Yosh Kuromiya, one of the Heart Mountain Resisters, was one of the speakers at the Japanese American National Museum's LIVING HISTORY Program on Saturday. He was kind enough to send us the text of his speech and gave us permission to post it here on this blog:
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE (text by Yosh Kuromiya, one of the members of the Fair Play Committee and one of the Heart Mountain Resisters):
February 19, 1942: a day that should live in infamy. It was the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066 allowing military authorities to exclude anyone from anywhere without trial nor hearings. It led to the removal of all Japanese Americans, citizens and aliens alike, from the West coast and into concentration camps in the interior of our country. We lost our businesses, our possessions, our homes, our friends and neighbors. However, it was neither the material losses nor the physical deprivation that was so devastating. It was the humiliation that was the most demoralizing and had the most lasting effect.
I was 19 years old and had just started Pasadena Junior College as an art major. I had no interest in social or political issues. I had learned to accept racial prejudice and unfair discrimination as a matter of course—something we could do nothing about and must learn to live with. I was taught not to make waves.
We were first sent to an “assembly center” at the Pomona Fair grounds. Later we were shipped by train to the badlands of Wyoming. They called it Heart Mountain. The mountain was there, but the heart would be forever elusive. There were over ten thousand Japanese faces in this concentration camp and we knew there were over a hundred thousand more in nine other similar camps scattered within the bowels of America—Land of the Free. Our world had shrunk to the one-mile square confines of a barbed wire fence. Our family name was replaced with a family number. Something was seriously amiss.
Then came the final blow. While still confined with our civil rights suspended, we were required to serve military duty in a racially segregated combat unit: This, while our parents are held as hostages in the concentration camps to insure our military performance overseas. It was hailed by some in the camp as a wonderful opportunity to prove our loyalty. Due to the lack of protest, the issue of constitutional abuses by the government had been reduced to a question of my loyalty??! It was time to set my sketchpad aside and face reality.
The Heart Mountain 63 bears the distinction as the only organized draft-resistance group of all the ten camps. This is largely attributable to the pre-existence of the Fair Play Committee, (the FPC); a group formed a year earlier in 1943, as a forum to address civil rights issues resulting from our unwarranted abduction and detention.
My initial purpose in attending the FPC meeting was to elicit information about the moral and legal justification for our continued detention without hearings nor trial. I was also seeking what recourse we might have when, while still under such duress, we are ordered to fulfill the same military obligations as citizens enjoying the freedoms denied us. It was after our keepers, the War Relocation Authority, would provide no answers and would only remind us of the dire consequences of disobeying government orders that we, as a group, voted to individually ignore the notices to report for pre-induction exams in order to contest the issue in a court-of-law. I don’t know how many members decided to comply with the orders, rather than risk a term in prison, but 63 including myself did resist, and we had our test case.
On the very first day of our trial, Judge Kennedy addressed the 63 of us as “You Jap boys—”. We knew then, that things would not go well for us. It was apparent, Judge T. Blake Kennedy, a self-professed racist, would be happy to rid his great State of Wyoming of this scourge the federal government had foisted on them, by catapulting us into the prisons of some other state—perhaps somewhere back to the West Coast. Prosecuting Attorney Carl Sackett cleverly maneuvered the proceedings into the narrow issue of: “Did we, or did we not, knowingly and deliberately, disregard the pre-induction notices for a physical exam?” Of course we did! How else could we publicize our predicament and the un-constitutional imprisonment of our people?
Defense Counsel Samuel Menin persistently questioned the applicability of the Selective Service Law, due to our prior state of incarceration. He failed however, to cite the specific provision in the Selective Service Act of 1940, which would have substantiated his claims. In its section on CLASSIFICATION paragraph 362 it states: “Class IV-F: (a) in class IV-F shall be placed any registrant who: (and under item #5) is being detained in the custody of any criminal jurisdiction or other civil authority”. We were, in fact, being detained by the War Relocation Authority, a civil authority. It would seem the draft board was in violation of the classification procedures in every instance where an internee was classified 1-A (eligible for conscription) instead of IV-F, (ineligible for conscription). Therefore, it seems those inducted into the armed forces from the camps were inducted illegally! This revelation would be especially tragic for those who were inducted reluctantly—and never returned. Perhaps the many monuments memorializing those killed in action have a much more heart-rending story to tell than Japanese America, especially those who promoted military service as a form of ethnic redemption, would care to admit.
Not surprisingly, we were found guilty and were sentenced to three years in prison. An appeal to a higher court was denied. However, after serving two years, we were released on good behavior.
Although most resisters had already served their prison terms, on Christmas Eve of 1947, President Truman granted all draft resisters a Presidential Pardon erasing all criminal records and reinstating full citizenship rights. Whether this was a ploy to forestall potentially costly false imprisonment charges, or a sincere act of benevolence from a government suddenly gone soft, we shall never know. Perhaps there was a Santa Claus, after all.
On the other hand, many of our fellow camp inmates who accepted military service in spite of the unfair conditions seem to harbor a deep hostility toward all resisters, even after over 65 years. This is difficult to understand as it was the questionable legality, the mandatory nature, and the discriminatory features of the induction order that we, of the Fair Play Committee, were alerting all draftees about. Those who had no objection to the unfair conditions could have volunteered, as many did. So why the enduring animosity? ---Perhaps, many fell prey to the ever-present JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) accomodationist propaganda of that era.--- But, that’s a whole different aspect of the wartime experience which deserves an entire conference to explore, once Japanese America reaches the ethical maturity to demand the truth about our own history and stop apologizing for being who we are! Sadly, that day may never come.
In any case, after our experience in WWII, are we still naïve enough to believe our government can do no wrong? Does Japanese America still feel an overwhelming need to “Prove our Loyalty”?
If we are to learn anything from the horrendous experience of our people during WWII, it is that of the fundamental responsibility of every citizen to protect our US Constitution through the exercise of the basic humanitarian tenets our country was founded on. This is not about leadership nor heroism. Nor is it about loyalty to a government which violates citizenship rights under the guise of national security. It is about a citizen’s fundamental obligation to defend the US Constitution when it is threatened by governmental edicts such as Executive Order 9066 and the more recent Patriots Act!
As they say, “All good things in life are free”---but freedom itself, IS NOT FREE!
Yosh Kuromiya January 2010