There are days in American history that are not simply remembered; they are engraved in the thoughts of those who lived through them. We recall where we were and what we were doing on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 – a day now referenced with the code phrase “9/11.” Baby boomers vividly remember obscure details of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
For members of “The Greatest Generation,” the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 – “a day that shall live in infamy” – was perhaps even more shocking. Especially if you were a young man of Japanese ancestry living on America’s west coast at the time.
One of these young men, Bill Toru Nishimura, now 93, told his story as a guest speaker at the “Day of Remembrance” event Saturday, Feb. 15 at the Manzanar National Historic Site, one of 10 detention centers established in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack to confine Japanese Americans under the guise of national security.
Nishimura was 21 years old on Dec. 7, 1941. That morning he was hacking weeds under a flume at his family’s farm near Lawndale, a quiet beach-side bedroom community in Los Angeles County. Today, it prides itself as “The Heart of the South Bay.”
The weeds needing Nishimura’s attention that morning were in a field next to a road. Nishimura thought it odd that cars were slowing down to stare at him, but he didn’t think too much of it at the time. Later that evening he turned on the radio and heard the news. “It was one of the greatest shocks of my life,” he said.
LIFE FOREVER CHANGED
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed U.S. Executive Order 9066 which eventually led to the removal of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast. Two thirds of these people were American citizens.
“My first thoughts were of my father and mother. They were born in Japan. They were prevented citizenship by law (the Immigration Act of 1924), but I was born in this country and I was an American citizen,” Nishimura said. “I worried that I would be separated from my parents. As aliens living in America, I thought my parents might be locked up or deported back to Japan.”
As feared, early in 1942, federal agents arrested Nishimura’s father. Although his father was a Japanese farmer raising vegetables – cauliflowers, cabbage, cucumbers and such – the farm’s location near the coast automatically made him and his family suspects of potential sabotage and “fifth column” subversive activities. Citizens or not.
“Once a Jap, always a Jap” was the explanation given by authorities such as General John L. DeWitt in charge of the Western Defense Command. For Nishimura, the idea that American citizens could be forcibly removed from their homes and farms was almost as shocking as Pearl Harbor. “I got mad. I remember thinking, ‘Why, Roosevelt, you dirty S.O.B.!’ ”
Francis Biddle, U.S. Attorney General at that time, thought the forced removal of American citizens was “un-Christian, un-American, and unconstitutional.” But neither the U.S. Attorney General nor the U.S. Constitution were much of a match against rampant war hysteria and racial prejudices of the day. Initially, Japanese Americans were confined to a curfew radius of five miles. Then, for a week, travel restrictions were lifted and they were allowed to move anywhere to the interior of the United States.
Jobs were plentiful, they were told. “But we were getting letters from friends who told us that no one would hire anyone of Japanese ancestry,” Nishimura remembered. “This was my first indication that our government was lying to us and trying to manipulate us.”
At that time, U.S. Highway 99 was considered a demarcation line for the “military zone” to the west and the non-military area of the interior to the east. So Nishimura, his sister and mother moved to Ivanhoe, a community of a couple thousand inhabitants just to the east and north of Visalia, which itself is east of U.S. Highway 99. There they hoped to continue farming and gardening. Surely, Ivanhoe would be a safe haven for the remnants of the Nishimura family.
“I never dreamed that I, a citizen of this country, would wind up in an internment camp as well.”
AN IMPRISONED CITIZEN
The rest of the Nishimura family – Bill, his mother, and sister (who was also a U.S. citizen) – were rounded up and shipped off to Poston, Ariz., the largest of 10 camps established during World War II for people of Japanese ancestry. The American public was assured that this was a voluntary relocation.
Those who lived through it remember the move differently.
Most Japanese American families had only a few days to sell homes and close businesses. They had to give away family pets. Anything they could not carry had to be left behind. They loaded into buses and railroad cars accompanied by soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. And still, the American public was assured that this was a voluntary relocation.
The location of the Poston War Relocation Center, near Parker, Ariz., is in itself telling. The U.S. government asked for permission to use land on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The Tribal Council refused the request, noting, as Nishimura recalled, “You are treating these Japanese-Americans just like you treated us!” Eventually, officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs overrode the Tribal Council.
“To this day, I have a special appreciation for American Indians,” said Nishimura. “They tried to stand up for us.”
At the camps, internees 17 years of age or older were given a questionnaire consisting of mostly innocuous questions. Two questions towards the end caused people like Nishimura to balk.
Question 27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States of America on combat duty, wherever ordered?”
Question 28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”
The final clause of Question 28 was especially troubling to Nishimura. How could he forswear allegiance to a Japanese Emperor and a foreign government that he had never known? Forswear what?
Nishimura answered “No” to Question 27 and left the answer to Question 28 blank. In the margin he wrote, “I will answer this question when you restore my rights as an American citizen.”
All who answered “No” to both questions were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in northern California, near the Oregon border. Nishimura stayed behind in Poston.
After two years of confinement, Nishimura’s father was returned to the family. The Poston Camp No. 3 manager called Bill into his office for an enticing offer. “Now that your father is back, will you answer Question 28?” The young man smelled manipulation again. “I will when you restore my rights,” he replied.
Three days later, Nishimura was shipped to the Tule Lake Segregation Center.
Upon arrival at Tule Lake’s entrance gate, an MP guard peered into the back of the truck and fixed his eyes on Nishimura. The MP grabbed young Nishimura by the sleeve and threw him onto the ground.
Snow cushioned the fall and Nishimura was uninjured. He never uttered a word of protest. A few weeks later, a Japanese-American was shot and killed at that same gate.
“I figure the manager back at Poston warned the guards at Tule Lake that I was a troublemaker. They tried to provoke a reaction. I’m glad I didn’t fall for that, or I might have been killed right there.”
There were frictions in the camps. Once, a “riot” broke out when internees thought that “anglos” were stealing the camp’s supplies of sugar to sell on the black market.
In another incident, guards tried to disperse a group of young men protesting near the entrance in solidarity for a fellow internee who had served in the U.S. Army during World War I. The guards fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. “Gee, that didn’t turn out the way they planned,” Nishimura remembered. “The wind was blowing the wrong way. You should have seen those guards run!”
Eventually, Nishimura and others were declared undesired aliens and transferred to a camp in Santa Fe.
“That was the best thing that happened to us during the war,” Nishimura recalled. “The camp operated under the Geneva Convention, overseen by representatives of the Spanish government. They protected us. For the first time, we felt safe. The guards would wave at us. If we were playing baseball and hit a home run out of the compound, a guard would climb down from his tower and retrieve the ball for us.”
When atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war ended, but Nishimura and other “troublemakers” were not released from confinement until two years later. His citizenship had been revoked and there was a real possibility that he would be deported to post-war Japan, to a country and culture he had never known.
Then, one day, a decree came down that people like Nishimura would not be deported if they wanted to stay in the United States. “Wow, my attitude towards this country changed 180 degrees that day,” he said. “That announcement brought tears to my eyes. I thought, after all this, they still want me! This country really has a heart!”
Since that day, Nishimura looks at citizenship much differently than he did as a youth. “Before the war, I didn’t think much about it. It was my birthright. I took citizenship for granted. Now I treasure my being American as a precious gift.”
In spite of Nishimura’s about-face concerning his experiences during the 1940s, he didn’t start telling people about his time in the internment camps until more than 50 years had passed. Before then, he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. He didn’t feel comfortable telling his story, and audiences didn’t seem particularly ready to hear it, even after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided restitution and apology.
Reagan’s words at the signing of the Act in1988 are worth noting. “What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment to equal justice under the law.”
Nishimura’s difficulty in speaking about this painful period was common. John Tateishi, who headed efforts to gain support for a public gesture of apology to interned Japanese Americans, remembers, “It was one of the toughest experiences I’ve ever had - hearing one person after another talk about how hard it was. It was the only time I’ve ever seen Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) men cry in public.”
As Herman Wouk, in “War and Remembrance,” wrote, “the end of war begins with its remembrance.”
And for many, sharing their stories – remembering what they went through so others don’t have to share the same fate – marked the start of healing.