From the Archive
Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.
May 2008 - Vilified, Ostracized, Determined: Draft Resisters of Conscience
Heart Mountain resister Frank Emi, 1944. (from denshopd-p122-00003)
"That is my individual feeling. I don't feel that it should be left to some one else."
Nearly sixty-five years have passed, but hard feelings have not about an agonizing aspect of the Japanese American incarceration. On May 10, 1944, a federal grand jury issued indictments for draft evasion to sixty-three young men from the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, War Relocation Authority camp. While the Heart Mountain group were not the only draft resisters of conscience in the camps -- there were over 300 in all -- they were the most organized, publicized, and thus most remembered for choosing prison rather than reporting for service as second-class citizens.
How the military classified men of Japanese descent shows the stages of suspicion exhibited by the U.S. government. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department refused to let Japanese Americans enlist and discharged many already in the service. (The Military Intelligence Service Language School and 100th Battalion of Hawaii were exceptions.) Draft-age Nisei on the West Coast found themselves imprisoned in camps by summer 1942, assumed disloyal because of their race. Then in January 1944 -- in what some saw as adding unpardonable insult to injury -- the War Department began drafting Japanese Americans detained behind barbed wire. To report for combat duty, young Nisei men passed military sentries guarding the camp gates. As they went off to defend democracy, their parents and siblings remained on the other side of the fence.
Over 30,000 Nisei joined the military service and many fought in brutal combat with the 100th Battalion and 442nd Combat Regimental Team. The government had created the segregated Japanese American infantry unit to counter Japanese propaganda about discrimination inflicted on citizens of Japanese heritage. The move was supported by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) as a way for Japanese Americans to show their patiotism. Over 1,000 Nisei volunteered directly from the incarceration camps, seeking to prove their loyalty and perhaps win release for their parents and siblings. But some balked at the notion of fighting and dying for a government that unjustly treated them as criminals rather than citizens.
Frank Emi stepped up as a leader of Heart Mountain's Fair Play Committee:
Early in January 1944, the army had decided to apply the draft into the concentration camps at more or less the suggestion of the Japanese American Citizens League. ...And when we heard about this, it was really unbelievable. We didn't think that the government would really apply the draft into the camps on the same basis as the free people on the outside… So when this came up, the Fair Play Committee… took it up and we started to hold mass meetings in the camp….And the third meeting, the third bulletin we issued was the one that became controversial because up to this point we had been informational and some of us decided we should take a stand and come right out and say that we're against this until our rights were clarified and our constitutional rights were restored… and we came out with the resolution that, "We hereby refuse to go to the draft if and when we are called," in order to contest the issue.
An FBI report preserved in the Densho Digital Archive contains the third bulletin of the Fair Play Committee (FPC), including the lines, "We are not being disloyal. We are not evading the draft. We are all loyal Americans fighting for JUSTICE AND DEMOCRACY RIGHT HERE AT HOME."
"Loyal" is not how most of their fellow incarcerated Japanese Americans described the resisters. Community leaders accused them of casting a bad light on detainees seeking to gain the government's trust. The Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp newspaper, urged compliance with government orders and denounced the FPC for "lacking both moral and physical courage." The JACL virulently condemned the resisters and the FPC as being un-American.
As a husband and father of two small children, Emi was not himself likely to be drafted. Nevertheless he took a moral stand. When questioned before his arrest by a War Relocation Authority officer named W.J. Carroll, Emi revealed his strong convictions:
Carroll: What are the requirements to be a member of the Fair Play Committee?
The first sixty-three Heart Mountain resisters were tried and convicted of draft evasion in June 1944. More from Heart Mountain and other WRA camps followed them into federal penitentiaries. They served an average of three years. Emi and the other FPC leaders, along with sympathetic journalist James Omura, were also charged with conspiracy to encourage draft evasion. Omura was let off, but the FPC leaders were imprisoned at Leavenworth until they successfully appealed in 1946. In these trials, the courts refused to admit the constitutional defense, ruling only that the men had failed to comply with the draft orders. Emi recalls:
Well, the upshot of the trial was that after I guess maybe a week of it, we figured we had a pretty good case because our attorney was a very sharp constitutional lawyer, presented a very good case. But we heard that one weekend, this Judge Eugene Rice had gone duck hunting with the district attorney who was prosecuting us. So when we heard of that, why, our attorney said, "Well, you know, there goes your case. We'll probably have to take this up to the appellate court." And sure enough, that's what happened. We were convicted and sentenced to conspiracy, counseling others to resist the selective service law. And we were given the sentence of four years in a federal penitentiary. And we appealed that and the attorney had asked the judge to let us out on appeal into the camps, pending the appellate court's decision. But the judge called us... what did he say? "You're agitators, troublemakers," and refused to grant us any bail while the appeal was in process.
A fair trial was hardly to be expected.1 Some remember hearing the judge call them "those Jap boys." Gene Akutsu, a resister from the Minidoka incarceration camp in Idaho, was distressed to learn that he'd been appointed an arch-conservative defense attorney: "Unfortunately, I wound up with a lawyer who was the head of the American Legion. In a private office, the first thing he said was, 'You're a damn fool. I'll be darned if I'm gonna help you at all. You're up on your own, boy.'" Gene was convicted and sent back to his home state of Washington to enter a federal penitentiary. He speaks of the resentment expressed toward the draft protesters upon their release:
They decided that we will be sent to McNeil Island as a group so the entire group of thirty of us was put on a train at Boise and sent to McNeil Island. And as we approached the dock and we'd get into the boat and headed toward the island, I could look back and see …that was Seattle. A year and a half, two years ago because I looked Japanese, they sent me to an internment camp. Here it is, a year and a half later, they bring us back to a place only fifty miles away, put us into a federal penitentiary. Well, I felt bad then. I thought boy, this could never happen...
Another Nisei from Minidoka made the opposite choice when the question of serving arose. Though he was also angry about the violation of his rights, Mas Watanabe explains why he chose to volunteer:
It's very difficult to answer, because you grow up thinking you're a citizen, and you want to be a part of this society you're in, and then the weight of the rejection is something that was pretty unexpected. But when reality sets in, like the "Camp Harmony" and these little shacks in Minidoka, then real negative things start coming to your head, you know. "What the hell is this?" And it, I think it bothered a lot of us tremendously. You try to be a good citizen, you try to do what you're supposed to be doing, and the rejection is very difficult. …And to this day -- well, regardless of what people think -- I think we did the right thing in volunteering after being kicked in the butt….Because gee, if you're going to live here, you've got to be a part of society. You've got to do what is expected of you. And I had no problem volunteering. I don't know which was worse: being locked up in camp or going off to war. In my mind, barbed wires aren't very inviting, being penned up -- I guess we were too independent. I just didn't like being cooped up and looking at barbed wires and guard towers. That just wasn't for me.
While fighting bloody battles in Europe, Mas and his fellow soldiers heard about the draft resisters back home and reacted as might be expected:2
I think what made it rough for us was... we called 'em the "no-no" boys, but we knew most of them quite well, and they were friends. And the timing, I guess more than anything else, was here we're losin' -- it was not just Bako and John, but there was Isao Okazaki, Bill Nakamura, Sat Kanzaki, Matt Tanaka, and a lot of real good friends that we lost. Here the Minidoka is listing those who went to camp prison or something. It was tough from one extreme to the other, and how do you weigh something like that, two entirely opposite philosophies? And I'm sure they thought they were doing what they thought was right, and we sure thought what we were doing was right. So it's just two opposite philosophies that were not melding together. So it's hard to say. I knew at the time we were very bitter, and mad.
In 1947, President Truman pardoned all the Japanese American draft resisters. The Japanese American community did not. For decades the 300 men-and often their extended families--were denounced and ostracized. Only in May 2002, after years of contentious debate, did the JACL in a public ceremony finally apologize for their vilification of the resisters during the war and acknowledge the principled stand the resisters took.
A voice from outside the Japanese American fold, oral historian Art Hansen, gives his opinion of the resisters' place in history:
I think what the Heart Mountain resisters and the Fair Play Committee did was to take such an unpopular sort of action. When you figure this is a reviled ethnic minority who are penned into a concentration camp…the principal perceived enemy being of the same ancestry, this being in the throes of wartime and even having the leadership of their own community enjoining them to cooperate. To then in the face of this amassed power and socialization, to say no. And the important thing they did is the same thing as James Omura, they said no. And they were willing to pay the price that saying no meant. And it's a price that wasn't only paid in going to a penitentiary, but a price that was paid later on by finding themselves victimized by their own community after the camp experience. Why would they do it? Because there was a higher price and a higher sort of reward. …And I think this is the thing that reverberates now through not only the Japanese American community but throughout the mainstream community; that these people are well on their way to becoming recognizable American heroes. And I think in some quarters they already are but their heroism will only grow.
1. One exception was the group of Nisei resisters from Tule Lake Segregation Center. Twenty-six Nisei men were charged with draft evasion but not convicted. Judge Louis E. Goodman of the Northern District of California dismissed the charges, stating that prosecuting them for refusing the draft was "shocking to the conscience," and a violation of due process. Following the trial, the men were returned to incarceration and the government stopped drafting men from Tule Lake.
2. Mas Watanabe uses the term "no-no boys" for the resisters, as others do. The term more accurately refers to those who answered no to Questions 27 and 28 of a poorly conceived 1943 loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center for the so-called disloyal.
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