0

Homer's Odyssey

Hood River native and Japanese internment victim talks about perspective and prejudice during war time

Dr. Homer Yasui was on vacation with his wife, Miki, in the San Juan Islands when terrorists struck the East Coast on Sept. 11. While others immediately drew parallels to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Homer was not one of them.

It wasn't until over a month later, when the 77-year-old retired surgeon and native of Hood River began reading newspaper accounts about how Arab Americans were being viewed with suspicion -- sometimes outright hostility -- that he began to think about his own past in relation to the terrorist attacks.

"It occurred to me that maybe we (Japanese Americans) might be able to help put alleged threats to our national security into perspective, based on our experiences in World War II," he said. "In other words, to try to make things easier for Arab and Muslim Americans."

Homer will be in Hood River Saturday to speak at the forum, "Civil Liberties in a Time of War," at Riverside Community Church. (See page A1 for details.) He will speak of his experience in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor and after, including the sunny day in May, 1942, when he and his family were rounded up at the Hood River train station and sent away to a Japanese internment camp in California.

****

Homer Yasui was born in Hood River in 1924 to Masuo and Shidzuyo Yasui. His father, Masuo, had come to America in 1902 at the age of 16, worked building railroads in Montana and landed in Hood River in 1908. He immediately founded the Yasui Brothers store, which catered to the few hundred Japanese who lived in the area. As his family grew, so did his foothold in the Hood River Valley as he bought land and got into the orcharding business.

Despite strong anti-Japanese sentiment in Hood River -- the Hood River Anti-Asiatic Association was formed prior to 1920 and the Hood River American Legion was vocal in its support of the group and its wish to rid the valley of what it called "the Yellow Invasion" -- Masuo worked hard to assimilate himself into the community. He joined the Rotary, became active in the Methodist church, and was the only Japanese member of the Apple Growers Association board of directors.

With a strong command of English and obvious connections to the Japanese community, he became the unofficial go-between, mediator and liaison for most business and other dealings between the whites and Japanese in the Hood River Valley.

Japanese detractors dubbed him the "emperor" of the valley -- the leader of "the Yellow Invasion." Local orchardists had another reason to resent him: Masuo eventually had a stake in one out of every 10 apples and pears produced in the Hood River Valley.

Homer was 16, a senior at Hood River High School, in December, 1941. He and his younger sister, Yuka, were the only Yasui children left at home that year. His oldest brother, Chop, lived on one of the family orchards up-valley on Willow Flat; his four other older siblings were away at school or working elsewhere.

The family learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor from the editor of the Hood River News, who called Masuo on the afternoon of Dec. 7. Six days later, FBI agents arrived at the Yasui house at 12th and Montello, arrested Masuo and took him away -- accusing him of being a "potentially dangerous enemy alien," and later of spying for the Japanese government.

When Homer came home from school that day, his father was gone.

"We asked my mother, `Where's Dad?'" Homer recalled. "(We) knew the axe was going to fall," he added. "It was not a great surprise, but it was still a shock. Those were very insecure, scary days."

Growing up in Hood River, Homer had always felt "different."

"I knew there was something not good about being Japanese," he said. "I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was bad to be Japanese -- it was better to be white."

And that was never more true than after Pearl Harbor.

Homer and his sister and mother endured the much increased hostility in Hood River through the winter of 1942. In February, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the eviction and internment of Japanese living on the West Coast -- including those who, like Homer, had been born in America and were thus U.S. citizens.

Homer hoped to at least be able to graduate from high school, but his hopes were dashed when, on May 13, 1942, the Yasuis and more than 500 Japanese from the Hood River Valley and around the Mid-Columbia were ordered to the Hood River Union Pacific station. Homer's brother, Chop, and his wife were there; so were his uncle and aunt who lived in town. There, they were loaded onto train cars -- "ancient, ancient passenger cars," Homer recalls -- which trundled west through the Gorge to Portland, then turned south bound for California.

The Japanese on board, however, had no idea where they were being taken.

"The collective recollection -- from everyone who remembers the train trip -- was that the shades were pulled," Homer said. There were gas lights -- which didn't work -- hanging from the ceiling of each car. Armed soldiers stood at the doors.

After two days the train rolled to a stop in Pinedale, Calif., near Fresno. Homer and his mother and sister were put up, along with thousands of other Japanese from Oregon and California, in primitive barracks for two months at a so-called "assembly center" -- one of several temporary camps used while permanent ones were readied for the tens of thousands of Japanese being rounded up on the West Coast.

One of Homer's most vivid memories of his arrival in Pinedale is of the oppressive heat.

"We were used to a temperate, cool, rainy place," he said. Pinedale, on the grounds of an abandoned sawmill, was a hot, dusty, inhospitable desert. Homer and his mother and sister were grouped together as a family unit -- designated not by name but by a number: 16261.

"That was our shipping tag we had to put on everything," Homer recalled. Chop and his wife were another unit and number, his aunt and uncle still another. Instead of being housed together, the Yasui family was spread out across the camp.

In July, the Pinedale internees were moved north to Tule Lake, a permanent camp just south of the Oregon border that eventually housed more than 18,000 Japanese.

"Again, we were all split up in different parts," Homer recalled. He and his mother and sister lived in a small room in a row of tar-paper barracks, which blended with the endless rows of tar-paper barracks filling the 7,400 acre compound. Encircling it all was a 10-foot-high barbed wire fence and 28 guard towers.

At the time, Homer didn't look at the internment, or even the conditions he and his family and fellow Japanese were suddenly forced to live under, as a particular hardship.

"I didn't even know the words `civil liberties'," he said, adding that the Japanese culture puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty.

"It was the government asking us to do this," he said. "At the time, I never viewed it as them picking on us specifically -- I wasn't really worried about that." For Homer, a rebellious teenager, it was more of a novelty.

"I thought, `Hey, this is really interesting to me'," he said. "I mean, my God, suddenly here's thousands of people just like me. The most (Japanese) I'd ever experienced was two or three hundred." The Japanese population in the Hood River Valley prior to internment had been a little over 400 -- roughly five pecent of the population.

"That's not to say we weren't mistreated -- we were," Homer said. "But it wasn't a big deal for me at the time."

As Homer roved about the camp with a group of other teenagers, his mother and older brother began working to get Homer out of the camp.

"I think probably Mom complained to Chop, `You know this no good Homer running around, he's just going to hell'," Homer said. They somehow tapped a resource they learned about: the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. A Quaker group formed to help interned Japanese American students get out of the camps and complete their college educations, the council worked behind the scenes to get security clearances for students and to get colleges in the Midwest and East to accept them.

Another function the group served, according to Homer, was to help the students become settled -- and accepted -- in communities where they would go to school.

So, in the fall of 1942 -- after only two months at Tule Lake -- Homer got clearance to leave the camp and travel to Colorado to enroll at the University of Denver.

"The council was instrumental in helping about 4,000 Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) students," Homer said. "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

Homer went on to graduate from college in three years. Boasting a strong academic record, he applied to 10 medical schools. All of them denied him except one, Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. The school's dean was known for being sympathetic to minorities and Homer believes that was directly responsible for his acceptance.

He graduated in 1949, did an internship in Wisconsin and a residency in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., before eventually moving to Portland with his new bride for a residency at Emanuel Hospital. He returned there mostly at the behest of his mother and father, who had settled there after the war -- after Masuo had finally been released from the Santa Fe camp in 1946 following four years of imprisonment.

****

Homer and Miki have lived in the same house in Portland for 45 years. They raised three children there, and Homer had a successful surgery practice in Milwaukie. He retired in 1987.

But for Homer, the last half-century has been colored by everything that came before.

"I have very highly ambivalent feelings about our society," he said. He calls his youth and young adult years "an insecure era."

"Everything wasn't always bad," he said. "But those are times that make me reflect now." His brother, Chop, returned to the Hood River Valley after the war to reclaim what was left of the Yasui family's holdings, but Homer had no desire to return to his hometown. To him, it was the place where he and his family were discriminated against before the war, and where "friends" betrayed them during and after it.

After his father was taken away and accused of spying, Homer's brother Min, a lawyer, contacted Hood Riverites who had been longtime associates of his father asking them for letters of support.

"Out of 40-odd people my brother wrote to," Homer said, "three responded positively. Some of them just damned my father. These were people he'd known for 20 and 30 years."

After the war was over, there was a raucous campaign to discourage Japanese from returning to Hood River. A local legionnaire, Kent Shoemaker, took out full-page ads in the Hood River News listing the names of hundreds of community members who did not want former Japanese residents to return.

"That was one thing that really hurt," Homer said. "Some of those people were my teachers, my former classmates, lots of my parents friends.

"And I must have pleased them," he added, "because I never did go back to Hood River."

Even in Portland, Homer felt the discrimination. "But it was the devil I didn't know," he said. "In Hood River, I knew the devil."

After he settled in Portland near his parents, Homer watched as his father descended into paranoia. Homer would drop by to visit and find Masuo cowering in a hallway in the dark -- afraid the FBI was watching him.

"It went back to the days when he was picked up," Homer said, "when people made wild accusations about him." Masuo eventually committed suicide.

"These things do incredible damage," Homer said. He has a recurring thought that sums up his feelings. "If it were possible to be born again, I'd want to be born a white male. That's where the strength and power and influence lies," he said. "Why would I want to be born a Nisei?"

And over the past few months, he's felt similar empathy toward Middle Easterners and Arab Americans. Many of them, he suspects, have similar sentiments.

"So I believe, since that can't happen, we have to do the next best thing," Homer said. "And that's to see how we can prevent something like (Japanese internment) from happening again."

Despite Homer's desire to help, he initially was reluctant to speak on this weekend's panel in Hood River.

"I do it with considerable trepidation," he said. He thinks others will think he's "coming back to stir up the pot." But, because he doesn't live here, Homer feels he can more accurately speak to what happened to the Japanese here than those who returned after the war and re-settled in the valley -- who, as he says, just want to get along with everyone.

"I do it with the idea that maybe we ought to try to prevent this from happening again," Homer said. "I think the flak is going to be great. But I think it's a story that is well worth telling."

Homer believes it's a story that we, as Americans, can't afford to forget.

"One of the biggest prices we paid -- one of great sadness -- was that there was so much potential just thrown away," he said. "And we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on something that was not necessary. It happened because of panic, hysteria and racism."

So Homer, carrying his ambivalence with him as he does everywhere, will speak on Saturday.

"Going there is not going to make me a hero, I'll tell you that," he said.

Comments

Comments are subject to moderator review and may not appear immediately on the site. A user's first several comments must be manually approved by a moderator.

Please read our commenting policy before posting.

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment