The first time a young Norman Mineta saw his dad cry was the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The second was when his family was put on a train headed for a WWII internment camp.
In my mind, the name “Norm Mineta” has been attached to transportation and infrastructure the entire 30-plus years I’ve been covering the trucking industry. But it was only a couple of years ago that I learned details about the childhood experience that no doubt affected him throughout his career and his life.
Mineta, who died May 3 at age 90, was a key figure in the nation’s transportation policies, from authoring a landmark infrastructure bill, to elevating the importance of trucking safety at the federal level, to becoming the longest-serving secretary of transportation in U.S. history.
During the American Trucking Associations’ virtual management conference in 2020, Mineta, a Democrat, was scheduled to talk about working across the aisle in a session with his longtime friend Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican. Simpson was unable to make the session, but Mineta shared detailed memories of how the two met — at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
Barbed Wire and Boy Scouts
On Dec. 7, 1941, Norm Mineta and his family had just come home from church where they lived in San Jose, California. His mother turned on the radio and heard the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
His father had come to the U.S. from Japan at age 14, his Japanese mother later. Mineta and his siblings were U.S. citizens, born on U.S. soil.
“Later that day was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, because he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth was attacking the land of his heart,” Mineta recalled.
A few months later, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in some 120,000 Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps, primarily in the West. Mineta was 10 years old when he and his family were removed from their home and put on trains, sent to a camp near Los Angeles. “That was the second time I ever saw my dad cry.”
The family had to sell or store everything except what they could carry. “The day we left on that train, I was wearing my Cub Scout uniform, and I had my baseball glove and baseball bat that I had gotten on Easter — and that was really my prize possession, besides my dog, Skippy, who I had to give away. His name was Skippy because I loved peanut butter.”
You can’t get much more American than that. But the MPs confiscated his bat because it could be used as a weapon.
In November 1942, Mineta and his family were put on a train again for the Heart Mountain internment camp (euphemistically called a “relocation center”) near Cody, Wyoming.
“The day we got there, it was windy and cold,” Mineta said. “We were Californians – we had no heavy clothing. When we got to our barracks, the sand would come up through the floorboards into our unit. The barracks were just a wall with tarpaper on the outside, colder than blazes.” They would be there for three years.
The camp had the population of a decent-sized town – in fact, at its population peak, it was the third largest city in Wyoming. And in some ways operated like a city, with schools, farms, and activities — albeit with barbed wire and armed guards in guard towers.
One of those activities were scout troops. Mineta, who was so proud of his Cub Scout uniform when he boarded that train, was an enthusiastic participant in his new Boy Scout troop. But when the camp Scouts organized a Jamboree and invited area troops to come, the response was overwhelmingly negative.
“They would write back and say, ‘No, we’re not going in there, there’s barbed wire, military guard towers, those are POWs.’” Mineta recalled. “So our Boy Scout leaders would write back and say, ‘These aren’t POWs, they’re Boy Scouts of America. They wear the same uniforms, follow the same manual.’ But they still refused to come in.”
But one day, a troop from Cody did come — the troop that Simpson belonged to. The Scouts competed contests such as knot-tying and how to start a fire without a match, “all those things that Boy Scouts do,” Mineta said.
Mineta and Simpson were paired up to put up their pup tent. The two were incorrigible.
As Simpson would later explain in a 2018 piece on CBS Sunday Morning, “He was a spirited lad.” When asked by the interviewer what that meant, he said, with a laugh, “he was as ornery as I was. We could figure ways to screw up anything we could get our hands on.”
There was a likelihood of heavy rain, and the two decided to play a prank on a bully from Simpson’s troop, diverting water toward the victim’s tent — and that tent went down. Mineta recalled his tentmate laughing all afternoon.
“I finally said ‘Alan, would you shut up so we could get some rest?’ Well, that was Alan Simpson. To this day we are the best of friends.”
The two reconnected when Mineta became the major of his hometown of San Jose. Simpson also found his way into politics, as well, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978, a position he would hold for 18 years. Mineta, meanwhile, had gone from mayor to Congress, elected to the House of Representatives in 1974.
Simpson had become a Republican, Mineta a Democrat, but that never fazed their friendship, or their ability to work across the aisle on important legislation.
Mineta worked his way up the ladder through Congress, where he chaired the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. He left in 1995 after Republicans took control of the House. From there he joined Lockheed Martin Corp., which was involved with PrePass and other information services for the trucking and transportation industries.
Mineta and Trucking
Shortly after I started covering trucking as a magazine journalist, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, pronounced Ice-Tea) was passed. The first federal legislation on the topic since the 1956 law establishing the Interstate Highway System, it took a more intermodal approach to transportation planning. President George H.W. Bush during the signing ceremony called it “the most important transportation bill since President Eisenhower started the Interstate System 35 years ago.”
Norm Mineta was a primary author of that law.
He served on the Committee on Transportation and Public Works throughout his time in Congress. Later, he was President Bill Clinton’s secretary of commerce — the first Asian-American to hold a Cabinet position — and President George W. Bush’s secretary of transportation, where he was the longest-serving transportation secretary in U.S. history.
When he accepted Bush’s nomination, Mineta said, “There are no Republican or Democratic highways; no such thing as Republican or Democratic traffic congestion; no such thing as Republican or Democratic aviation and highway safety.”
When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened, Mineta took the unprecedented step of ordering every plane in the U.S. out of the sky. After that, he guided the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, the largest mobilization of a new federal agency since World War II.
He also was involved in the formation of another federal agency — the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. At the time a former congressman, in 1999 he was tapped by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to form a blue ribbon panel to study transportation safety issues.
One of the issues the group addressed was whether the Office of Motor Carriers should be separated from its parent agency, the Federal Highway Administration, in the belief that truck safety enforcement deserved its own agency.
Mineta recommended giving truck safety equal status with car, airline, railroad and maritime safety agencies within the DOT, as well as tougher enforcement and entry requirements. He stopped short of recommending creating a new agency, saying the problem was poor execution and follow-through in the existing Office of Motor Carriers.
Congress accepted Mineta's premise that truck safety needed a higher profile at the DOT than what it had. (At the time, safety was subordinate to highways within the FHWA). But it decided to create a new agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Although Mineta stepped down from his Cabinet post in 2006, he remained an important name in transportation. The Mineta Transportation Institute, which he founded in 1991, continues to do research on surface transportation and infrastructure.
Mineta’s legacy will be recognized when the USDOT’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named in his honor, alongside that of William T. Coleman Jr., the fourth Secretary of Transportation and the second African-American to serve in the Cabinet, whose name was put on the DOT in 2020.
For more about Mineta and Simpson's friendship, check out this CBS Sunday Morning piece from 2018: