into the central and eastern portions of Washington State, especially in the Yakima Valley before the War.

WSU plans to work with the Yakima Valley Museum in sharing historical information on these Japanese pioneers. The museum created its own 2,000 square foot display last October due to a contribution from the Hirahara family. This exhibit features many pioneer families, Heart Mountain history and local artifacts. The exhibit has been named the 2011 Award of Exhibit Excellence from the Washington State Museum Association and will be on display through 2013.

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