Fred Korematsu and Howard Hanamura grew up within five miles of each other in the bay area. Howard’s father was a gardener, Fred’s family ran a flower nursery. Fred was called up in the draft of 1940, but was rejected due to stomach ulcers. Howard attended UC Berkeley, earning a degree in economics. Times were such for Japanese Americans that Howard ended up putting his degree to use working at the Palmolive warehouse as a laborer. And while rejected for combat duty, Fred trained as a welder so he could contribute to the war effort by building ships.
After Pearl Harbor, everything changed for these two young men.
In February of 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the removal of all Japanese Americans from the west coast to inland internment camps.
Lt. General John DeWitt, head of the western defense command at the time, revealed the Strangelove-ian logic behind the move: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” What would he have done had their been actual sabotage on the coast? Put the Japanese up in Malibu beach houses?
So how did Fred and Howard deal with this devastating blow to themselves, their families, and their friends?
Fred defied the order and refused to be deported to the camps. He was picked up on a street corner on May 30, 1942 after being recognized as a “Jap.” He was jailed in San Francisco.
Howard was drafted into the army. After the excellent showing of Japanese American troops from Hawaii, the defense department decided to take a chance on mainland Japanese Americans. So here was Howard, being asked to risk his life and fight overseas while his family was sent to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. He briefly explained his decision: “It was a matter of honor,” and there was great pressure not to “embarrass the family.”
In jail, Fred teamed up with the ACLU, and after several losses and appeals, fought his case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Howard became part of the famous 442 Japanese American battalion, the most decorated battalion in all of American history. These men risked their lives to prove their loyalty to a country that showed them none in return.
Their most famous exploit was the rescue of the “Lost Battalion,” the 36th Lone Star State Division, 211 men who were trapped in a mountainous forest region surrounded by Germans. It was an uphill suicide mission against fifty German marksmen and tanks over cold, rainy, muddy terrain. The men of the 442 led a bonsai charge up the hill anyway, yelling “Hurray! Hurray!” with such daft conviction that the Germans became frightened and lost a bit of their composure. It was still a brutal, bloody slog, but at the end of the day, the stranded Texans were rescued. 800 Japanese American soldiers were wounded or killed in order to save 211 Texans. The math ain’t hard: that’s a cost of 4 men to 1.
On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld Korematsu’s original conviction, noting that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”
At the time of his trials, many Japanese Americans looked down on Korematsu for being a “troublemaker.” By cooperating with the government’s internment orders, they were hoping to prove their loyalty and patriotism.
History, though, was on Korematsu’s side. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The commission concluded the camps were a mistake, a mistake resulting from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
In 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco formally vacated Korematsu’s conviction. Fred rose and addressed the court: “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.” He wasn’t done speaking: “If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese American people.” Guy had moxie.
In 1988, congress did finally apologize, and gave $20,000 to each surviving prisoner. One year before he died, Korematsu spoke out about his concerns over post 9/11 racial profiling: “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the interment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”
After their heroic exploits rescuing the Lost Battalion, public opinion back home slowly began to change about the “Japs.” One North Dakota newspaper gushed, “There are some good Japanese Americans in this country.” 4 to 1. Yeah, I guess there are a few decent ones out there.
In 1963, Howard and his comrades of the 442 were proclaimed “honorary Texans” by the reddest state in the country.
Both of these men oozed honor from their every pore, and both were willing to risk their lives and their freedom to back up their world view. Sure, we’d all jump in front of a bus to save our kid or mom, say, but how many of us would jump in front of that bus to defend an idea? That’s honor.
In their own way, both men chipped away at the wall of prejudice. They just happened to use different tools to do it.
I believe the Japanese have a phrase to describe such men: awesome-big-ass-studs.
(with apologies to the Hanamura family: I couldn’t find pictures of Howard on-line)