A “Jap” in Bisbee: A White Man’s Mining Camp: Part II
(Part I saw Takeo laid off from Phelps Dodge in Morenci during the Depression after he witnessed the Bisbee Deportation. He was Japanese in a White Man’s Mining Camp. By all accounts he was welcomed into White society. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor and all Americans of Japanese ancestry were escorted to the interior away from the Pacific coast. If you have not read Part I of Takeo’s Story, here it is.)
The threat of additional attacks on the U.S. mainland, coupled with the racist belief that NO Japanese – whether foreign-born or native-born – could be trusted, prompted President Roosevelt in February 1942 to issue Executive Order 9066, which declared the west coast of the U.S. to be a military zone. Executive Order 9066, along with subsequent Congressional legislation, authorized the removal of all 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from all three states on the west coast and parts of adjoining states (including a large part of Arizona) and their transfer to concentration camps – euphemistically called “relocation centers”- within the interior of the United States.
Takeo had originally hoped to keep his family in California and to protect them from the anger of whites whose prewar prejudice against the Japanese had been stoked to a fevered rage by propaganda and fear of invasion after the Pearl Harbor attack. He arranged with a friend who owned a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, far from the coast, to let them live there. But President Roosevelt’s order had made all of California a prohibited zone to Japanese-Americans.
The promise of sanctuary at Woodlake was only an illusion. But before leaving for internment, Takeo was able to rent out his Sunnyvale home, arrange for the management of his fruit orchards and otherwise settle his affairs. He was wise to do so. Many Japanese-Americans were forced to sell their businesses, homes and personal possessions for pennies on the dollar before being “relocated.”
Sometime during the late spring of 1942, the Shikamuras were ordered to report to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, located at the racetrack in Arcadia, CA. There, they and 18,000 other Japanese citizens and Americans of Japanese ancestry were held under guard and behind barbed wire, housed in horse stalls or hastily-constructed barracks until more permanent facilities could be built deep in the U.S. interior.
In a bizarre coincidence, one of the bakers employed by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (the federal agency created to oversee the roundup of Japanese-Americans on the west coast) at the Santa Anita Assembly Center was Conrado Martinez, who had been forced from his home in Lowell and sent to Columbus, NM by vigilantes during the July 1917 Bisbee Deportation.
In September 1942 Shikamura and his family were sent by train to the Heart Mountain, WY relocation center, where some 12,000 Japanese citizens and Americans of Japanese ancestry were to be kept until they were no longer deemed to be a threat to national security.
As was his custom, Shikamura resolved to make the best of a bad situation and volunteered to work as the camp’s surveyor. His duties kept him busy and allowed him to be one of the few internees allowed to go outside the confines of the camp. Helen became a Girl Scout leader, while Alice and Marion excelled in classes at the camp schools.
Conditions at Heart Mountain were primitive. The wooden barracks and other camp buildings were initially un-insulated. Families lived in partitioned barracks. Common bathing and sanitary facilities allowed no privacy. The climate of northeastern Wyoming was as severe to the internees accustomed to the Mediterranean climate of the west coast as were the camp conditions. Local attitudes were equally hostile. Signs in the stores located in nearby towns proclaimed “No Japs allowed.”
Tensions within the camp made living conditions even worse. Takeo and many of the older Japanese immigrants believed that the best course of action was to take a fatalistic approach and make the best of a bad situation. To them, the Japanese expression “Shikata Na Gai (“It can’t be helped”) was the best way to cope with their plight.
Many other native-born Japanese Americans in the camps were very angry about being rounded up and interned, as were some of the older immigrant internees. The younger men, despite being native-born, were indignant about being re-classified as 4-C – enemy aliens, exempt from military service. Sharp divisions between the two groups escalated as one faction pledged resistance and the other acquiescence. Fights broke out and some who believed in cooperating with the War Relocation Authority were physically attacked.
When young Japanese men were reclassified as eligible for military service and told they had to register for the draft, several dozen Heart Mountain internees refused. They were charged with violating the Selective Service Act and sentenced to terms in federal prison. Others were transferred to another internment camp reserved for “troublemakers” at Tule Lake, CA. Tensions in the camp increased even further when all adult male internees – citizens or aliens – were asked in a survey to forswear allegiance to the Japanese Empire and pledge support to the U.S.
Despite being classified for a year as enemy aliens, most young Japanese American men interned on the mainland did register for the draft. Many served alongside volunteers from Hawaii in the legendary all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned great distinction and military honors fighting the Germans in the Mediterranean and European Theaters of Operation. A substantial number were wounded or killed in action. Others who were fluent in Japanese served as enlisted interpreters for the U.S. Army military intelligence service.
Takeo, along with many other Japanese men who were still Japanese citizens (although not necessarily by choice) readily renounced their loyalty to Japan. That declaration effectively made them stateless – men without a country- who considered themselves loyal Americans despite their legal status as interned enemy aliens.
Although he didn’t mention it in his autobiography, Takeo and his family must have been subjected to frequent verbal abuse and possibly threatened with violence at Heart Mountain. He wrote to friends and former co-workers all over the country, asking for employment, which would allow him and his family to leave the internment camp. For almost a year, he was unable to find outside work.
In July 1943 Takeo responded to a call for educated, fluent Japanese speakers to work as “sensei” (teachers) at the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School recently established at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He was accepted, and the Shikamuras were released from the Heart Mountain camp to live in Boulder. There, Takeo taught Navy and Marine Corps officers how to speak, read and write Japanese in an intensive 13-month program. The Shikamuras were transformed overnight from internees living behind barbed wire to ordinary Americans. Takeo walked from home to the nearby University of Colorado campus each day. Helen encouraged fellow Americans to buy War Bonds. Marion attended junior high school and Alice enrolled in classes at the university
The Shikamuras remained in Boulder until July 1944, when Takeo volunteered to work as a radio broadcaster in San Francisco, CA for the Office of War Information. His job with the OWI was to record the news and other information in Japanese. The recorded transcripts were then flown to Saipan, where they were transmitted via shortwave radio to Japan.
On August 9, 1945, Takeo was the first person to inform the Japanese in their own language via shortwave radio that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier was a nuclear weapon. He warned his countrymen in his broadcast that, unless the Japanese government accepted the surrender terms offered by the Allies, more atomic bombs would be used. On August 13, he issued a similar warning about a second nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki.
When the war ended, all restrictions placed on Japanese-Americans were lifted. Many returned home to find their neighbors still hostile and their property vandalized or stolen. In late 1945 Takeo attempted to reopen his surveying business, but was kept from doing so by a-newly enacted California law that prevented non-citizens from working as licensed surveyors. Unable to work in his chosen field, Takeo tirelessly advocated for legislation that would allow Asians to become U.S. citizens. In May 1951 he and his wife Helen finally became naturalized Americans and he was able to once again work as a surveyor.
Takeo Shikamura, who loved the United States and who served it faithfully, ably and well in peace and two world wars, lived the remainder of his life in tranquility. He died in Sunnyvale California in 1974 at the age of 90. Helen lived for another ten years. Their daughter Helen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from Stanford. She would become the first Japanese-American school teacher and administrator to work in San Francisco public schools. Marion graduated from Stanford’s medical school as a pediatrician.
The story of Takeo and Helen Shikamura, whose odyssey led them from Bisbee, AZ to Sunnyvale CA to Heart Mountain, WY and back to Sunnyvale, exemplifies that of many other Japanese-Americans living on the west coast at the beginning of the Second World War. The Shikamuras refused to be defeated by racial prejudice and official mistreatment. Their unwavering love of their adopted country and their self-identification as loyal Americans despite being denied citizenship for several decades serves as a reminder that patriotism and loyalty can’t be determined by the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s origin. And the shameful story of the mistreatment of all Japanese living on the U.S. west coast during World War II must not be forgotten.