MARCH 2006: Home
The Stolen Years: Part Two Print
Written by Tom Griffin   
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The Stolen Years: Part Two
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Ruby Inouye Shu
Ruby Inouye Shu
It was a crazy world. While Gordon Hirabayashi was in jail and his parents and fellow Japanese Americans were in camps—UW student Hiro Nishimura was in the U.S. Army. He had been drafted shortly after Pearl Harbor, before the military secretly started excluding any Japanese Americans from conscription. In the spring of 1942, he was stationed with other Nisei at a camp in Little Rock, Ark.

Nishimura was afraid he’d be assigned to menial work (a common Army treatment of African Americans), but he got a break. “They realized they needed linguists to fight the war in the Pacific,” he says. In January 1943, Nishimura got Japanese language training and was sent to the British Army’s HQ in New Delhi. He spent two years translating captured documents and interrogating POWs in India and Burma.

On his way to India, Nishimura stopped off at a camp to say good-bye to his parents. The most bizarre experience, he recalls, was coming to the camp in uniform and being processed by white soldiers wearing the same uniform. Holding rifles, they opened the gates that let him pass through the barbed-wire fences. “I wondered if they would let me out,” he recalls.

Kenji Okuda described his initial camp experience in a letter to his good friend, Norio Higano. “Here I am, and I’ve been for almost the last two weeks, sitting on my haunches in the ‘assembly center’—what a name—at Puyallup watching the days roll by. Hell, what a feeling! Cooped in by a fence with armed guards patrolling outside and submachine guns in the watch towers, powerful search lights playing in the area between the barracks and the fence, watched by armed guards the moment we leave to go to another camp—what a mess!”

When Gordon Hirabayashi was arrested, the FBI interviewed him about his activities and found that he had also violated the curfew. To strengthen the case, the federal attorney charged Hirabayashi with a curfew violation as well as failing to register for the internment camps.

It would take five months to go to trial. His defense committee hired Frank Walters, a member of the American Legion from a large, respectable firm. They prepared their case carefully, focusing on the internment charges and not the curfew violations. Walters warned Hirabayashi that the trial in district court would almost certainly end in conviction, and that the constitutional issues would be heard in the appeals process.

One of the facts that the federal attorney needed to prove was that Hirabayashi was of Japanese ancestry. So a week before the trial, Gordon found a new inmate in the jail—his father. “In the dim night lights, I saw this big officer and a guy about half his size. ‘Hey! That’s my dad!’ I said.”

His parents were held in the Tule Lake camp in California, but the government brought them both up for the trial. His father was supposed to testify that Gordon was his son and of Japanese ancestry. While they were in Seattle, the government insisted on following the exclusion orders. Both parents would have to spend their days in jail until the trial, even though their only “crime” was being Japanese.

But the jail time for his mom and dad turned out better than expected. His dad was proud of the fact that Gordon was “mayor” of the holding tank. And they could meet some of their son’s friends. During the trial, Hirabayashi’s supporters wanted to hold a dinner for him and his parents at Eagleson Hall. At first the government agreed, but when they found out how many were planning to attend, they canceled Hirabayashi’s pass for “security reasons.” Instead, he could join his parents and a few supporters at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

Jacson Street 1942
Seattle’s Jackson Street is desolate after the May 1942 internment of Japanese Americans. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Gordon had seen his mother only once after she arrived at the jail. He waited with the other men for her to be brought down from the women’s holding tank. “When Mom came down, she looked like a queen!” he later recalled. “She had her first professional hair-do, wore cosmetics and had her fingernails painted. She looked like a million! The women in jail had really taken care of her. They had really fixed her up for the dinner party.”

His mother turned to her son and said, “I don’t know what those women are charged with, but I never in my life saw such warmhearted people.”

The trial was brief. Hirabayashi’s dad told the jury he had come to the U.S. in 1909 and pointed out his son. Gordon also took the stand, stating it wasn’t necessary to call on his father. “I am of Japanese ancestry, but I don’t see any connection between that and the reason for which this order was established. … I was never accused of being a spy or a danger for sabotage.”

Before the jury left the courtroom, the judge gave explicit instructions. “You are only to decide this: Is he of Japanese ancestry? Did he move out when he was supposed to, from this excluded zone? He is not on trail for espionage or sabotage,” the judge said. It took the jury only 10 minutes to render a guilty verdict.

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