Jerry Housel at Heart Mountain in Wyoming: An Excerpt from “Lawyer, Jailer, Ally Foe”

The following is an excerpt from Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe: Complicity and Conscience in America’s World War II Concentration Camps by Eric L. Muller, which is available now wherever books are sold. It’s also available in Audiobook format from Audible and

“A fascinating and detailed account of one of America’s darkest chapters. Through the eyes and work of three dedicated lawyers we see the struggles of Japanese American citizens stripped of their dignity and rights and locked away simply because of their race.”

John Grisham

book cover for Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, For by Eric L. Muller

Jerry Housel thought he’d set the radio quiet enough, but when Mary Elaine mumbled in her sleep in the next room, he jumped up to turn it lower. She was a trooper, putting up with his late nights. The least he could do was not wake her.

KOA out of Denver really carried at this hour. Must be 400 miles as the crow flies from Denver up to the northwest corner of Wyoming, and Fred Waring’s show was every bit as crisp as if it were coming from tiny little KPOW right here in town. Pleasure Time was what Waring was calling his show these days, and tonight, like every night, he was kicking it off with “Sleep,” his signature tune.

Housel turned his weary eyes to the stack of files and his loose-leaf book of War Relocation Authority regulations open on the kitchen table.

Pleasure. Sleep. He’d welcome a bit more of either.

He’d have to settle for another Dr Pepper.

Bottle in hand, Housel returned to his chair and reached for the next file, an insanity case. An evacuee was having some kind of episode the center’s infirmary couldn’t handle and needed treatment at the state asylum in Evanston. But the hospital was demanding to know who’d be paying the bills, and it wasn’t clear if this was a cost the WRA should absorb. Housel’s job as project attorney was to figure that out.

A half hour later he had his answer and made a note to include it in his biweekly report to headquarters. Grabbing the Dr Pepper for a celebratory swig, he spotted a ring on the table and quickly reached for one of the coasters they’d gotten as a wedding present from some relative or other. The last thing he needed was for Mary Elaine to wake up in the morning to a permanent mark on their new table.

Housel turned his weary eyes to the stack of files and his loose-leaf book of War Relocation Authority regulations open on the kitchen table.

For the next task on his list, Housel pulled over the regulations. Although the book was thick, it was still a work in progress. New rules seemed to come down weekly. Heart Mountain and the other relocation centers were little cities when you came right down to it, and every day brought a new challenge, an unforeseen hitch. A problem at one of the projects would eventually present itself at all of them. Might as well get out ahead of it with a regulation.

The rules were the work of the legal staff back in Washington. A few months ago, he’d been one of them. From there, the regulations seemed so detailed and comprehensive, like tightly woven mesh. Now, from his kitchen table in Powell, Wyoming, they looked different—gossamer strands across huge gaps. Being a project attorney in the field meant confronting a dozen decisions a day, none of them quite covered by a rule and none of them with a clear right answer. Or a clear wrong one. This rule book could be a foot thick, and it still wouldn’t settle things. Every day would bring Housel to unexplored terrain, and he would be on his own to navigate it. The best he could usually do was to find a perch on the nearest rule, look both ways, and jump.

The topics flitted by on the pages under Housel’s thumb. Community Activities. Industry. Fire Protection. Education. Internal Security. About two-thirds of the way in, Housel reached the section he needed, Project Employment. Now he slowed down, running a finger across each paragraph. Here it was: “The development of private enterprise other than by the WRA is not permitted within WRA Centers.”

Housel’s mouth tightened in frustration. Someone in Washington no doubt thought this a model of clarity. But what did it really mean in a specific case? What did it mean for these Montgomery Ward girls at Heart Mountain that he had to figure out what to do with?

They weren’t quite sales-counter girls, they weren’t quite office girls, and they weren’t quite ad girls; they were a mix of all three. Montgomery Ward recruited them to hand around catalogs, answer evacuees’ questions, and help them with order forms, especially the older ones who didn’t speak much English. The catalog companies were already doing a brisk business in the centers, and it could only help to have some bright young Japanese faces out in the mess halls and the residential blocks talking up the merchandise. For the girls, it meant extra income—a small monthly wage and a slender commission on top.

Was this forbidden “private enterprise”? That was Housel’s problem.

It seemed foolish to put these girls out of business. Not only were they showing admirable pluck in a tough situation, but Americanizing the Japanese was one of the WRA’s key goals. What better way to help young people learn the ways of American retail than by letting them do it?

The rules were the work of the legal staff back in Washington. A few months ago, he’d been one of them. From there, the regulations seemed so detailed and comprehensive, like tightly woven mesh. Now, from his kitchen table in Powell, Wyoming, they looked different . . .

But Housel worried that it could come back to haunt him. It was an open secret that little businesses were thriving here and there in barrack apartments. Clearly against the rules. Most were harmless, but not all. Housel had a rival in Kiyoichi Doi, a Nisei lawyer running a law office right under Housel’s nose. It irked Housel, the brazenness of it. If he let the Montgomery Ward girls keep selling, would he have a tougher time shutting down Doi?

Housel finished off his Dr Pepper and rose in slow motion so as not to disturb Mary Elaine. Pacing gently around the small kitchen, he turned the question over and over in his mind, and an idea took shape. Maybe it was just a question of definitions. Private enterprise in the centers was forbidden. But private employment was not. If hawking catalog merchandise was employment rather than enterprise, the girls could carry on.

Housel stopped pacing and allowed himself a little smile. He liked this solution. It was clever. A line he could defend.

Just then, Mary Elaine appeared in the doorway, hair flat and nightgown askew. “Jerry?” she mumbled, squinting into the brightness of the kitchen. “It’s one in the morning. That’s enough for one day. Come to bed.”

He glanced at his watch. She was right. The hour had gotten away from him. “Coming,” he said. “I’m at a good stopping point anyway.” He switched off the radio, placed his empty Dr Pepper bottle on the counter with the others to return, and turned off the kitchen light.

Mary Elaine was back asleep in an instant, but it took a few minutes for Housel to settle in. Just as he began to drift off, a thought jolted his eyes back open. Subsistence. The Montgomery Ward girls would have to pay room and board to the WRA if what they were doing was private employment. Those were the rules. Twenty dollars a month for their barrack apartment and three meals at the mess hall. That seemed awfully steep—maybe more than the girls were even bringing in.

Housel flipped to his stomach, exasperated. How would the WRA even collect the girls’ money? They had no WRA paycheck to deduct it from, which left only one option he could think of: bill the girls, hope they’d pay it, and deny them food in the mess halls if they didn’t.

The hands on the night table clock now glowed 1:30. Housel sighed into his pillow. He’d write to Washington in the morning. Let them figure it out.

Eric L. Muller is the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law.