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July 01, 2014 7:31 am

Heart Mountain Japanese draft resisters’ pain brought to light

Written by Gib Mathers

Irene Kuromiya with her husband, Yosh Kuromiya, attended a reenactment of a trial Thursday night. In the trial 63 Heart Mountain Relocation Center detainees protesting their forced confinement were imprisoned for refusing to report to a draft induction center during World War II. ‘The government treated me as if I were disloyal, without even questioning me or asking me anything about it,’ Yosh Kuromiya testified in 1944. Irene Kuromiya with her husband, Yosh Kuromiya, attended a reenactment of a trial Thursday night. In the trial 63 Heart Mountain Relocation Center detainees protesting their forced confinement were imprisoned for refusing to report to a draft induction center during World War II. ‘The government treated me as if I were disloyal, without even questioning me or asking me anything about it,’ Yosh Kuromiya testified in 1944. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

Guilty until proven guilty seemed to be the verdict for 63 Japanese Americans who resisted the military draft to protest their confinement at Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II.

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation presented a public reading and discussion of “Heart Mountain: Conscience, Loyalty, and the Constitution,” a scripted re-enactment Thursday night in Cody.

Two of the Heart Mountain draft resisters, Yosh Kuromiya and Takashi Hoshizaki, were scheduled to participate, but Hoshizaki was hospitalized that afternoon and could not attend. Kuromiya, 91, of Alhambra, Calif., was there.

He was sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary for resisting the draft.

“It (prison) was more humane than Heart Mountain,” Kuromiya said prior to the trial re-enactment. “At least we knew why we were there.”

Confinement at Heart Mountain boiled down to ethnicity. “It was clearly just a racial issue,” Yosh Kuromiya said.

Loading Japanese families from the West Coast in railroad cars and shipping them to places such as Heart Mountain was war hysteria, he said. It justified the fear that Japanese living on the West Coast would aid a Japanese invasion.

“That also turned out to be false,” Kuromiya said.

Japanese living in the United States had no clue that Japan planned to attack Pearl Harbor. “We were all on the same side,” Kuromiya said. “They adopted this country, at least that was the way it was in my family.”

Irene Kuromiya and her husband were born in the U.S. She said she was pleased the trial re-enactment will bring the then young men’s plight to the public eye.

“It’s a huge story, and I’m glad people are becoming aware,” she said.

After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, resulting in the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to places such as Heart Mountain. From 1942-45, a total of 14,025 people were held at Heart Mountain.

Many Japanese Americans volunteered to aid the war effort, and many Nisei (people of Japanese descent who were born in the United States) volunteered for the military, but were rejected because of their racial background, Ishikawa wrote.

Japanese were ordered to evacuate, and some, like Ishikawa, wound up at Heart Mountain. The national mood was tense and tinged with racism.

U.S. Army Gen. John DeWitt (played by Doug Nelson, foundation member) was succinct in his first line: “A Jap is a Jap.”

Not charged, not free

Japanese Americans placed in camps like Heart Mountain were not accused of any crimes, but were uprooted nonetheless.

“In our present status, we are not free citizens,” Ishikawa wrote. “As a limited rights citizen, I protest my drafting into the Selective Service. I want to be a free citizen enjoying full citizenship status, enjoying all the rights and privileges of an American citizen before I enter the military service.”

Less than two months later, Ishikawa and 62 other Heart Mountain detainees stood before a federal judge pleading not guilty to violations of the Selective Service Act for failure to report to their pre-induction physical, said Narrator 2, Kathy Hirata Chin, the re-enactment co-author.

Narrator 1 was Judge Denny Chin. The Chins authored the presentation, based on court and other documents. 

The Nisei believed the 14th Amendment ensured they were American citizens, said Chin.

They were mistaken, said Hirata Chin.

“The Japanese race is an enemy race,” DeWitt said in the re-enactment. “The fact that no sabotage has yet taken place only makes it more likely that such action will be taken.”

“Just to be clear for all my readers, we should just move them to the Badlands,” said a newspaper columnist played by Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa. “I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

Idaho Gov. Chase Clark (played by Mary Yee, University of Pennsylvania) didn’t want the Japanese in his state unless they were confined to concentration camps, he said.  Some 120,000 people, nearly two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, spent the summer of 1942 in assembly centers, which included horse stables, said Chin.

In 1940, 3,500 Nisei were drafted. Following Pearl Harbor, they were reclassified as aliens ineligible for the draft, said Mike Masaoka, Japanese American Citizens League executive secretary (played by Paul Uyehara of the U.S. Department of Justice).

The delegates passed a resolution asking the federal government to reclassify the Nisei eligible for the draft, said Hirata Chin. On Jan. 1, 1943, Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, ordered the creation of a team of Nisei. Roosevelt approved the all-Nisei unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Hirata Chin said.

But the 442nd was segregated. Nisei only.

Jan. 20, 1944, the War Department announced the Nisei would be reclassified and called for induction. At some camps, many volunteered. At other camps, there was violent opposition.

At Heart Mountain, the Fair Play Committee (FPC) was created to resist the draft, Chin said.

The FPC said they were willing to serve once their civil rights were restored.

There were two trials. The first, the United States vs. Fujii, was known as the mass trial with the 63 Heart Mountain draft resisters. The second was the United States vs. Okamoto, which tried seven Heart Mountain FPC leaders for conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet Heart Mountain resisters, Chin said.

One June 12, 1944, Carl Sackett, United States attorney for the District of Wyoming (played by David Thronson, Michigan State University) represented the federal government. Denver civil rights attorney Samuel Menin (played by Jacquelyn Bridgeman, University of Wyoming) represented the defendants.

“You Jap boys,” was how federal Judge T. Blake Kennedy (played by Doris Ling-Cohan, a New York State Supreme Court justice) addressed the 63.

The government’s strategy was to prove the defendants received pre-induction notices, but failed to report. Menin endeavored to emphasize the injustice and loss of freedom imposed on the defendants and their willingness to serve once their rights were restored, Chin said.

Kuromiya admitted he received his pre-induction notice and did not report as ordered, testified FBI agent Harry McMillen (played by John Housel, a Cody attorney).

“It was not fair,” Kuromiya said sitting in the audience, playing himself. “The government treated me as if I were disloyal, without even questioning me or asking me anything about it.”

“Throughout the entire interview with this particular defendant, he indicated a desire to fight for this country if he were restored his rights as a citizen?” Sackett asked.

“I presume so,” McMillen replied. “There was not one of them who did not.”

A question of citizenship

In Hirabayashi vs. United States in 1943, the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of the curfew law (curfew for Japanese) because of the exigencies of war between the two countries, pointing out the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while Japanese diplomats were negotiating with the State Department, Kennedy said.

Children of Japanese nationals born in the U.S. were recognized by the Japanese Empire as having dual citizenship between Japan and America, wherever their place of birth, according to the Supreme Court ruling. Therefore, they might hold attachment to Japan, and they could not be segregated at a critical hour to relieve a menace to national defense, Kennedy said.

Government-exercised discrimination is justified and legal in a war, he argued. So, the defendants’ refusal to report for pre-induction until their citizenship was clarified is without legal merit, Kennedy said.

“When they were placed in 1-A (a Selective Service designation available for military service) and ordered to report for pre-induction physical examination, their pure American citizenship was established beyond question,” Kennedy said.

If they were truly loyal Americans, they should have embraced their duties to defend the nation. All the defendants are guilty as charged and sentenced to three years, Kennedy said.

In the conspiracy trial, seven members of the FPC, as well as Jimmie Omura, a newspaper columnist who supported the committee, were charged before a grand jury with conspiring to counsel, aid and abet the draft resisters. No jury members were Japanese, Chin said.

Four defendants were sentenced to four years, and the other three to two years, at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. Omura was acquitted, Hirata Chin said.

FPC leader Frank Emi (played by Jack Chin of the University of California), formerly of Los Angeles, was a resident of Heart Mountain. Emi said he learned he was eligible for the draft when he was cross-examined.

He was arrested by a military policeman when he tried to walk out of the camp, held in the military police guardhouse and informed he would be shot if he tried to escape.

PFC leader Minoru Tamesa (Hiroshi Motomura, University of California) testified that, before Dec. 7, 1941, he was ordered to report for a physical and complied. He was ordered to report for a physical again while at Heart Mountain.

“It seemed to me that the Selective Service didn’t mean for me to fight to protect the security and freedom of a barracks room in a concentration camp, or to go to war while my family was still imprisoned in the camp,” he said. “So I didn’t report.

“We wanted the government to clarify our citizenship rights before we joined the military,” Tamesa said. “We thought it was unconstitutional for the government to imprison us and strip us of our rights while simultaneously drafting us to serve and fight for this country. We were willing to serve as soon as our rights were restored.”  

“It is a violation of the law for anyone to counsel another to disobey the draft law or assist or abet one to evade the draft law,” said Judge Eugene Rice (played by Donna Sheen, Wyoming Children’s Law Center) while instructing the jury.

“After a short deliberation, the jury returned a verdict convicting all seven leaders of the FPC of conspiracy,” said a narrator. “Jimmie Omura — the newspaper columnist — was acquitted.”

Rice sentenced four members to four years. The others were sentenced to two years. All were remanded to a maximum security prison in Leavenworth, said a narrator.

Other cases like Heart Mountain’s were brought, with similar results. Gov. Chase was a federal judge who tried resisters from the Minidoka Relocation Center. Thirty-three separate jury trials were held using 34 Idaho residents as jurors, some of whom sat on as many as 11 cases. Defendants who pleaded guilty received 18 months in prison. Defendants who went to trial were fined $200 and sentenced to three years and three months, Chin said.

One group of approximately 100 Japanese American resisters from Arizona was found guilty, but not jailed or fined. No jury members were Japanese, Hirata Chin said.

One federal judge, Louis E. Goodman (played by Eric Muller of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) of the Northern District of California, heard the case of resisters at Tule Lake.

Fearing a lynching, Goodman left his car idling outside while he read his opinion: “It is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty, and then, while under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the armed forces, or be prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion.”

Goodman granted the motion to quash the indictment.

The Heart Mountain resisters appealed.

“If our government cannot trust American citizens of Japanese ancestry so that we can accept them on an equal basis and accord them equal rights, then how can we ask them to fight, and for what do we ask them to fight?” Menin asked. “Is it to fight for a continuation of relocation centers with armed guards and barbed wire?”

‘Only country I have’

On April 29, 1945, the 442nd freed prisoners at Dachau concentration camp, Chin said.

Heart Mountain closed Nov. 10, 1945. Heart Mountain resisters served their prison terms about one year after the end of the war. President Harry S. Truman granted resisters a presidential pardon and restored all their civil and political rights Dec. 24, 1947, Hirata Chin said.

“All told, some 315 Japanese-American men defied the draft in World War II,” Chin said. “They were by far the minority, as the great majority answered their induction orders, reporting to fight for freedom overseas even as they and their families were held in concentration camps.”

“In this climate of hate, many felt the necessity of stepping forward to volunteer for service in the military to prove their loyalty to the United States,” said Daniel Inouye (Shirley Higuchi, American Psychological Association). “However, in this climate of hate, I believe that it took just as much courage and valor and patriotism to stand up to our government and say ‘You are wrong.’”

Inouye volunteered for the 442nd and served with distinction. Inouye later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then to the Senate, serving from 1962 until his death in 2012.

“Later, when some of the resisters were drafted again to fight in the Korean War, they served willingly, for their rights had finally been clarified when President Truman granted them a pardon,” he said.

“What can we take away from the story of the Heart Mountain draft resisters?” Hirata Chin asked. “Perhaps the only true lesson is the need for vigilance.”

Kuromiya said he bears no animosity. “That’s the furthest from my mind to find fault with my country, because it’s the only country I have.”

Rather, Kuromiya said wants to help others understand what happened. The re-enactment represents closure for him, putting the past behind, but also a new beginning as the events so many years ago are brought to the public’s awareness.

“After 70 years, almost to the day, there is a bright light that some people understand,” he said.

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