What the students went through: Japanese-American Internment in WWII.

During spring term Dr. Kara Ritzheimer’s History 310 (Historian’s Craft) students researched and wrote blog posts about OSU during WWII. The sources they consulted are listed at the end of each post. Students wrote on a variety of topics and we hope you appreciate their contributions as much as the staff at SCARC does!

This post was written by Erin Phillips.

In the American narrative of World War Two, there are a few common story beats that persevere today. Japan and Germany dragged the United States into the war kicking and screaming. The United States assumed her position among the allies, harnessing her industrial might and manpower to defeat evil fascist regimes, liberate Europe and Asia, and secure democracy. According to this popular retelling, American citizens could be proud of this good and just war, fought for morally correct reasons.

While this narrative holds some truth, it does not tell the whole story. In their desire to defeat the Empire of Japan, American leaders sacrificed the values of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for their citizens, especially American citizens of Japanese descent. The American government’s internment and illegal incarceration of Japanese-Americans impacted the lives of approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans, including the students and alumni of Oregon State College (later Oregon State University). The specter of discrimination, racism, and doubts about their loyalty as United States citizens loomed large over the lives of these citizens. And their stories and experiences fill in the gaps of the typical American narrative, providing us a more comprehensive accounting of the US and Oregon State University during World War Two.

Firstly, it’s important to know who these citizens were. In 1941, Japanese-Americans were most commonly the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. First-generation immigrants, those born in Japan, were referred to as Issei. The term Nisei applied to second-generation immigrants, those born in the United States to Issei parents. Nisei made up the majority of the Japanese-American population in 1941.[i] Japan’s attack on the US on December 7, 1941 raised questions about the loyalty of Issei and Nisei.

What does one do when their loyalty is in question? The document to the right is a letter that thirty-six Japanese-American students and alumni at Oregon State College sent to interim OSC President F. A. Gilfillan, on Thursday, December 11, 1941, four days after Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Their signatures are visible below the body of the letter, a reminder that each one of these signatures belongs to a person—a student or alumni of Oregon State College. The Special Collections and Research Center (SCARC) has preserved this typed and signed letter within the records of the OSU’s President’s Office. Additionally, the Oregon Multicultural Archives (OMA) blog has provided a transcript of the letter and its signatories.[ii]

The letter explores the potential ramifications of Japan’s attack on the psyche and safety of Japanese-American students at OSC. The authors argued that Japanese-American students should not be treated differently because of Japan’s actions. They also stressed their “unswerving loyalty to our country, the United States of America, and to all her institutions.” The students and alumni explained how they have found peace of mind, friendships, and educational inspiration at Oregon State even as they stressed their readiness to prove their mettle as American citizens in the war.

Historian William Robbins observes that World War Two “rent asunder normal routines on the Oregon State College campus.”[iii] This reality was one Japanese-American students at Oregon State College found themselves in following Japan’s attack. During the 1941-42 academic year, 36 Japanese-American students and alumni called OSC their academic home. The office of the registrar has preserved the names and class standings of these thirty-six students through a list compiled for winter term of 1942.[iv]  While that number might seem small, more students with Japanese ancestry were enrolled at OSC at the time than at the University of Oregon and thus, OSC had the largest population of Japanese-American students in Oregon.

The outbreak of war between Japan, the country of their ancestors, and the United States, the country of their birth, deeply impacted these Japanese-American students. Political Science instructor and Associate Dean of Men Dan W. Poling recalled in later years that during a morning lecture he delivered on December 8, 1941, two Japanese-American students, “had their heads down and they never looked up. I know they were very distraught.”[v] A Tuesday, December 9, 1941, editorial in the Oregon State Barometer similarly contemplated these students’ experiences. Titled “The Unfortunate,” the author speculated about the impact these global events might have on Japanese-Americans, specifically, OSC students.[vi] The author argued that neither the university nor the student body should treat these Japanese-American students differently because of Japan’s actions. The author reminded readers that these students were American; the three-paragraph editorial referenced their American citizenship four separate times.

The writing of the loyalty letter to interim OSC President F.A. Gilfillan had a profound effect on OSC faculty and staff. They immediately realized how the war had shattered the normal lives of their Japanese-American students, and felt moved to console them and respond. Glenn A. Bakkum of the Department of Sociology sent a letter to interim OSC President Gilfillan on December 14, 1941, in response to the loyalty letter that Gilfillan received three days prior. Bakkum urged Gilfillan to respond to the individuals who had signed the loyalty letter and thereby alleviate and calm their fears.[vii]  Although it is unclear whether he was responding to Bakkum’s suggestion, Gilfillan did formulate a response. On December 18, 1941, his office sent a letter to each signatory.

In the letter, pictured above, Gilfillan empathized with Japanese-American students’ plight and contrasted it with the difficult situations Americans had faced before. Gilfillan noted that the college was honored by these students’ and alumni’s declaration of loyalty to the United States of America and Oregon State College.[viii]

These sentiments of loyalty, sympathy, and appreciation for the Japanese-American students at Oregon State College in the opening months of the war reflect a stark reality. While the outbreak of war indeed rent asunder the normalcy of life at OSC, the opinions and thoughts the student body and faculty expressed about the extreme hardship their Japanese-American peers faced demonstrates something remarkable. While Japanese-Americans across the nation encountered racism and harassment, the students and faculty at Oregon State viewed these students as friends and colleagues, not as enemies.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders “to prescribe military areas… from which any and all persons may be excluded.”[ix] While the order did not specifically name Japanese-Americans as the persons to be excluded, it was clear from the choice to not incarcerate Italian or German-Americans that this order would be exclusively targeting Japanese-Americans. The key proponents of this executive order and the mass incarceration were Western Defense Commander General John L. DeWitt and Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. As a result, approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast were eventually removed and placed in internment camps further east.[x] On March 2, 1942, DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 1, designating the west coast into military areas and excluding all persons of Japanese ancestry from these areas.[xi] The Western Defense Command (WDC) and the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) controlled and organized the implementation and evacuation of Japanese-Americans from designated military areas. By June 6, 1942, all Japanese-Americans had been forcibly removed from Military Area No. 1—which included Oregon, to assembly sites, such as the Portland Assembly Center.[xii]

Some university presidents pushed back against these orders and restrictions. For example, University of California President Robert Sproul spoke for many university presidents when he argued that these students should be allowed to continue their education despite the imminent internment order.[xiii] Interim OSC president Gilfillan similarly questioned the new restrictions, sending an inquiry to General DeWitt, on the subject of Japanese American students.[xiv] Gilfillan asked whether Japanese-American students would be allowed to study in the library past the 8:00pm curfew that the military had imposed on Japanese-American citizens, a request General DeWitt promptly denied.[xv]

The experiences of OSC students were similar to those of university students across the country, all of whom confronted wartime measures that restricted their freedom. Executive Order 9066 permitted the US government, the Western Defense Command, and the Wartime Civil Control Administration to remove “all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coastal Region.”[xvi] The Oregon State Barometer published an article on May 26, 1942 that explained that all Japanese-Americans would be evacuated. The article, titled “Japanese are ordered form 11 counties,” explored the effects of Civilian Exclusion Orders No. 87 and No.91. These required all citizens of Japanese-descent to report to civil control stations for eventual relocation.[xvii] The closest assembly center was the Portland Assembly center, located on the site of Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion.[xviii] The lives of not just OSC’s student population, but also Japanese-Americans across the nation, changed irreversibly in the coming months.

Individual stories help us to better understand the impact these orders had on Japanese-American citizens. One young woman who signed the loyalty letter was recent OSC graduate Molly (Kageyama) Maeda—the only alumnus to do so. Molly (Mariko) Kageyama was born on November 23, 1919, in Dee, Oregon to Yasuta and Ichino Kageyama. She was the second child of the Kageyama family; she had two sisters and one brother.[xix] All pictures in the following section have been graciously provided by the Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection through Densho, a digital archive that records and preserves the stories of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Molly and her siblings were Nisei, meaning the second-generation Japanese-Americans born in the United States to Issei parents.

In 1937, Molly graduated from Hood River High School and began attending Oregon State College. One reason she chose OSC, she later explained, was because the university had given her a scholarship. Another reason was that her sister, who had also received a scholarship, was already enrolled there as a student.[xx] During a 2014 interview, Molly recounted in her own words, with a smile, that she “liked it (Oregon State) real well. I studied hard…”[xxi] During her college years, Molly made connections with the small community of Japanese-American students, connections that can be seen in the photo below.

“Group of three women” (ddr-densho-287-29), Densho, Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection, https://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-287-13/

Dated 1939, this photograph shows Molly, Lena, and presumably their fellow friend and student Emi, outside of what is now known as Furman Hall on the OSC campus.[xxii] Molly eventually met another Japanese-American student at OSC by the name of Milton Maeda. Molly and Milton were engaged by early 1942 and married later that year.

“Graduation Portrait of Molly Kageyama” (ddr-densho-287-27), Densho, Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection, https://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-287-27/

Molly graduated in June 1941 with Phi Kappa Phi honors. Following graduation, she later worked in the OSC registrar’s office. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 cut short her employment.[xxiii] Molly left OSC a few months after the attack, during a moment of uncertainty for Japanese-Americans. She returned home to Hood River to be closer to her parents and siblings. Molly and her fiancé, Milton Maeda, traveled to the Portland Assembly Center on May 12, 1942, in accordance with the restrictions placed on Japanese-Americans by Western Defense Command. Milton and Molly married on May 19, 1942, at the Portland Assembly Center, the first such marriage performed inside a detention center for Japanese-Americans.[xxiv] Below is the wedding photo of Milton and Molly Maeda, taken on May 14th days before the proper wedding ceremony.[xxv]

In September 1942, officials within the Western Defense Command (WDC) and the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), transferred Milton and Molly Maeda from the Portland Assembly Center to the Minidoka Internment Camp in southern Idaho.[xxvi] Milton and Molly remained there for approximately 13 months before obtaining permission from the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to relocate to Milwaukee, WI.

It is hard to quantify how much Molly’s life changed during the first two years of the war, as did the lives of approximately 110,000 Japanese-American citizens. Molly’s life was uprooted by war and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Instead of having a wedding and honeymoon and continuing her employment at OSC, she was forced to relocate to an internment camp and endure numerous hardships. The wartime restrictions and disruptions that Japanese-Americans including Molly Maeda, went through, contrasts sharply with the lives they lived prior to WWII.

After eighty years, the experiences of Japanese-American citizens during World War Two are as relevant as ever in the American story. For many years, the general public neglected the experiences of these citizens, and in some cases outright denied their truths. Even when historians or the public examine the narrative of America’s role in World War Two, the experiences of Japanese-Americans are relegated to a footnote. It is easy to forget and distance ourselves from these events. However, we must strive to always remember that each one of the approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans were as human as you and me. They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, students, and teachers. The people incarcerated in this racist effort were American citizens, as the decision to not incarcerate German or Italian-Americans implies prejudice rooted in racism guided American decision-makers.

The moment citizens feel the need to prove their innocence and loyalty–as these OSC students had–just in order to not be viewed as the enemy, we need to reflect on our own biases and how modern society perpetuates them. In a time when we are still dealing with the consequences of systematic and perpetual racism, the burden falls on us to reject racism and prejudice, and to never forget the victims of this injustice.

[i] Valerie Matsumoto, “Japanese American Women during World War II,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 8, no.1 (1984): 6, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3346082

[ii] Natalia Fernández, “OSU’s Japanese American Students during WWII,” Oregon Multicultural Archives and OSU Queer Archives (OMA & OSQA) Blog, January 30, 2013, https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/oregonmulticulturalarchives/2013/01/30/osu-jpnamer-ww2/.

[iii] William G. Robbins, The People’s School: A History of Oregon State University (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017), 145.

[iv] “List of Japanese Students – Winter Term 1942,” Oregon State College: Office of the Registrar, Winter 1942, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df724m053#metadata

[v] Rebecca Landis, “Freedom Lost,” Oregon State University Alumni Magazine, (Corvallis: Oregon State University, October 1995), 15.https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/fx71c133t

[vi] “The Unfortunate.” Oregon State Barometer, December 9, 1941: 2.

[vii] Glenn A. Bakkum, “Letter Regarding Registered Japanese American Students,” letter to F.A. Gilfillan, Oregon State University, December 14, 1941. https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df724m08x

[viii] F. A. Gilfillan, “Letter to the Japanese American Students,” in response to December 11, 1941 loyalty letter, Oregon State University, December 18, 1941. https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df724m08x

[ix] Brian Niiya, “Executive Order 9066” Densho Encyclopedia, accessed June 14, 2023. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Executive_Order_9066/

[x] Niiya, “Executive Order 9066,” Densho Encyclopedia.

[xi] Brian Niiya “Civilian exclusion orders” Densho Encyclopedia, accessed June 14, 2023. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Civilian_exclusion_orders

[xii] Niiya, “Civilian exclusion orders,” Densho Encyclopedia

[xiii] Robbins, The People’s School, 149.

[xiv] “Japanese Students,” Oregon State Barometer, April 4, 1942: 2, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df724k71g

[xv] “Japanese Students.”

[xvi] Robbins, The People’s School, 148.

[xvii] “Japanese Are Ordered from 11 Counties,” Oregon State Barometer, May 26, 1942: 2, https://oregondigital.org/concern/documents/df724k72r

[xviii] Brian Niiya, “Portland (detention facility),” Densho Encyclopedia, accessed June 6, 2023. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Portland%20(detention%20facility)

[xix] Molly was the second child in the family, with Mikie her older sister, with younger sister Lena (Rinako) and younger brother Bob (Yeichi).

Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, interviewed by Tom Ikeda on April 17, 2014, segments 1 & 3, Densho, Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm

[xx] Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, segment 10, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm

[xxi] Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, segment 11, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm

[xxii] “Group of three women” (ddr-densho-287-29), Densho, Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection, https://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-287-13/

[xxiii] Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, segment 12, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm.

[xxiv] Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, segment 17, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm.

[xxv] “Wedding portrait” (ddr-densho-287-6), Densho, Milton and Molly (Kageyama) Maeda Collection, https://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-287-6/

[xxvi] Transcript of interview with Molly K. Maeda, segment 18, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-420-transcript-46b2168a91.htm

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