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Enduring Communities

Resisting Incarceration in Concentration Camps

On May 8, 1942, I moved from South Palo Alto in Santa Clara County, California, to East Palo Alto in San Mateo County to be with my grandmother, who was then ill.

Between May 9 and September 1943, I was detained at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco. I was angry about being incarcerated on May 9 because that was the day before the high school track and field finals, and here I was about to lose my freedom. When I was at Tanforan, I made many new friends and learned a lot from the Issei (immigrant-generation Japanese Americans ineligible for US citizenship) and Nisei (US-born citizen children of the Issei) in camp. I admired their spirit and learned from their example to be able to take things in stride. I also learned many different crafts such as watercolor painting and wood carving.

In September 1942, because Tanforan was being closed, I was sent for detention to the Central Utah Relocation Center, commonly known as Topaz, located 16 miles west of the town of Delta and 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. At Topaz I worked part-time at the commissary delivering food to the mess halls. In addition, I attend high school and played sports. As I had at Tanforan, I made a lot of new friends my own age at Topaz and was a typical teenager. At school, I not only participated in baseball, along with some football and basketball, but also ran track on the high school team and competed against a high school in Delta.

In February 1943, our family decided to vote No/No to Questions #27 and #28 on the Loyalty Oath administered jointly by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the US Army. Question #27 asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States 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 against any and all attack by foreign of domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization? My father was sixty-two years old and had brothers in the Japanese Navy, so he did not want to go to war against them. I was sixteen at that time. If my father and mother answered Yes to Question #28 and gave up their Japanese citizenship, they would become aliens in the US with no national affiliation, since by law they could not become naturalized American citizens. To me, a No vote was a difficult decision, because in my mind I thought we would be deported from the US to Japan. Another reason was that I would be leaving my friends. Yet loyalty to the family was very important and I went along with the No/No vote. There was, in fact, a big conflict between parents and their children due to cultural differences, but many of the Nisei were obedient and went along with their parents’ decision, even though they didn’t agree with them.

My life at Topaz took a dramatic change following this vote. Some people who were once very good friends suddenly began to avoid me and some of the Issei who used to greet me every day began to turn their backs to me whenever I tried to greet them. Some of my former friends called me disloyal and a traitor. They shunned me and treated me like a leper. I still had a few friends who voted Yes/Yes and I really appreciated their friendship. It is a lonely life to go from having many friends to a few because of a family decision.

Today I understand why the Issei who voted Yes/Yes were unfriendly towards me. It was a matter of survival for them because there were informers in the camp and if the Issei were friendly towards me, they could be reported to the administration by these informers.

From September 1943 to February 11, 1943, I was confined at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, in Newell, California, located just south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, near the California-Oregon border. This was because No/No voters were sent to Tule Lake, which previously had been a “relocation center” like Topaz and the other eight WRA-managed detention facilities.

Most of my memories of Tule Lake are about playing football and baseball and going to high school. I didn’t understand most of the politics at Tule, but nonetheless joined the Hokoku Seinen Dan [Young Men’s Fatherland Group], mainly for their morning exercise program. We would exercise at 6:00 a.m. for about a half hour and the jog around the perimeter of the camp yelling Wash-shoi. One day I was asked by my father to run the mimeograph machine in the office of Hokoku Seinen Dan. Since everything was in Japanese, I didn’t pay too much attention to what was being printed, but later I discovered it was very political. Since then I have learned that you should know and be aware of everything in which you are involved. A lot of events at Tule Lake were blocked from my memory, and it wasn’t until I received my file from the US Department of the Interior (under whose jurisdiction the WRA operated) in July 2000 that I was able to piece together what actually had happened at Tule Lake.

Our family vow was to stay together no matter what the consequences. We requested repatriation to Japan. Rumors began to circulate that both aliens and Kibei (Nisei who received their formative education in Japan) would be separated from the so-called “non-aliens”?Nisei and Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans). The Kibei and the aliens would be repatriated and the non-aliens would remain in the United States. The only way for our family to stay together was for my sister and I to renounce our US citizenship and ask for repatriation along with our parents. This step was necessary because our parents, as earlier noted, could not become naturalized US citizens.

On July 1, 1944, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 405, a measure that had been passed by the 78th Congress. This law amended the Nationality Act, which stated that an American citizen could only renounce their citizenship by applying to a consul abroad. I argued with my father about renouncing my citizenship because I would then become a man without a country. However, to keep peace in the family and to keep the family intact, I renounced my citizenship along with 5,500 other Nisei. When I turned eighteen, I registered for the draft in July 1944, with Local Board #4, in Modoc County, at Newell, California, and was duly classified 4C as an Enemy Alien.

On February 12, 1945, after baseball practice, I went to take a nice long hot shower and when I got back to our barracks room, there were two federal agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in there who ordered me to get dressed. They said that I was under arrest and was being sent to another camp. I was further told that I was being arrested as an enemy alien and was going to Bismarck, North Dakota, to be imprisoned at the DOJ-operated Fort Lincoln Internment Center. No other explanation was given. I was one of 650 men going from Tule Lake to Bismarck. I was eighteen years old. So much for family unity; our family would no longer be together during the duration of our incarceration.

When we got to Bismarck, it was very cold, and so we spent most of the time indoors. We were housed in a three-story brick building and our room had around thirty double-deck beds. I was fortunate to get an upper bed near a window and next to the steam radiator. I learned to carve and paint again. I read a lot and tried to keep active and learn as much as I could from the Kibei and the Issei. I also remember Hans, a German POW, who was a very interesting person. I practiced my German on him and he spoke fluent English. Hans was the same age as I was and we became good friends.

I tried to be active and to keep my spirits high even though I didn’t know what the future held for me. Most of my closest friends were repatriated to Japan. The first group was repatriated on November 21, 1945 (174 men) and the second group on December 26, 1945 (360 men). It became very lonely because I didn’t know what my family was doing. Where were they? Although I received letters from my sister and parents, most of the information was censured. Key sentences or phrases were either cut or blacked out so that I didn’t know what was happening with my family. It was soon after most of my friends were repatriated to Japan that I was interviewed and asked the following questions by an Internal Security Officer at Fort Lincoln (to which I supplied the corresponding answers found below).

Is it your own desire to go to Japan?

Not really. I don’t know the country and I do not know anyone there. I am doing this because I believe my family will be there and I don’t know what their intent is because all of my letters from the family are censored.

Would you be able to survive on your own in Japan?

I think so. I would have to.

What are your long-term goals?

Get a college degree and go from there.

In which country do you think you would be successful: USA or Japan?

USA, because I know the language and would be able to find a job and attend college to get a degree. In Japan I would have to learn the language, then complete the equivalent of a high school degree, and then try to get into a Japanese college.

At the conclusion of our interview, the officer said: "Think very hard about your future, and if you want to stay in the United States, you should request non-repatriation as soon as possible."

At that point I figured that he was telling me that my parents might have changed their minds about repatriation from the censored letters that were written to me. I did not know that my sister had written a letter requesting that I be released from Bismarck to rejoin the family upon their relocation back to Palo Alto, California. After my interview with this officer, I began to think about what was discussed and requested non-repatriation, stating that I wanted to stay in the United States.

My request for non-repatriation was granted on March 5, 1946. I was then transferred, with 186 others, to Santa Fe Internment Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I worked in the laundry to pass the time away and to keep busy. I felt alone.

On May 13, 1946, at 8:30 a.m., I was released from the Santa Fe facility. Five days later, on May 18, I was home, after four years, in Palo Alto.

During my first week home in Palo Alto I met a friend who was happy to see me. We talked about what had happened to each of us since I left Topaz. He invited me to a poker party and said friends from Topaz would be there. There were six people. Two greeted me and shook my hand, while the other four mumbled “hi” and sat down to play poker. This foursome spoke to each other but didn’t say a word to me or even acknowledge my presence. After thirty minutes, I left the poker session. Following that unpleasant encounter, I became very reserved and cautious about meeting people.

It took me awhile, but gradually I began to develop a new circle of friends. Since then most of my friends are from the academic community, Konko Church in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and friends of my wife and children. At the University of California, Berkeley, I was fortunate to share a house with five roommates who were very supportive and taught me to be myself and enjoy life. Also, while I was attending the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, I established friendship with softball and baseball teammates and began to enjoy playing these sports again. My confidence and my trust in people was reestablished. It felt great.

I was angry and bitter for a few years after my incarceration in concentration camps and being shunned by former friends, but my mother and Reverend Fukuda of the Konko Church of San Francisco would always say to me: “It is alright to get angry, but get over it and learn from it, because when you are angry, your mind becomes cloudy and confused and you cannot make sensible decisions. Get over being angry, clear your mind, and learn from this incident and get on with your life.”

Today I have overcome my anger and am at peace with myself.

Mr. Wayne Collins, acting as councilor for the Northern California Civil Liberties Union and serving as the attorney for the renunciants, drafted a letter to US Attorney General Tom Clark in defense of the renunciants. On September 27, 1947, Judge Louis Goodman of the District Court of Northern California delivered an Interlocutory Order that cancelled the renunciations because they were the result of duress, menace, coercion, intimidation, and fraud. He further ordered that the petitioners were native-born citizens of the United States and not subject to deportation.

* Hideo Yonenaka was one of the panelists in a presentation titled “Stories of Resistance: Consciousness, Conscience, and the Constitution” at the Enduring Communities National Conference on July 3-6. 2008 in Denver, CO. Enduring Communities is a project of the Japanese American National Museum. 

© 2008 Hideo Yonenaka

Bismarck concentration camps No-no santa fe Tanforan Topaz tule lake

About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.