NEWMAN - A guest speaker at Newman Rotary recently brought to life one of the darkest chapters in United States history.
Retired Livingston farmer Sherman Kishi shared his story as one of the more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry - primarily U.S. citizens - who were incarcerated into remote internment camps during World War II.
He also recounted his experiences after leaving the camp to serve as a translator with the Military Intelligence Service, a unit of the U.S. military which supported the Allied forces.
His family’s story in the United States started in 1903, Kishi said, when his father came to the United States at 18 years of age. His father came to Seattle, but found his way down to the fields of California and eventually became part of the Yamato Colony, established by Japanese-American farmers in the Livingston area.
He was joined by the woman who would become his wife. Kishi said his mother was a “picture bride,” reflecting a common practice at the time of arranged marriages.
While the Japanese-Americans had enjoyed a positive relationship and strong standing in the Livingston community, Kishi explained, prejudice was common.
In 1920, he noted, signs went up on two entrances into Livingston stating “No More Japanese Wanted Here,” and a few years later immigration from Japan was halted.
Years later, when Kishi was a high school student at Livingston, the United States was plunged into World War II.
He recalls that fateful day.
Kishi and other students of Japanese descent were practicing tennis on the Livingston High courts when a car full of men came to a stop nearby.
“They cursed as us, called us all kinds of names,” Kishi told his Rotary audience. “We left and went home, and when we went home we heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had happened. It was Dec. 7, 1941.”
In early 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the western defense commander to take whatever steps he felt necessary for the safety of the West Coast.
“He was the one who basically decided to start what they called the evacuation of Japanese people,” Kishi explained, adding that a curfew was already in place which banned Japanese-Americans from being out after dark and prohibited them from traveling more than five miles.
They were also required to surrender any weapons or radios, he noted.
In April 1942, an order was posted on buildings and telephone poles ordering the Japanese to report to a hastily-constructed Merced assembly center by a specified date.
He and his family climbed aboard the bus to the assembly center on his 17th birthday.
“The first thing they put up were barbed wire fences. There were guard towers manned by military people with guns,” Kishi remembers. “Some people said they were for our protection, but the guns were always pointed in, never out.”
After three months at the assembly center, Kishi said, they were sent to a relocation camp in Colorado.
They were transported by train, with orders to keep the blinds closed.
“All the way from Merced to Colorado, we could not look out,” Kishi shared. The only stop along the way, where the families could disembark for a break in the trip, was in a remote location among hills and sage brush.
“That was the kind of place where most of the camps were placed, in the most desolate places you could imaging,” said Kishi, who said the relocation facilities were essentially concentration camps.
Citizens and non-citizens alike of Japanese ancestry were forced to comply with the relocation orders.
“They did not have the nerve to call us citizens,” Kishi explained. “We were called non-aliens.”
Kishi remained in the relocation camp until joining the Military Intelligence Service, which provided translators and interpreters to support the allied forces.
The unit proved to be a great asset - in part because the Japanese had never anticipated its soldiers being captured and interrogated.
“They had not been told not to talk,” Kishi related.
The information gained by the unit was credited with significantly shortening the war, he said.
After the atomic bombs dropped and the war came to an end, Kishi was part of the occupation forces in Japan.
In January 1945, the order came allowing the Japanese to return to the West Coast, and in the spring of that year his family returned to its Livingston farm.
Decades later, after a years-long civil rights campaign, the U.S. government acknowledged the injustice visited upon the Japanese-Americans.
President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting a formal apology and paying out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim.
Kishi deemed the incarceration of the Japanese-Americans one of the most serious violations of Constitutional rights in the nation’s history....one, he said, that should never be forgotten or repeated against any people.