Few Southern Arizona residents know that we have a winter recreation area named in honor of a federal prisoner. In fact, this recreation area, including a campground beside a stream, is located on the former site of a federal prison camp in the Santa Catalina Mountains a few miles north of Tucson.
We thought there might be a good story here, so Ms. Karen & I drove up General Hitchcock Memorial Highway (aka Catalina Highway) and took a short hike through the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. We wanted to know; (a) what this fellow, Hirabayashi, did to land himself in this remote federal prison camp; and (b) why did Coronado National Forest officials name a campground after him. The two don’t normally go together.
The Ugly Truth
To understand Mr. Hirabayashi’s story, we first have to acquaint ourselves with (a) an embarrassing fact of human nature; and (b) an utterly shameful fact of U.S. history. First, humanoids are inherently xenophobic. Generally speaking, as a species, we naturally fear and hate “the other”. Unless we are taught “kindness toward all” from a young age, we tend to think of others who are different from us and our group, as “second-class citizens”, or sub-humans, or non-humans unworthy of our respect. This is why racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, injustice, and wars are so common throughout history. Read More
This ugly human trait is particularly prominent when we feel that our security is threatened. And Americans never felt more insecure than on December 8, 1941, the day after Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, HI.
The Immigration Act of 1924 followed the example of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and effectively banned all immigration from Japan and other “undesirable” Asian countries.
Nevertheless, on that day, some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were living on the West Coast of the United States. About one-third were Issei, first generation immigrants who by law, could not become naturalized U.S. citizens and, therefore, could not vote, hold public office, or even own property. Two-thirds were Nisei, second generation of Japanese ancestry born in the United States and, therefore, U.S. citizens by birth. You might presume that the Nisei would have been accorded all the rights of U.S. citizenship, including “due process” before the law. They were not. And this is where the Gordon Hirabayashi story begins.
In the 1930’s the U.S. Navy was concerned about Imperial Japan’s rising military power in Asia. On the authority of President Franklin Roosevelt, they began conducting surveillance on Japanese-Americans in Hawaii with the intent to compile a list of people of Japanese ancestry who potentially would be more loyal to the Emperor than to their adopted homeland if war broke out. In the event of war, the plan was to place these potentially disloyal people in concentration camps.
In 1939, again by order of the President, the Army and FBI began compiling a much larger list of people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast of the United States and with the same intent.
Early in 1941, Roosevelt commissioned an investigation on Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii. That study concluded that the issue of Japanese-American disloyalty to the U.S. was a non-issue. A final report to the President, submitted just two weeks before Pearl Harbor “certified a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group.” Still another report submitted to the President just a month following Pearl Harbor found little evidence to support claims of Japanese-American disloyalty and argued against mass incarceration.
Before Pearl Harbor, American public opinion was generally favorable toward Japanese-Americans. According to the Los Angeles Times, they are “good Americans, born and educated as such.”
A Radical Change In Public Opinion
But fear of a Japanese attack on the West Coast of the United States changed public opinion in a matter of weeks. The President and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dismissed rumors of Japanese-American espionage and sabotage, but European-Americans in general and U.S. military brass in particular, were pushing hard for internment.
Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, openly questioned Japanese-American loyalty. DeWitt, who would soon administered the internment program, repeatedly told newspapers that “A Jap’s a Jap.”
“I don’t want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here (on the West Coast). They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
Fear of invasion coupled with racial prejudice quickly and easily turned the majority against the Japanese-Americans, as was reflected in this Los Angeles Times editorial published only a few weeks after they had defended this soon-to-be disenfranchised minority.
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…. So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”
Pressure On The President To Act
State and local politicians were also calling for internment. U.S. Representative Leland Ford of Los Angeles demanded that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in [inland] concentration camps.”
Soon the President relented and signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. It gave the Secretary of War, and thus U.S. military commanders, the authority to designate “military areas” at their discretion “… from which any or all persons [including American citizens] may be excluded.”
In quick succession, a host of Executive Orders and Public Proclamations gave U.S. commanders carte blanche to do whatever they considered “military necessity” to defend the United States, including the creation of “exclusion zones” from which anyone, citizen or not, could be rounded up and sent to inland concentration camps.
In March 1942, the entire Pacific Coast from California to Washington and 100 miles inland became one huge military exclusion zone from which anyone could be removed without due process. That same month, President Roosevelt empowered his military chiefs in general and General DeWitt in particular to freeze the assets of anyone in the exclusion zone and declare an 8:00 PM to 6 AM curfew for “all enemy aliens and all persons of Japanese ancestry” within the military areas.
On May 3, 1942, General DeWitt issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, ordering all people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizens or non-citizens, who were still living in “Military Area No. 1” to report to assembly centers, where they would live until being moved to permanent “Relocation Centers.”
Eleanor Roosevelt told her husband, in no uncertain terms, that the forced evacuation and internment of America citizens of Japanese ancestry was the worst decision of his presidency.
Concentration Camps In America
The hardships suffered by these Japanese-Americans who were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, taking with them only what they could stuff in a suitcase, and live for years in concentration camps behind barbed-wire fences with armed guards is hard for any American younger than 70 to fathom. What happened to the Constitution of the United States of America? That’s what Gordon Hirabayashi wanted to find out.
Initially, Gordon considered accepting the curfew, the loss of his family’s home and business, and internment. He was, after all, a practicing Christian and a pacifist. However, he ultimately became one of three to openly defy these laws that violated his and his family’s Constitutional rights. He joined the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). Then, in 1942, while a senior at the University of Washington, he refused to report for internment and turned himself over to the FBI.
Hirabayachi v. United States
After being convicted of curfew violation, Gordon was sentenced to 90 days to be served at an honor prison in the mountains above Tucson, AZ. He invited prosecution in part to appeal the verdict all the way to the United States Supreme Court with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Supreme Court, however, unanimously ruled against him in a landmark decision, Hirabayachi v. United States (1943). Even the famously liberal Justice, William O. Douglas, ruled against him. The High Court concluded that racial discrimination by the government is constitutional when the nation faces a genuine threat. In other words, national security trumps constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Similar Supreme Court Decisions
Something similar occurred at the beginning of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a legal action against unlawful detainment that commands a law enforcement agency or other body that has a person in custody to have a court inquire into the legality of his or her detention. The court has the authority to order the detainee released if the reason for detention is deemed insufficient or unjustifiable.
The Constitution further provides that the right to a writ of habeas corpus may not be suspended “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” The Constitution further states that only the Congress has the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.
FDR Precedent: Lincoln Had Assumed Dictatorial Powers
Lincoln had John Merryman, a Maryland state legislator, arrested for attempting to stop Union troops from entering Washington D.C. Merryman was held prisoner at Fort McHenry. His attorney immediately filed the writ and Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that the President had no authority to suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln ignored Taney’s ruling and claimed that suspension was necessary to put down the rebellion of the southern states.
President Grant used similar justification during Reconstruction. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush attempted to place Guantanamo Bay “enemy combatants” outside the jurisdiction of habeas corpus. Again, the Supreme Court ruled against the President.
Catalina Federal Honor Camp
Given wartime circumstances, federal officials could not spare a vehicle and driver to transport Gordon to prison or even pay his train fare. So Gordon hitchhiked alone from Spokane, WA to the minimum-security Catalina Federal Honor Camp in the Catalina Mountains of Arizona just above Tucson where he had been ordered to serve his sentence.
Once there, the warden told Gordon that, because he was two weeks late, he lacked valid paperwork. The officials considered letting him just go home, but Gordon feared this would look suspicious. So, the prison officials suggested that Gordon go out for dinner and a movie to give them time to prepare the necessary papers. He agreed.
Catalina Federal Honor Camp had been established in 1937. The plan was to use cheap prisoner labor to build a road from Tucson at 2,800’ elevation to Mt. Lemmon at over 8,000’. Unlike the Japanese internment camps, the honor camp had no bars, fences or guard towers. Painted rocks marked the boundary. Building the mountain road was indeed hard labor, but in general, these prisoners were well cared for. For example, they were allowed to work on the road at higher, cooler elevations during the searing summer heat. Many learned useful, marketable skills that served them well when they were released.
Refusing To Be Drafted
After serving his time at the Catalina Honor Camp, Gordon returned to Washington where he refused to be drafted into the United States armed forces. Challenging the draft was Gordon’s way of protesting the government’s racist policies and unconstitutional mass imprisonment of ethnic Japanese living in the United States.
Through his ACLU lawyers, Gordon contended that a questionnaire sent to Japanese-Americans demanding renunciation of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan was racially discriminatory because other ethnic groups, such as German-Americans and Italian-Americans, were not asked about adherence to foreign leaders, such as Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
For this principled stand, Gordon spent an additional year in the harsh confines of the Federal Penitentiary at McNeil Island, WA. After he had served his time, Gordon continued his studies, earning a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D in Sociology from the University of Washington. He taught in Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt before settling at the University of Alberta Canada in 1959, where he served as chair of the sociology department from 1970 until 1975 and continued to teach until his retirement in 1983.
In 1947, President Harry Truman pardoned the WW II draft resistors, including Gordon Hirabayashi and many other Japanese-American men.
Throughout his court battles and imprisonments, Gordon Hirabayashi contended that the internments were based on racial bigotry, not wartime necessity as the government claimed. In 1980, official reports were discovered in the National Archives that supported Gordon’s position. Not only did these “lost” government reports lend credence to Gordon’s claims, they also revealed that the Justice Department had intentionally withheld evidence showing that the forced removal and internment of Japanese-Americans was unnecessary.
Based on this discovery, Gordon’s case was re-opened. Consequently, his conviction on charges related to his refusal to submit to exclusion and internment was overturned. A Federal commission determined that the internment was “motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and failed political leadership.”
“It was quite a strong victory,” said Gordon. “So strong that the other side did not appeal. It was a vindication of all the effort people had put in for the rights of citizens during crisis periods.”
“There was a time when I felt that the Constitution failed me,” he explained. “But with the reversal in the courts and in public statements from the government, I feel that our country has proven that the Constitution is worth upholding. The U.S. government admitted it made a mistake. A country that can do that is a strong country. I have more faith and allegiance to the Constitution than I ever had before.”
“I would also say that if you believe in something, if you think the Constitution is a good one, and if you think the Constitution protects you, you better make sure that the Constitution is actively operating … in other words “constant vigilance. Otherwise, it’s a scrap of paper. We had the Constitution to protect us in 1942. It didn’t because the will of the people weren’t behind it.”
Apologies & Reparations
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that acknowledged the injustice, apologized for the internment, and provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion.
The Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, signed by President George H.W. Bush, awarded an additional $400 million to ensure that all remaining internees received their $20,000 redress payments. The President issued another formal apology from the U.S. government on December 7, 1991, on the 50th-Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack saying:
“In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
In 1999, the Coronado National Forest renamed Catalina Federal Honor Camp “Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site”. At the opening ceremony, Gordon Hirabayashi was there, along with others who had experienced a similar fate at the hands of the U.S. government, to cut the ribbon.
In 2012, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gordon Hirabayashi posthumously. This, the highest civil award of the United States, was accepted by his family who traveled to Washington D.C. from Edmonton, Alberta Canada. In 2014, the medal was formally donated to the University of Washington Library Special Collections, which holds Gordon Hirabayashi’s papers.