Mineta Remembers WWII Japanese Internment

Norman Mineta was 10 years old when he and his family were shipped to Heart Mountain Relocation Center (search) in Wyoming.

Mineta, whose father came to the United States to farm sugar beets, remembers the camp where he and other Japanese-Americans were confined during World War II.

There were "barbed wire and military guard towers with machine gun mounts. The unit, roughly 15 feet by 20 feet, was single-wall construction; the cold and the sand … would come whistling right through," Mineta told retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a FOX News contributor.

Tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on the FOX News Channel to watch North's interview with Mineta and others in the latest edition of "War Stories with Oliver North."

Mineta, a former Democratic congressman from California who serves as transportation secretary in President Bush's Cabinet and was commerce secretary under former President Clinton, offered his reflections as the nation nears a painful anniversary.

Sixty-two years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (search) — a controversial decree that resulted in the confinement of 120,000 civilians of Japanese descent during World War II. The attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led to widespread mistrust of the Japanese in America.

Mineta's father, Kunisaku, eventually learned English and became an insurance agent in an effort to make a better life for his family. For Mineta, thinking about his childhood evokes memories of discrimination: "I remember going to some of the major department stores — someone else would get waited on first even though we had been standing there a long time."

During his time at the camp, Mineta had an early encounter with a future congressional colleague. "They invited the Boy Scouts from outside the camp to … join us for our jamboree. I got paired off with this one guy. That kid was Alan Simpson, who, of course, became the U.S. senator from Wyoming."

When President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, there were still 73,000 Japanese-Americans interned in relocation camps. By the time the last camp closed in March 1946, those who where forced to leave everything behind had lost an estimated $400 million, approximately $4.2 billion today.

It would take 30 years to begin the process of reparation. In 1976 President Gerald Ford formally revoked Executive Order 9066. Four years later Congress created a special commission to revisit FDR's decision.

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed an official apology and authorized payment of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese-American who had been interned under the executive order.

"To me it wasn't the payment, but it was the apology and that lifting of the yoke that people had on their back about what they experienced from World War II up to that point," says Mineta, who brought this issue to national attention during his time in Congress. His work resulted in the passage of H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (search).

On Nov. 9, 2000, a memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated to the loyalty and courage of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Mineta was instrumental in getting the memorial built.

"This memorial is really to those who were in the camps, those who served in the military … because many of us are really standing on the shoulders of those folks," said the former congressman.

Despite his family's experience in the relocation camp, Mineta has only positive reflections on America.

"When I think about my dad coming as a 14-year-old kid and his son being able to be in the Cabinet of two presidents … to me, there isn't a country in the world that can give that kind of opportunity."

Click in the video box near the top of the story to watch a clip from this weekend's episode of "War Stories with Oliver North, Friends and Enemies: Japanese Americans During World War II" and tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on the FOX News Channel.