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Internment Camps: Another Day of Infamy

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Good morning. It’s February 19, a date which will live in Oval Office infamy.

Two weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the forced relocation of persons of Japanese descent living on the West Coast – most of them naturalized or American-born citizens – into wartime internment camps.

The rationale cited in Executive Order 9066 was espionage, but the true causes were wartime hysteria, rampant racism, and longstanding jealousy over the commercial and agricultural success of Japanese immigrants (Issei) and their descendants, the Nisei (second-generation) and Sansei (third-generation).

From Washington state to Arizona, some 120,000 innocent people were rounded up under this order. The hypocrisy of the entire program was underscored by the fact that in the Hawaiian islands, where there actually were Japanese spies living in the population, no mass roundup occurred: There were simply too many Japanese-Americans in Hawaii.

It took two generations for the U.S. government to officially apologize for this notorious chapter in American history.

Every one of the 120,000 Japanese residents and Japanese-American citizens rounded up in 1942 had a sad story. Many sold their homes, shops, and farms at fire-sale prices; others were taken out of school and workplaces; some bade tearful goodbyes to friends, neighbors, and even loved ones.

Among most young men in the Japanese community, both in Hawaii and on the mainland, the first impulse was to enlist in the military. Here, too, they were thwarted.

Honolulu-born pre-med student Daniel Inouye got around this prohibition by serving as a medical volunteer. In 1943, when the ban was lifted, he promptly enlisted in the all-Nisei 442nd, Regimental Combat.

This unit initially had trouble cohering: the culture shock between the free-wheeling Hawaiian-born “Buddheads” and the men from the mainland whose families were still incarcerated was too great. Rigorous training brought the soldiers together, however, and after George C. Marshall personally inspected the 442nd it was dispatched to the battlefields of Europe.

The regiment’s motto was “Go for Broke!” and in Italy, France, and Germany they lived up to it. Of the 14,000 men who served under the banner of the 442nd, 680 were confirmed killed in action, with another 67 missing, and many more wounded. The unit -- 4,500 at full strength and constantly being reinforced – was one of the most decorated in the war. It was awarded a total of 9,486 Purple Hearts.

Dan Inouye, not yet 20 years old when he went into combat, lost his right arm in battle, but remained in the military until 1947, retiring from the U.S. Army – but not American public life – as a captain. After Hawaii gained statehood, he became its first member of Congress. Two years later, he became a U.S. senator.

Sacramento-born Roberto Takeo Matsui, a third generation Sansei, was only 6 months old when his family was ordered into the camps. Fifty years later, he would still get tears in his eyes and a catch in his voice when recalling what it meant to his mother to be treated like a criminal during World War II. Worse than a criminal, really: no one sent to the relocation camps was ever given a trial.

Matsui grew up, went to UC-Berkeley, then law school, entered politics as a Sacramento city councilman. Elected to Congress in a special election in 1978, he is remembered as a quiet but determined man of utter and consistent decency.

Bob Matsui died eight years ago at age 63. Soon thereafter, his wife Doris ran in another special election, and was elected. She, too, was a child of the relocation camps – literally – having been born in southwestern Arizona’s Poston War Relocation Center, the largest of the internment camps. Doris Matsui represents California’s 6th Congressional District to this day.

It may seem incongruous, but there were many uplifting stories from the internment camps besides babies being born. My favorite involves two Boy Scouts who were 11 yearsold when they became fast friends in the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo.

One of them was an internee from San Jose, Calif., named Norman Yoshio Mineta. The other was a lanky white kid from nearby Cody named Alan Simpson.

The Nisei scoutmasters, trying to keep things as normal as possible for their young charges, decided to host a jamboree and invited the nearby troop. The kids from Cody balked, but their scoutmaster insisted.

Once inside the barbed-wire gates, they intermingled, as boys will do. For reasons neither of them could ever quite explain, young Norm Mineta and young Alan Simpson hit it off immediately.

Their alliance was rekindled in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. Simpson arrived as a Republican senator from Wyoming. Mineta was already here, one of the stars of the fabled “Watergate” class of House Democrats elected in 1974.

Together, with help from Inouye, Matsui, and many others, the two men worked for a decade on passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It compensated all the survivors of the internment camps with $20,000 in a tax free payment – hardly enough – along with an official apology.

It was signed into law on Aug. 10, 1988 by President Reagan, who made a point of mentioning the tribulations of Norm Mineta and his family. As Mineta watched solemnly from the audience, the president described how the Minetas were taken from their homes in San Jose, sent by train to Santa Anita Racetrack, where they showered in the paddocks, and then shipped to Heart Mountain where the entire family lived in a one-room shack.

“The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained,” Reagan said. “Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, 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 as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

The president also paid homage to the famed Nisei regiment, focusing on the central injustice: “The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation,” he noted. “Yet back at home, the soldiers' families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.”

After serving with distinction for two decades in the House, Mineta served in the cabinet of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He was secretary of transportation on 9/11. Dan Inouye, who won his 9th Senate term in 2010 at age 86 – and promptly vowed to run again in 2016 – passed away two months ago.

But a year earlier, at a dedication ceremony at the reconstituted Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, both Mineta and Inouye were featured speakers. Mineta said that the center would be a cautionary reminder “that history always has the ability to repeat itself.”

Inouye suggested that although the 1988 law passed by Congress and signed by Reagan was long overdue, it was still something that should make Americans proud.

“Very few nations are strong enough to admit they’re wrong,” Inouye said that day. “America is strong enough, and we did so.”

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