[TIMELINE] White Teachers at WWII Internment Camps (Margaret Crosby Gunderson)
- A Lifelong Lesson in Justice
Gathering will pay tribute to the mostly white teachers who followed
their Japanese students into WWII internment camps.
By Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer
Joseph E. Perisco writes that President Roosevelt had convincing
information from several intelligence sources that Japanese
Americans and Japanese aliens posed no threat to American security
in the event of a war with Japan and yet disregarded the
intelligence reports out of political expedience,
Earl Warren who later became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
and who will be remembered as a champion of civil rights: "So far as
this great state of ours is concerned, we have had no fifth-column
activities and no sabotage reported.
For more than 60 years, the students have not forgotten their
How could they? When their country locked them up in remote
internment camps during World War II, these Japanese American
students say one group of people in particular gave them hope: the
teachers, most of them white, who volunteered to join them.
When their world seemed upside down, the teachers tried to bring
them the normalcy of school dances and football teams. In classrooms
that initially lacked desks, textbooks and school supplies, the
teachers somehow ignited the young minds and inspired students to
pursue careers in science, medicine, education.
And when it came time to teach about U.S. democracy, teachers like
feisty Margaret Crosby Gunderson told her students at the Tule Lake
camp not to give up on the Constitution; that the nation's flawed
political leadership was to blame for their unjust internment.
Now the teachers are frail, most of them in their 80s and 90s. They
are quietly living in retirement homes and elsewhere. But their
extraordinary actions touched and transformed a generation of
"We thought they needed help, so we helped," said La Verne resident
Mary Smeltzer, 89, one of the former teachers.
Their little-known stories will take center stage tonight when the
Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo honors more than
200 of the camp educators. Among them, museum staff tracked down 53;
more than half are expected to attend tonight's dinner at the
Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
"They gave to us the link to the America we knew: the sense that not
all Americans were racist, not all of them saw us as a threat but
saw the potential we had as individuals," said Glenn Kumekawa, a
retired Rhode Island professor who was sent to Topaz camp in Utah at
age 14 after winning his San Francisco grammar school's American
"Inside the camp, when every public indication was that we had no
future, you had these teachers saying, 'Yes, you do matter,' " he
Irene Hirano, the museum's president, said her staff had long heard
stories about the teachers while gathering oral histories of former
The museum received more than 200 nominations for educators who
taught at more than 10 camps, where 110,000 people of Japanese
ancestry were incarcerated following Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl
"It's a remarkable and inspiring story of people who found a way to
make a difference in challenging times," Hirano said.
From 1942 to 1945, an estimated 30,000 children attended the K-12
schools, which were operated by the federal War Relocation
Authority. Teachers were recruited and hired by U.S. civil service
representatives; some signed up for altruistic reasons, while others
just needed a job.
The schools were plagued by inadequate facilities, supply shortages
and, in some cases, frequent staff turnover, according to reports,
and most were closed in late 1945 along with the camps.
Smeltzer is one of the honorees. She is short and round with a cap
of silver hair framing her face, and her memory remains sharp. As a
member of the anti-war Church of the Brethren, she and her now-
deceased husband, Ralph, opposed the internment.
When Japanese American immigrant families began evacuating their
Terminal Island homes near San Pedro, Smeltzer said, her husband
took time off from work to help. She made and distributed lunches
for those departing for camp, even as American Legion members across
the street shook their fists at her and scowled, she said.
But the couple felt they could do more. So they applied for jobs to
teach at Manzanar, she math and he science. Despite the dust storms
and bleak surroundings, Smeltzer said the well-behaved students made
it one of her best teaching experiences.
The couple's real goal, however, was to help people leave the camps.
After six months of teaching, they set up a hostel in Chicago and
later in New York through their church networks. They figure they
helped resettle 1,000 Japanese Americans inland, away from the West
Coast military zones.
One of them was Joe Nagano, 84, a retired Los Angeles chemist. He
said Mary Smeltzer and Thomas Temple, another honoree now deceased,
helped him find housing in Chicago and win admission to the
prestigious Illinois Institute of Technology. Despite his
trepidations about his first venture beyond California, Nagano said
the teachers helped lay the groundwork for a lifelong career in
"I didn't want to rot in camp," said Nagano, who plans to escort his
former teacher to the dinner tonight. "If those teachers didn't
exist, we would have had a lot more difficulty relocating. I am
really grateful to them."
Later in life, Smeltzer went on to distribute relief aid in Vienna,
join the Peace Corps in Africa, run a friendship center in Hiroshima
and broker race relations in Illinois. Today she does volunteer
reading with juvenile delinquents. Asked why she reached out to the
internees, she replied with a laugh: "It's just part of me. It's
just part of being a Christian, being a peace person, part of doing
what I think is right."
Alberta Kassing, 83, also wanted to help out. Now a Boyle Heights
resident, Kassing had made several Japanese American friends at her
Colorado college. She had invited one of them to live with her over
her landlady's objections. "If she leaves, I'm moving out too,"
Kassing told her landlady. Her friend stayed.
Kassing was 21 when, she said, she leaped at the chance to teach at
Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming in 1943. Commuting between the camp
and a nearby apartment, she taught math to as many as 300 students a
On weekends, Kassing invited students to town to visit her. It was
not always pleasant. Once, several U.S. soldiers saw them and began
hurling insults. When she gave talks at church asserting that
Japanese Americans "were just as American as I am," people retorted
that those people had bombed Pearl Harbor, killed their sons.
Like Smeltzer, Kassing said she acted from deep religious
convictions that everyone is a child of God. She said she thinks God
led her toward her work and, like any good Christian, she simply
"I certainly didn't think I was doing anything extraordinary at the
time and still don't particularly see it that way," said Kassing,
who today lives in the historic Hollenbeck retirement home, serves
as its residents' council president and rescues abandoned cats. "I'm
just glad I had a chance to make a contribution."
Laguna Beach resident Lois Ferguson, 88, said she and her husband
Ralph had come to meet many Japanese Americans through his research
on them for his UCLA master's thesis. The 1942 thesis boldly
criticized prevailing public attitudes that Japanese Americans were
disloyal and unassimilable, and urged understanding of them.
After Executive Order 9066 authorized the internment in February
1942, the couple moved to Manzanar, where she was hired to help
train camp internees as teachers and he directed the adult education
Today, Ferguson's memory has been clouded by a recent stroke, but
her bright eyes and broad smile seem unchanged from her 1942 photos
of camp life. She still remembers the dust. She remembers her
students. She remembers why she went to camp.
"We just felt indignant that these people had been displaced and
really treated cruelly," she said.
There are many other cherished teachers. In nomination papers,
former Heart Mountain inmate Lloyd Kitazono of Pacifica remembered
camp nurse Margaret Harvey for teaching him medical skills; more
important, he wrote: "She gave me back my hope the courage to say
this is my country too!"
Katherine Stegner Odum, now a 99-year-old Colorado resident,
doggedly sought scholarships for her students at Amache camp and
gave "love and compassion when we needed it badly," according to
Woodland Hills resident Min Tonai. At Topaz, the late Joseph Goodman
brought exuberance to student lives as a science teacher, football
coach, mud wrestler and yearbook advisor. And Japanese language
teacher Kenko Yamashita was remembered for rekindling pride in
students' Japanese heritage, exposing them to haiku and modern
Through the years, the grateful students have held reunions with
some of their teachers. They have attended their funerals, written
memorials, penned poems for them. A few have established
scholarships, so that when they, too, are gone, their beloved
teachers will not be forgotten.
"They were the best of America," Kumekawa said. "They gave us
assurance and hope by believing in us."
Executive Order 9066 and I:
A Reflection After 60 Years
by Yuzuru J. Takeshita, Ann Arbor
It was on February 19 sixty years ago that President Roosevelt
signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the internment of
110,000 of us who were of Japanese descentthe majority of us
American citizensliving then on the West Coast.
How this Order came about and especially how it was implemented take
on added significance this year in the aftermath of the September 11
terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In a newly-
published book Roosevelt's Secret War ( New York: Random House,
2001), Joseph E. Perisco writes that President Roosevelt had
convincing information from several intelligence sources that
Japanese Americans and Japanese aliens posed no threat to American
security in the event of a war with Japan and yet disregarded the
intelligence reports out of political expedience, choosing "to
appease public paranoia, and signed Executive Order 9066, which
uprooted these people and sent them to remote inhospitable
`relocation centers' in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Wyoming, Utah
In a recent NPR program discussing this book, Perisco even claimed
that Roosevelt knew it was unconstitutional to apply this executive
order to an ethnic minority en masse as he did without due process
but went ahead anyway. If these revelations are true, we must agree
with the American Civil Liberties Union's condemnation of our
internment as "the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights
of American citizens in our history."
What were some of the documented expressions of paranoia that
President Roosevelt acceded to? General John Dewitt, Commander of
the Western Defense Command, was quoted in the newspapers under the
headline: "Once a Jap, Always a Jap": "The danger of the Japanese is
espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an
American citizen, he is still Japanese. American citizenship does
not determine loyalty.
All Japanese look alike and therefore cannot be distinguished as to
their loyalty. You needn't worry about the Italians and the Germans,
except in individual cases. But we must worry about the Japanese as
long as he is allowed in this area." An even more egregious
statement was issued by California's Attorney-General at the time,
Earl Warrenyes, the same Earl Warren who later became Chief Justice
of the U.S. Supreme Court and who will be remembered as a champion
of civil rights: "So far as this great state of ours is concerned,
we have had no fifth-column activities and no sabotage reported.
It looks very much as though it is a studied effort not to have any
until the zero hour arrives (italics added)." Few realize that the
Executive Order 9066 did not specify to whom it should be applied,
although clearly it was intended from the start by President
Roosevelt primarily for the Japanese on the West Coast.
The Order authorized "the Secretary of War and military commanders
designated by him to prescribe military areas with respect to which,
the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be
subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the
appropriate military commander may impose in his discretion."
The Commission On Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,
appointed by President Carter, in their 1982 report (Personal
Justice Denied, Washington, D.C., December 1982) concluded that the
most critical condition that permitted the evacuation of all of us
residents of Japanese descent from the West Coast was General
Dewitt's "temperamental disposition to exaggerate the measures
necessary to maintain security and his placing security far ahead of
any concern for the liberty of citizens" and his distrust of the
ethnic Japanese which led to his belief that ethnicity determined
Thus, if it was in General Dewitt's discretion appropriate to remove
all of us from the West Coast for national security reasons, it was
General Emmons, Commander of the Pacific Defense Command in Honolulu
in his discretion to reject any thought of a mass evacuation for any
of the Japanese residents of Hawaii and to insist on dealing with
the issue of national security on a case-by-case basis.
In spite of all the rumors, later proved to be completely false,
about the anti-American acts of the Japanese residents during the
attack on Pearl Harbor, General Emmons chose not to cast any
suspicion of disloyalty on the local Japanese as a group in the way
General Dewitt and Attorney-General Warren did on the West Coast
against us Japanese residents even though numerous intelligence
reports available to them had concluded that we posed no threat to
the nation's security.
At the personal level, I suffered one of the most humiliating
experiences of my life a few days after Pearl Harbor when my 8th
grade teacher asked those of us of Japanese descent who were Boy
Scouts to turn in our flashlight, compass, and scout knife
presumably because she thought less of us as American citizens,
influenced by the negative rhetoric of the time.
To this day, my voice breaks when I relate this ugly episode to
those who seek to hear about our wartime internment experience. Soon
FBI agents started arresting leaders of our community such as
officers of Japanese associations, Buddhist priests, Japanese
language school teachers, and the like.
Rumors were rampant that, lest we be charged with intent to engage
in espionage, we should get rid of anything that could be construed
as suggesting pro-Japan sentiments such as any family photos
containing anyone in Japanese military uniform, books, magazines,
and records that had any martial flavor to them and, of course, any
equipment such as a short-wave radio, torch light, or armswhether
operational or notthat may be construed as potential weapons for
use in any subversive acts.
We hastily burned those things we could burn, not without tears, and
buried in our backyard those that could not be burned. (It is likely
that those things we buried are still there since we never went back
to the house we had rented.) What I did not burn or bury were
several dictionaries I needed in my desperate effort to relearn the
English that I lost while spending my childhood in Japan. In the one
suitcase that each of us was allowed to carry into camp I made sure
these instruments of language support were packed.
However, soon after entering the temporary assembly center set up on
the grounds of the Tanforan Race Track near the San Francisco
International Airport, the authorities announced that any Japanese
books and records still in our possession would be subject to
confiscation on a designated date when troops would come through the
Desperate as I was, the night before the designated date, I sneaked
out of the barracks at around 2:00 a.m. and hid my dictionaries
under one of the buildings I could crawl under and retrieved them
again at around 2:00 a.m. the next day. I was not going to let the
authorities deny me my right to study the two languages, English and
Japanese, that represent my dual heritage. Such defiance, I believe,
had nothing to do with loyalty or disloyalty.
The time behind barbed wire as a prisoner in my own country by
virtue of my ancestry represents the worst four years (1942-46) of
my life. En route to the more permanent camp in Central Utah, I
experienced another humiliation that still rankles. As our train
pulled into Salt Lake City, today the site of the Winter Olympics
promoting international friendship, and as we waited for a change of
tracks to head southward to our final destination, a troop train
pulled up right next to us. We knew where the troops were headed and
so quietly prayed for their safety only to be greeted with abusive
catcalls and obscene gestures. To this day, I wonder how many of
those soldiers whose safety we prayed for survived the war in the
Pacific where they were headed. I hope many did.
I entered high school in camp and graduated from high school in
camp. Ironically, as a high school student behind barbed wire, I had
the good fortune to meet a teacher who taught me the true meaning of
citizenship in a democracy: Margaret Crosby Gunderson. She and her
husband had abandoned their teaching posts in Alameda County,
California in protest of our internment and joined the faculty at a
camp in Northern California where my family and I were transferred
In our American history class, she challenged us to fight injustice
against any group of people among us when it happens, insisting that
injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. "Today it may
be you but next time it may be we Irish-Americans," she argued, not
realizing then how prophetic those words would turn out to be in
2001 when the Arab-Americans are threatened with the kind of
injustice to which we Japanese Americans were subjected to then. I
wrote the following words in Japanese poetic form in tribute to her
when she passed away at age 93 in 1996:
My dear Margaret
You taught me through words and deeds
During World War II
How to be a warrior
In the fight `gainst injustice
She insisted to the end that she only did what she thought was the
right thing to do. To which I would respond: Yes, many of us know
what is the right thing to do, but, Margaret, how many of us have
the courage that you showed to do the right thingespecially in the
absence of support from others? Someone wrote: The defense of
freedom comes at its test at the extremes, not at the comfortable
center, and therefore it is rarely easy. I am reminded of the words
of Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust: " I learned the perils
of language and those of silence. I learned that in extreme
situations, when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is
sin. I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of
indifference " My teacher and her husband chose not to be
indifferent. They did not remain silent even though they were
ostracized as "Jap-lovers" and "traitors" by the local townspeople
and frequently denied services for their necessities.
As a long-time resident of the City of Ann Arbor, I am proud that
the City Council on January 7, 2002, passed a resolution in support
of due process for all members of the Ann Arbor Community in
reaction to recent events affecting the lives of our Arab-American
neighbors. Contrast this with a resolution passed on February 21,
1944 by the City Council of Sunnyvale, California to permanently bar
any Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, from residing in the
community (hastily rescinded in 1988 when the city discovered to
their embarrassment that this resolution was still on the books).
I like to think that we have come a long way in the 60 years since
the Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt.
President George W. Bush, for one, has called upon the nation not to
blame the Muslim community in our midst for the events of September
11. However, some of the statements made by his Attorney-General
Ashcroft and the treatment of those arrested by the Justice
Department on suspicion of being connected to the terrorist groups
warn us not to be complacent. The balance between national security
and civil rights is a delicate one, but we as a nation must seek
that balance, however difficult, in our fight against terror rather
than allow national security concerns ride roughshod over our
individual liberty as we once let happen in the lives of some of us.