Today, anyone who visits Fort Missoula along the city’s western edge is treated to expansive views of the mountains surrounding our vibrant community. Some visitors, though, may not realize that this idyllic setting also harbors a dark history.
From 1941 to 1944, the U.S. government interned more than 2,200 Japanese resident aliens, Italian nationals and a small number of German nationals following the country’s entry into World War II. The Italian men were held at the Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center until Italy’s surrender in 1944. For the Japanese, Fort Missoula served as a way station while they were subjected to an enemy alien hearing board that decided whether the men were likely to be disloyal to the United States. Though none of the Japanese men were found to be disloyal, the majority were still sent from Fort Missoula to one of several War Relocation Camps across the country that held over 120,000 Japanese Americans. At Fort Missoula, both the Japanese and Italians were held in one of the 29 barracks that once occupied the fort’s eastern side.
The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula has restored several of those barracks, using them and other remnants of the era to educate the public on this important, if difficult, aspect of Western Montana history. Its newly minted membership in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will allow the museum to elevate this mission even further.
According to its website, a Site of Conscience is “a place of memory – a museum, historic site, memorial or memory initiative – that confronts both the history of what happened there and its contemporary legacies.” Membership as a Site of Conscience connects HMFM to more than 250 worldwide sites that interpret tragedies and atrocities, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., detention under dictators in Latin America, life in a Russian Gulag, and transiting to death camps during the Holocaust. The coalition’s mission is to not only impart the story of what happened at each site, but to promote civil action to prevent history from repeating itself.
“By joining the Sites of Conscience, we’ll be able to network with these sites and learn additional ways to interpret difficult histories, which will be helpful as we continue to raise awareness of the story of the Fort Missoula internment camp,” says Matt Lautzenheiser, HMFM executive director.
Lautzenheiser predicts HMFM’s designation as a Site of Conscience – the first in Montana − will help with several projects, including the museum’s continued work to fully restore two additional detention barracks. The museum also is partnering with the Missoula Art Museum to create two complementary exhibits: one at MAM featuring artwork reflecting on Japanese internment and incarceration, and another at HMFM elaborating on the history that inspired the art and the story of Fort Missoula and the other Department of Justice camps. Museum staff envision four to six public programs that will accompany the exhibits, which are on track to open in fall 2020. And while it doesn’t include funding up front, membership does open the door to grant opportunities that could help finance some of these initiatives.
In addition to telling the site’s internment story, HMFM features fascinating permanent and rotating exhibits documenting the history of Missoula County. But don’t just take our word for it – head over and see for yourself. The museum is located at 3400 Captain Rawn Way, at the heart of the Fort Missoula National Historic District. It’s currently open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. And, thanks to a 2002 voter-approved levy, admission is free for all Missoula County residents. You can learn more about the museum and its current exhibits at www.fortmissoulamuseum.org.