Tamotsu “Babe” Nomura, the quarterback of the Heart Mountain High School Eagles football team, took the snap on a warm October day in Wyoming nearly 80 years ago. Once poised for athletic success in Los Angeles, Nomura was now at Heart Mountain because the US government had established it as one of multiple internment camps for the 120,000 Japanese Americans it suspected of disloyalty during the second world war.
A barbed-wire fence surrounded Heart Mountain and its drafty wooden barracks, all placed under constant guard. Yet on 1 October 1943, the Eagles scored a victory for human dignity. In the team’s first-ever game, Nomura threw a last-minute touchdown pass and kicked the extra point for a 7-0 win. They would go on to an undefeated season. This remarkable team is the subject of The Eagles of Heart Mountain, a new book by Bradford Pearson.
“I say in the book that in terms of the evidence, they were the greatest football team in Wyoming history,” Pearson says.
“A lot of people probably disagree with that,” he adds, citing the relatively low number of games the Eagles were able to play. Yet, he says, “I think about the conditions they endured, having to live constantly under guard, a giant fence, barbed wire … It’s impossible to think that a team in that state, most places in the country, could experience these sorts of difficulties on a day-to-day basis and still walk out dominating other teams.”
In their two seasons of existence, the Eagles won six games and lost just once while playing bigger, predominantly white high schools. Team cohesion was threatened by an poignant development. Seeking manpower for the war effort, the government sought to draft some of the Japanese Americans it had incarcerated.
“Part of what appealed to me to write this story was that all the members of the Eagles had to make this decision,” Pearson explains. “Some signed up and some said ‘no, I do not [want] to get drafted, you are not treating me like a citizen, I am putting my foot down.’ They ended up going to jail for that.”
One of the men who went to prison was Tayzo Matsumoto, an Eagles player who also starred for the camp baseball team. The book details the wider narrative of Japanese Americans who fought for their rights in court, including an unsuccessful attempt in the 1944 US supreme court case Korematsu v United States.
“What led to Japanese American incarceration was based on disinformation,” Pearson says. “You have to look at disinformation. It led to the camps being created in complete ignorance of actual military intelligence. It’s similar to the complete ignorance today of authority when it comes to election results or epidemiologists.”
Pearson first learned about the Eagles in 2013, while in Wyoming working on an article about Yellowstone. He visited the nearby interpretive center on the site of the former Heart Mountain camp, where 11,000 Japanese Americans were once incarcerated.
“I walked out completely stunned how little I knew,” he says.
That included the success of the camp football team. He made an important contact in Nomura’s daughter, Jan Morey, and interviewed the last living player from the Eagles, Keiichi Ikeda.
Nomura was the lone Japanese American player on the Hollywood High football team in Los Angeles. His days there ended after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. As the book explains, the administration of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt forcibly relocated Japanese Americans to incarceration camps out of fear that they might support Japan in wartime.
“There was no military necessity for any of this,” Pearson says. “Ruining 120,000 lives – and future lives, kids who were born after the war into this community. Their livelihood, land, lives were stripped from them for no reason other than pure racism and financial opportunism.”
The Nomura family was first sent to a temporary facility at the Santa Anita racetrack, once made famous by Seabiscuit. Its horse stalls were repurposed to house US citizens.
“They were truly treated in a subhuman way,” Pearson says.
Running laps on the track, Nomura met a fellow young athlete, George “Horse” Yoshinaga, who had grown up on a strawberry farm in Mountain View, California. They became lifelong friends.
The Nomuras and the Yoshinagas, like many at Santa Anita, were eventually brought to Heart Mountain. The camp was named after an 8,100ft crag; Pearson describes it in the book as “a geological anomaly rising above a human ignominy.”
Temperatures at Heart Mountain could rise above 100F (37.7C) in the summer and plummet below 0F (-17C) in winter, with snowfalls beginning as early as September. Barracks were constructed from green wood that shrank, leaving holes that people plugged with pages from newspapers or Sears-Roebuck catalogs to keep out winter winds.
Heart Mountain did offer athletic opportunities, from sumo wrestling to basketball. In 1943, the Eagles football team began playing rival schools. Nomura and Yoshinaga were two of just three players with previous high school football experience.
After winning their opening game thanks to Nomura, “from there, they start steamrolling teams,” Pearson says. “They really started making a name for themselves in the state.”
In their season finale, an eligibility issue sidelined Nomura. The Eagles won anyway.
“It established across the state that the Heart Mountain team was not a team that could be walked over,” Pearson says.
There were a few changes during the Eagles’ second season. Nomura took over as head coach, while Yoshinaga became the camp sportswriter. The team kept winning, often by lopsided margins that drew attention from the national press. Thousands of people at the camp showed up to watch.
During that season, the Eagles faced the possibility of being drafted. The War Department had previously classified Japanese Americans as ineligible, but a manpower shortage prompted first a call for volunteers and then reinstatement for the draft.
The Eagles who joined the war effort included Yoshinaga, who went to Japan for his first time ever aboard a US military ship in the aftermath of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An unlikely diagnosis of flat feet kept Nomura from serving.
At Heart Mountain and other camps, the desire to fight for the US was not universal. Draft resisters were tried and often sent to prison, including 63 in Wyoming’s largest-ever mass trial.
“The folks who resisted were brave in a different way,” Pearson says. “They were being asked by their government to defend a country that had not treated them respectfully, that did not think they were citizens, [asking them to fight] in Italy and France [while] their families would have to stay behind barbed wire in a camp.”
American military success led to the dismantling of the camps. Former internees sought to rebuild their lives in the postwar US.
Nomura went on to football stardom, first for Los Angeles City College and then for San Jose State University. He led San Jose State to the Raisin Bowl crown while earning All-West Coast recognition. Tryout offers came from the New York Giants in football and the Boston Red Sox in baseball, yet he declined both.
Instead, Nomura worked for a seafood company, although he played in baseball and softball leagues and became an “incredible golfer once his baseball, softball, basketball and football-playing body started to go,” Pearson says. “He was a dominant athlete even into his last years. His family hosts a memorial golf tournament to this day.”
Yoshinaga became a sports entrepreneur and “the most well-respected Japanese American newspaper columnist in the country,” Pearson says.
Nomura and Yoshinaga remained friends long after their days on the Eagles.
“In the end, this became a story about friendship,” Pearson says, “over the course of almost seven decades … I get a lot of strength from them about their relationship, how they got this friendship out of the worst experience of their lives.”