"There was a truck, a jeep, and a command car. These guys were fully armed, like I'm going to start a battle or run away! A young lieutenant pounds on the door and says, 'I'm looking for Harry Fukuda!' I open the door. I have my suitcase and a duffel bag. We go outside and the lieutenant asks me if I want to ride in the truck or the jeep. I told him that I'd like to ride in the command car with him, and he says okay. I get in, and the convoy drives me to the bus station."
Harry Fukuda, now a buoyant 91-year-old, lives in a tidy ranch house in Southeast Portland. He was incarcerated—"evacuated" was the euphemism back then—after the Japanese Empire's attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II. Five months before they came for him, one of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans removed from their homes and lives, Fukuda was just a typical UO junior. Then came the infamous Sunday in December 1941.
"We were getting ready to have dinner at Gamma Hall," he remembers. "Someone turned on the radio. There was this terrified voice saying, 'They're bombing! They're bombing!' I couldn't believe it was real. Shades of Orson Welles and the Martian attack. Come on, I thought, Japan attacking the U.S.? Then I thought, If it is real—and it sounds pretty real—then what the hell is Japan thinking? Then it struck me that we, Japanese Americans, are just beginning to overcome discrimination—what's going to happen to us now? I looked around the room, hoping the guys I lived with weren't going to jump up and say, 'You are the enemy!' I'm not the enemy . . . I don't even know what's going on! But no one turned on me at all, students or faculty, I have to say.
"The following weekend I went home to visit my parents—they managed a hotel in Portland in those days—and my father is packing a suitcase. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Something bad is going to happen.' 'Dad,' I said, 'this is America. What are you talking about?' 'Believe me,' he said, 'something bad is coming.' I couldn't help but think, Then what good is packing a suitcase?
"Soon, they announced a curfew for Japanese people. And they took our radios away. I tried to keep a good attitude, but you really didn't know what was going to happen. Very few of the Japanese American students had returned to Eugene after winter break, but I was back in classes. Then they announced that all Japanese, whether we were American citizens or not, were going to be 'evacuated.' Each family was given a number and tags to wear on their lapels. We were told that on a given date we were to report to a designated street corner and await transportation to an assembly center. In our case it was an exposition yard in North Portland."
In 1942, to be exact, it was a stockyard called the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, a sprawling cluster of cattle- and pigpens. The animals were cleared out to make way for the Japanese, 80 percent of whom were American citizens. A young reporter named Dick Nokes (who would, more than three decades later, become the editor of Portland's Oregonian newspaper) drove out to watch the "evacuees" arrive.
"I was shocked," Nokes would tell an Oregonian columnist many years hence. "I remember a little boy getting off a bus with his baseball glove and a baseball. I thought, There's a real American kid and now he's regarded as an enemy of the country. But at the time, you didn't write anything like that."
A few weeks before, in Eugene, Fukuda had been summoned to the post office. "In the middle of April, a team came down from Portland to register the Japanese in Eugene. The lead guy is treating me like the enemy. Finally, I said, 'Please, just listen to me for a minute. Aren't you a Boy Scout commissioner?' He nodded. 'Isn't your name___?' And I gave him his name. 'Isn't your son in Explorer Troop___?' And I gave him the number. 'Well, I was a Boy Scout with your son. Why are you being so belligerent?' The man was okay to me after that.
"One of the men told me I was going to be sent to the camp in Tule Lake, California. I told him that my family was in Portland and they were going to be sent to Idaho. I wanted to be with them. He said, 'Well, if you want to go to the assembly center in Portland, you'll have to pay your own way.' I think I'm the only evacuee who bought his own ticket to go to an internment camp!
"So that morning in May arrived. I'm in the convoy and we get to the Eugene bus station. There's a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. The lieutenant tells everyone to step back, walks up to the ticket window and says, 'Sell this man a ticket to Portland.' But the bus was already full. The lieutenant leans into the window and repeats, 'Sell this man a ticket to Portland.' So I buy one and we go out to the bus. The soldiers start to put my baggage on, and the bus driver comes out and says, 'Hey, the bus is full.' The lieutenant says, 'No, it's not,' and climbs on, points to a guy and says, 'You. Out.' The lieutenant tells the bus driver to give the man his ticket back, then he turns to me and says, 'Harry, good luck.' He shakes my hand and I get on the bus.
"We're driving up the highway to Portland and I'm seeing all these restricted things I'm sure I'm not supposed to be seeing: trucks full of soldiers, tanks, guns. Then we arrive in Portland and I walk out to the street and say to myself, 'Now what?' I expect to see some other armed convoy coming to get me, but after I stand there for 20 minutes I figure that no one is coming. I decide I must be the only free-roaming Japanese American in Portland! Nobody takes much notice—the average American can't tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person, and there weren't supposed to be any Japanese people on the street, so they must have figured I was Chinese. I had no idea how I was going to get to the assembly center.
Then a car pulls up; a priest gets out and asks me if I'm going to the assembly center. Two nuns grab my bags and off we go. They drop me off at the gate, and a guard walks up and says, 'You can't be here.' I tell him that I've just come 110 miles to be here. He says, 'This is a restricted area. You have to be on the other side of the street.' And he walks away!
"I see a couple friends of mine inside the fence and they're saying, 'Harry, get the hell out of here! Go!' but I don't know where I would go. Seattle was the farthest away I'd ever been. Finally, another guard comes out and says, 'Are you Fukuda? Come in.' I was glad that when they searched my bags they didn't find the three bottles of Johnny Walker I had hidden in my sweaters—my friends had sent me a message that it was pretty dry in there."
Fukuda and his family spent May to October of that year in the converted livestock pens. Plywood had been laid down over the mud for floors and canvas hung for walls. Privacy was zero, comfort was about the same. One day the guards announced that everyone was getting a $16 clothing allowance and they distributed some copies of the Montgomery Ward catalog. Fukuda used his money to buy a UO letterman's jacket.
"The days went by," he says, "as we waited for the concentration camp—they called them relocation camps—near Twin Falls to be completed. One day the guards came around and said that people with cars could move inland, away from the coast, if they wanted. Almost no one had cars in those days except the farmers, so a group of them from the Portland area moved over to Eastern Oregon. They lost their crops, of course, and I don't think any of them ever got their land back. The people who went into the camps lost their businesses, their homes, most of their possessions. You figure 120,000 people . . . how much was lost by them to their neighbors and bosses and . . . ?
"Another day they came around and asked for volunteers who spoke Japanese to work as translators. I thought, Like hell—you treat us like dirt then ask us to volunteer? Some guys did it just to get out, including a couple guys I knew who could barely speak Japanese at all!
"In the fall of '42, they loaded us on trains for the trip to Idaho. They told us to pull down the shades and not to look out the windows. They were worried that we would see the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Troutdale—which most of us had driven by a thousand times! We arrived at the camp in the remote Idaho desert, barbed wire all around it and a big guard tower. Bed check was at 9:00 p.m., and of course we all snuck out after and had card games till all hours.
"Once we were settled in, they came around and told us that if we could get accepted to a university away from the coast, we could get an early release. My mother jumped on that. 'You will go to school,' she said. 'You will not volunteer for the army or to work on the farms around here.' There was no discussion about it."
It had long been Fukuda's dream to graduate from the UO, and before he'd been removed from college he had gone around to all his professors, who agreed to give him a final grade even though he wouldn't finish their classes. Then he went to Victor Morris '15, MA '20, dean of the business school, who assured Fukuda that he would waive the university's residency rule. If the young business student could earn credits at some other school, they would transfer and he could graduate from the UO in absentia. Seven decades on, Fukuda remains grateful for that.
"I applied to the University of Texas, University of Illinois, and Drake," Fukuda recalls. "I heard nothing from Texas; Illinois turned me down because they had an ROTC program on campus and I wasn't allowed to see it—the fact that I had just finished ROTC at the UO didn't seem to matter. But Drake accepted me.
"I took a train to Des Moines, Iowa. The American Friends, the Quaker group, helped me and three other Japanese American students find housing and part-time jobs. People in the Midwest were generally very accepting, very nice. The only scary thing I remember is that a friend of mine was in a bar one night and this big drunk guy walked up and said, 'I killed a Jap just like you.' Some other guys steered him away, fortunately.
"I just kept my head down and went to school. The Japanese credo was never do anything to shame your family and always obey authority. So that's what I did. The only time in my life I had ever protested anything was when I was a freshman at the UO and a bunch of us protested the meatloaf in the dorms! (I'm not sure it was even meat. The university's solution was to add more catsup.) So I kind of accepted things as they were. I had no ill feelings toward anyone; I held no rancor as time went on. I think when you go through an experience like that, the bad things fade in your mind, and you remember more of the good things."
One of those good things was a girl Fukuda met in the Idaho camp, who would eventually become his wife. Another was graduating in 1944 with his business degree from the UO, by way of Drake.
There were no jobs for Japanese back home in Portland, so Fukuda went to Chicago. "I got a job working for a chemical company. It seemed that in the Midwest employers were eager to hire Japanese people from the camps, as they saw us as industrious and organized. I became the office manager after one week."
On September 2, 1945, Fukuda ceased—at least officially—to be the enemy. He went to work for a homebuilder, a Marine vet who fought in the South Pacific—and who tirelessly defended Fukuda when anyone would begin to "cast aspersions."
Fukuda built himself a house in Chicago, where he worked the length of his career in building and real estate development and raised five children. Eventually he retired, and they moved back to Portland. In 1990, he and his wife, who would pass away a few years later, each received a form letter of apology for "serious injustices" and $20,000 from then-President George H. W. Bush and the U.S. government. The money helped build the tidy ranch house where today Harry Fukuda is happy to tell his story, before all the voices from those days are gone. Fukuda's own voice is warm and forgiving.
"I was certainly aware that we were being denied our constitutional rights as American citizens, as a result of war hysteria, racism, and other factors. But Japanese Americans peacefully acceded to this treatment. The years have cooled the emotions and the rhetoric, and now what I really want to do is express my lifetime thanks to the UO, my professors, and especially Dean Morris, who made my graduation possible.
"People often ask me if I'm bitter about our internment. I have to be honest and say that the end result of the internment for me was very positive. If it hadn't have happened, I wouldn't have wound up in the Midwest, where I really feel that I had more opportunity and more acceptance than I would have found in Portland. Back in those days, most Midwesterners had no experience with and fewer prejudices about Asians. Of course the internment wasn't a good thing, but I really have no complaints about my life. Does that make me a traitor to my own race, to feel that way? I don't know. But that's how it is."
—By Todd Schwartz
Todd Schwartz '75 is a Portland-based writer who wants to live to be 91 only if he can be 91 like Harry.
On Sunday, April 6, 2008, the UO awarded honorary degrees to 20 Japanese American students, 11 of them still living, whose lives and educations were interrupted when they were removed from the UO campus and ordered to internment camps in 1942. Dave Frohnmayer, then president of the university, presided over a ceremony attended by four of the new graduates and 60 or so family members of the former students.