Japanese American Oral Histories for "The Good War"


by David Kim

We are in his basement. It is just one massive archive of history. Albums and albums of pictures. In addition, he has papers, documents, slides, and even a presentation covering the Japanese American experience in World War II.

He is 81 years old and retired. Walter has a taste for melodrama and storytelling.

Before the start of the war, I had recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a public health degree. At that particular time, the public health program only accepted twenty students per year, and I was the twentieth. The only oriental to graduate from school that particular year in 1941.

All students who wanted to work in the public health department in the state of California required an internship in public health laboratories, administration, etc. Nineteen of these graduates, all caucasian received their appointments to work at various health departments in the state of California. (Pause.) I was denied.

It was interesting in that particular time. We all knew each other, the twenty of us, because it was a close-knit class. One of the students asked me, "Which health department are you going to?" I said, "I'm not going nowhere." Then he says, "Well, did you talk to Dr. Lucas? Why don't you go see her?" "No, it's a waste of time," I said. "No, go see her," he said. So I did.

Her answer was, "Mr. Miyao, you are Japanese. I can't provide you a job." So I needed training in a field medical laboratory, health department, or any alternative I had at the time. (Pause.) So I signed up for the US Army Medical Corps.

Now this was before World War II began. (Note: Also before he joins the Army.) I needed some sort of training in order for me to get some sort of a job. Well, I graduated in May 1941. I heard something about an opening at the Sacramento county hospital.

A dollar a day. Well, thirty dollars a month. That's what they paid me. Now the same laboratory, hired another UC Berkeley student who flunked a class in the school of public health. She was making a hundred and fifty dollars a month. She happened to be caucasian. I was the only non-white.

The type of thing I was doing was washing petri dishes. Menial work. So I was wasting my time. So I say, "I think I might as well join the service." October 1941.

So I went from Presidio California to Texas where I got training for the medical corps. From there, I was sent to the field hospital laboratory in Little Rock Arkansas. I was there from '41-'43. I was then transferred to Fort McClellan Alabama. Fort McClellan was a training center for (Slow and deliberate.) four-four-two. There were over a thousand Japanese American soldiers training at Fort McClellan.

When I was in Texas being trained, there were I don't know how many Japanese in that training center. All of us who were Japanese soldiers could not be on guard duty because the army was afraid we might sabotage. That's how it was. Here they recruit us and put us in the army, but yet, they don't trust us. Even to become a guard.

At Fort McClellan, I was being trained from the medical corps to infantry. I suppose I wasn't up to par so they told me to get out. So I did. They discharge me. This was in 1944.

Now the Army regulations states that every soldier being discharged will be sent to the area where you were recruited from. And that happened to be California. I came from Florin California or Sacramento county. Now what did you think happened to me? I was restricted. I couldn't go back to my house. With my own money, I paid my train fare from California to Denver to Amache relocation center!

Now let's go back again before I graduate from the University of California. Florin, historically for Japanese, has significant connotations. We had a couple thousand Japanese in the Florin area. We had a Buddhist church, Christian church, Japanese school, and a PUBLIC school.

The public school in Florin, you may never believe it was the only one in the whole USA, was a segregated school. Florin East Grammar School. A hundred percent Japanese. Florin West Grammar School which was a half mile apart was all caucasian and mexican. So you could see there was already prejudice toward the Japanese in California.

So you can just imagine why my professor (Dr. Lucas) did not appoint me a job. I don't know whether she was racist or not. I have no idea. Regardless, I could not fit in the California society as a working person.

I know another fella during that particular time, graduated from UC Berkeley as a mechanical engineer. He applied for a job at a airplane manufacturing company in California. He was denied. So you know what he said? "The US deny me a job, I deny joining the army." This was around June 1941. He refused to sign up for the army. And he was right. If the US wants to put him in the army, why can't he work in a factory? Because they couldn't trust him. Well, what about the army? He could just as well shoot you in there.

When I was at Fort McClellan in March or April of 1944, there was a meeting over a Japanese soldier. The leader of some of the Japanese soldiers was circulating a petition. The petition was to Franklin Roosevelt and the general at Fort McClellan. If they let us go home from where we came from when the war was over, we would fight for the US army. That was a simple request. Neither the president nor the general answered our request. (Raises his voice in preparation for the headline.)

Every morning we assemble before breakfast, and the command was "forward march" to the mess hall. About seven hundred of us refused to move out of a thousand. Those seven hundred, and I was one of them, were sent to the rig or jail because the JAP refused to fight and disobeyed commands. Thus, you can see the Aniston newspaper: JAP SOLDIER REVOLT AGAINST US GOVERNMENT. That was the big headline in Aniston. You can check the newspaper of 1944. I think around July.


After the interview, Walter was ready to give his presentation on Japanese internment. He had visited high schools with a plethora of slides and an equally abundant enthusiasm. Walter began by playing the accompanying soundtrack (actually, an audio tape of his previous presentations) and commencing with the first slide.

From the very beginning, the images captured my attention. In particular, I was very interested in a picture of a Japanese American owned grocery store taken by Walter. There is this big and bold sign laid out for public display across the store window. "I AM AMERICAN."

The presentation did not just consist of photographs. It also included quotes, statistics, and other information. Although the presentation was on Japanese American internment, many of images and even quotes made it personalized and in many respects more powerful.

The quote below was copied verbatim from the screen. After the reading the quote, Walter then asks me, "Who did you think said this?" I shrug and then

"They took my boy to the Army, and now they take my other children to a concentration camp."

---An old farmer, quoted in Alexander Leighton, The Governing of Men

with a pause he answers, "My dad." The old farmer is now given a name. Tokumatsu Miyao.


I did not really get an opportunity to talk to her as much as I would of like it. It was not until her husband told me of her internment camp experience that I was made aware of her past.

"I never really talked to my kids about it. Just little tidbits."

I happened to be coming back from the hospital because I had Scarlet fever. As soon as I came through the door, they were ready to leave for Tule Lake. We were transported to trains which took us to Tule Lake. Our first big camp in Northern California. I stayed there for eighteen months.

Could you describe the living quarters?

They were army barracks. Barren. Bland and dust everywhere. We had nothing in our rooms. Just cots. With a couple blankets. That's it. We had a stove with a big iron pot-belly in the middle of the room. And during the cold, there would be black smoke, and everything would be black as well.

Our family had two rooms. Most of the families had one room. We had more kids than them and younger ones. Eight. So that was nice.

The people who had to repatriate had to go to Tule Lake so we had to go out to the Little Rock Arkansas area. There were two camps there called Rohwer and Denson. We were in Denson.

As a young person, I had fun. People would laugh at me when I said that. But I didn't think it was a big deal. My parents didn't have the same attitude. They didn't think it was fair to be uprooted like that away from their home. Their attitude was altogether different.


One time, both camps came together and had a big talent show in the middle of this big field or something. We had talents from all over. Whatever they did, most of them were singers.

Did you do anything?

Oh no, no, no... I was just out there watching.

My husband was stationed in Little Rock Arkansas in the army. From Little Rock to that camp was one hundred miles by train. It kind of worked out nicely. I just stayed there a couple of weeks.

How did you get out of camp so quickly?

We got married in camp. The wedding was just the ceremony. It was very simple. I got out of the camp and found a job in Little Rock. I found a job working for a family, taking care of couple little girls.

How did you meet your husband?

His parents lived in the same block. I was a friend with his sister and she introduced me to him. Everything worked out fine. We got married that one week he was there.


I had first met him at a recreation of the Fred Korematsu trial. He played the role of Korematsu. This was on February 20, a day after the National Day of Remembrance.

He is a very articulate man and has obviously thought a great deal about Japanese American history and memory.

I was born in 1926 so I'm 72 now. I first entered an internment camp when I was 16. I was born in California but had lived in Japan six years prior to the war.

A lot of Japanese Americans and everybody else had trouble getting jobs because it was the Depression years. Minorities, of course, were having worse times. So a number of Japanese Americans who graduated from college at that time couldn't find jobs in the country. Then, they start writing back. "Hey this is not my country. I don't know the language and the lifestyle is so different and so on." So our parents got worried that if we have to find jobs in Japan that maybe we should get a headstart. So my parents sent my older brother and me to Japan for that purpose. So I was in Japan for six years prior to the war. As the war scare became quite clear, we came back to be with the rest of the family. We were put into camp on May 9th, 1942 to an assembly center in Tanforan which was a race track.

Being young at a high school age, we didn't know for sure what hit us. In war, these kind of things happen. So while we were anxious, we weren't that troubled about it as we are now, as we reflect upon it. At that time, those of us who were young didn't fully understand the implications of internment. In the 1940 census, the median age for Japanese Americans was fifteen. That's how young we were. So in way, we weren't aware of our civil rights or that sort of thing. So our first impression of camp was a little bit of anxiety and excitement all mixed together. Not knowing what's going to happen to us. I'm sure it troubled our parents greatly because their livelihoods were taken away. We youngsters didn't quite feel as badly as you might imagine from hindsight.

In Tanforan race track, fortunately, we were put into newly built tar-papered barracks. Very simple barracks that were built inside the track. However, a large number of people were put into the horse stalls that were used by the racehorse owners. I had friends and relatives in there. It smelled like manure. (Laughing.) It was bad in that sense. In contrast to what they had to go through, we had it made as it were.

The Loyalty Oath

Well, that came about in 1942 towards the end of the first year of internment. I think what happened was the thinking of the government especially the war department was that they saw the war battalion 442nd. Great soldiers from Hawaii. "Gee there are a lot of those same kind of people behind barb wires. Why don't we tap that manpower?" Also, there was a shortage of labor on the farms for food and sugar beet production in particular. So they instituted a clearance system and called it registration. They wanted our background and asked the two infamous questions: Would you bear arms in defense of the United States? Would you forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan?

Some of us took issue to those questions. First one, yeah if you treat us like Americans as we are, then we'd willingly volunteer, but you have to treat us that way first. Then the second question about forswearing allegiance to the emperor assumes we have sworn allegiance to the emperor. We argued that they should withdraw that kind of a question.

They said if you are loyal, then you should be able to answer yes-yes. We answered no-no so they sent us off to Tule Lake. My brother and I were the only ones in our family to have answered no-no. The rest of the family decided to come with us. See in my family we had eight children and the parents so we wanted to stay together. From Tule Lake, those who answered yes-yes were moved to different camps. So Tule Lake became a segregation center for divided loyalties.

At Tule Lake, I met my high school teacher. She and her husband had given up their teaching jobs because they did not agree with how Japanese Americans were being treated. They had a lot of students of Japanese descent, and they objected to what the government had done to us with Executive Order 9066. So in protest , they gave up their jobs and volunteered to teach in Tule Lake.

She was in my homeroom, English, and American history class. And that's where she told us why she was there and told us that we shouldn't be there telling us it was a violation of the Constitution. That's when I really understood something was wrong. Having lived in Japan under militarism, I didn't understand what democracy and the Constitution were all about. It was a very enlightening experience for me. She made a difference in my understanding of what the camp incarceration meant for us individually, to Americans, and to American history.

What was her name and what exactly did she teach you?

Sure I can. Margaret Gunderson. She was a tall, powerful redhead. Very fiery and spoke very convincingly. She told us, as American citizens, not to give up. Even though you are behind barb wire fences, you are responsible to fight for your civil rights. And it rings true today. Each generation has to fight for justice and equality for all without exception. She use to tell us that the denial of justice and equality to one group is the denial by extension to the rest of us.

On Korematsu.

When I was in camp, I was not familiar with Korematsu. When I was asked to participate last week, I had met Korematsu and Ibayshi recently after the war. During the war, I didn't hear anything about them. I'm not sure why. I can surmise. You see the politically correct reaction was the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) that said as loyal Americans we willing go into camps without protest even though we are a civil rights organization. Given that climate, I'm just surmising why it is we didn't hear anything about Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yatsui, and Endo. That was something not to be admired at that time. The Japanese Americans were naive essentially. That's why those four or five people who resisted at that time which was the politically incorrect thing to do, I admire them for having the conviction and courage to resist.

The no-no boys all got labeled as resisters, but we were a sore of quiet resisters. We answered no-no, but that was it. Those people in Heart Mountain, the Wyoming camp, these were people subject to the draft. They had a choice to make. They are resisters. I don't consider myself a resister. No-no boys are generically considered as resisters. In a sense, we are resisters but not in the same sense as the people in Heart Mountain who stood up to the government who tired to draft them. So I don't consider myself a resister, just a no-no boy. (Laughing.)

Then, when did you first resist or speak out?

I spoke about the camp publicly for the very first time in 1988 right here in campus. Some Asian American students learned that I was in camp so they asked if I was willing to participate in a panel discussion about the internment. I agreed. I had been asked in the 70s, but I declined. I still couldn't put it all together. But finally, in 1988, that was the first year we celebrated Martin Luther King's birthday.

In 1988, there was a bunch of Japan and Asian-American bashing on campus. They say things like go back to where you came from. I used to say, "If they ever say that to me, sure give me a ticket. I'll go back to California." (Laughs.) I feel strongly about the need to talk about the internment. Basically, it's been sort of an under the rug history.

One could be cynical about it of course. But at least in this country, we consider the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as sacred. Sure, the Supreme Court erred in its judgment, but at least there was a debate. If somebody raises the question in regards to the constitutionality of how certain groups of people are treated, then we have a recourse to appeal. Many countries don't have that. In this country, civil rights is an issue. Not a given. That's why Margaret Gunderson told us that every generation has to fight.


Do you feel America has properly apologized to Japanese Americans?

Well, we all got twenty thousand dollars. But it is unfortunate that our parents weren't around to receive it because they were the ones that really suffered. Half of those interned were gone in 1989, most of them were our parents who suffered the most. In that sense, I feel bad that our parents' generation did not benefit. More importantly, however, there is a statement of apology on the Congressional Record. That's important that it goes in the books. America admitted that it did something wrong. That is important.

How do you think the Japanese American experience be remembered?

I was invited to speak at this Tule Lake reunion. They had built a monument ther