Partial image of lithograph, courtesy of Roger Shimomura.

An excerpt from
Free to Die for Their Country
The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II
Eric Muller
Illustration credit


Could it be, I asked myself, that the United States government had dared to conscript Japanese American internees into the army after forcing them into internment camps on suspicion of disloyalty?—from the Preface



Chapter 1
Untold Patriotism

  Minidoka Relocation Center
A thoroughfare at the Minidoka Relocation Center in springtime. (courtesy of the Bancroft Library)

On the last day of spring in 1944, as American infantrymen began their assault on the Nazi-held port city of Cherbourg in northern France, the United States Army staged an induction ceremony for sixty-six new draftees in Idaho. In most ways, the ceremony was quite ordinary. The inductees, three abreast and twenty-two rows deep, marched into formation around a flagpole. Military music blared over a loudspeaker. Proud but worried parents and friends gathered around the new soldiers to listen to speeches of welcome and praise.

Only one thing was unusual about this ceremony. The army that was welcoming these new draftees was simultaneously guarding them and their families at gunpoint as potential subversives. The ceremony was taking place behind the barbed wire of the Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho. Minidoka was one of the ten concentration camps that the federal War Relocation Authority ("WRA") set up in 1942 to house the nearly 120,000 Nikkei—people of Japanese descent—that the government had deported from the west coast on suspicion of disloyalty in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Minidoka draftees were all "Nisei"—American citizens born along the west coast in the 1920's to the generation called the "Issei." The Issei were immigrants who had come to the United States from Japan around the turn of the century but had been forbidden by American law to apply for American citizenship because of their Asian origin.

Military service had been promoted to the Nisei as a precious opportunity to prove the loyalty and patriotism of all Japanese Americans—qualities that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had sharply, even if unfairly, called into question. And Nisei loyalty was what the induction ceremony at Minidoka was designed to emphasize and celebrate. The chairman of the internees' community council pursued this theme in his welcoming comments to the draftees and the four hundred other internees in attendance. "We are mightily proud of you boys," said the Issei leader. "We know you will make good and we, and others, will point to your records; and we—all of us here—Issei and Nisei alike, will benefit by your records." After these opening remarks, the president of the Minidoka Parent-Soldiers Association presented each of the inductees with a Bible and a shiny metal cigarette case as good luck presents.

Then it was time for the swearing of the military oath. Lieutenant B. M. Harrington, a member of the army's Traveling Examining and Induction Board, rose to swear the boys in, and to offer a few inspirational comments to the boys and their families about the task they were undertaking. "We in the American armed forces," the lieutenant said to the new troops, "are happy to welcome you Japanese among our ranks, even though your country, Japan, is at war with the United States." The crowd stirred uncomfortably: Did the lieutenant not know that the draftees were all American citizens, not Japanese?

Harrington continued. "The fact that you young Japanese are willing to fight against your country," he stressed, "should prove to all that there are a few Japanese who are good Americans." The lieutenant expressed his hope that at the end of the war, "all nationalities could live in peace in America," and then blundered to his conclusion, congratulating "you Japanese" for "making a splendid record in our Army, where you are welcomed and given all of the rights and privileges of any other citizen who is brought into the service."

Harrington's comments visibly sapped the crowd of its enthusiasm. "Doesn't he know we were born here and are citizens of the United States, not Japan?" muttered one young man. Exclaimed another: "Why doesn't that guy get next to himself and discover to what country we belong? We are no Japs."

A Minidoka administrator took Harrington aside after his speech and pointed out the lieutenant's errors: the Nisei draftees were Americans, not Japanese; they were leaving the camp to fight for their country, not against it; and the U.S. Army was as much theirs as it was Lieutenant Harrington's. Harrington accepted the suggestions and "agreed in good spirit to leave out such references in future induction ceremonies." But for the Minidoka internees, the insult had registered. One of the sixty-six young men turned his back on the assembly and walked away just before the oath was administered, joining in defiance the tiny handful of other young men from Minidoka who had decided to resist the draft rather than comply with it.

Free to Die for Their Country

About the book

During World War II the United States government conscripted Japanese American internees into the army after forcing them into internment camps on suspicion of disloyalty. Most were more than willing to fight or even die for their country, but they wanted their country to first treat them as citizens, to grant them their rights, as it insisted on their duties.

Free to Die for Their Country by Eric Muller tells, for the first time, the story of their resistance, trial, and imprisonment.

About the author

Eric Muller teaches constitutional and criminal law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He first learned of the Japanese American draft resisters while on the faculty of the University of Wyoming College of Law. The story holds special interest for him both because of his own experience as a federal prosecutor and because of his family's own experiences during World War II as German-Jewish immigrants.

In the scheme of things, Lieutenant Harrington's words were actually a petty indignity. The men and women in his audience, and their fellow internees at the nine other WRA internment camps, had suffered far more painful wounds by June of 1944 than Harrington's insensitive speech. Indeed, it would be safe to say that by this point in the war, the United States government had placed almost impossible burdens on them. About two years earlier, in March of 1942, the government had confined them to their homes from dusk to dawn as suspected subversives. Then the government rounded them up and warehoused them for the summer of 1942 in so-called "assembly centers"—filthy sheds hastily thrown up at local fairgrounds and race tracks. That fall, the government loaded them onto trains and shipped them off for indefinite detention behind barbed wire in desolate camps such as Minidoka, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, and the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Their crime was their ethnicity, and the government had made them pay for it with their livelihoods, their possessions, their liberty, and their dignity.

In January of 1944 the government demanded still more. It announced that it would begin drafting the very same Japanese American men it was jailing on suspicion of disloyalty. By early February, young men at the ten relocation centers began receiving notices directing them to report to their local draft boards for their preinduction physical examinations. They were to join the same army that had been guarding them for years, and that continued to aim weapons and searchlights at their parents and siblings.

This extraordinary government demand left these young men with no good choices. On the one hand, they could swallow their outrage at years of mistreatment and leave captivity to fight for someone else's freedom. To do this would mean more than risking their own lives; it would also mean leaving their families behind to uncertain futures as wards of a hostile government. On the other hand, they could give voice to their outrage and resist the draft. To do this was to risk prosecution, many more years of incarceration, and the lifelong stigma of a felony conviction.

Most of the young men in the camps, like the sixty-five Minidokans who were sworn in that June day by Lieutenant Harrington, choked back their resentments and chose to accept the draft as just another unwanted test of their patriotism. Many served bravely in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the racially segregated battalion for Japanese Americans that the army created for them. Some lost limbs, others their lives.

Some of the internees, however, made the other choice and refused to comply with their draft orders. Usually these were solitary acts of disobedience. At Minidoka, for example, nearly forty young men ignored their draft notices, each unaware that others were doing the same. At the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, on the other hand, draft resistance became a noisy and well-publicized political movement that led nearly ninety to resist. In all, more than three hundred Japanese Americans from the ten WRA camps refused to show up for their physical exams or for induction. They pressed a simple moral question: If we are loyal enough to serve in the army, what are we doing behind barbed wire?

Not only did the government decline to answer this question, but it punished the resisters brutally for asking it. Through the spring and summer of 1944, agents of the U.S. Marshals Service came to their tarpaper barracks and arrested them on charges of draft evasion, carting them off to local jails to await trial. Their cases came to trial in federal courtrooms across the western United States in the summer and fall of 1944.

Heart Mountain draft resisters
George Nozawa (right), one of the Heart Mountain draft resisters, and Frank Emi (left), one of the leaders of the Fair Play Committee, outside a barrack at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the summer of 1944. (courtesy of George Nozawa)

Many of the defendants were at least guardedly optimistic; they knew that if there was one branch of the federal government that might protect them, it was the federal courts. Their optimism was guarded because they knew it was wartime and they knew that they looked like the enemy. While the Japanese threat to the U.S. mainland had vanished by the summer of 1944, most of the country still shared the view of Japanese Americans that the military official responsible for their evacuation and internment had publicly voiced: "A Jap's a Jap." As long as the war was still on, the resisters understood that they would have a hard time finding a sympathetic ear for their claim. But they viewed the federal courts as their best hope.

  Heart Mountain resisters in federal district court, Cheyenne
The sixty-three resisters from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center on the first day of their trial in federal district court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 12 June 1944. (courtesy of George Nozawa)

This was not entirely unrealistic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had had twelve years to load the federal bench with New Deal liberals. This is not to say that the federal courts in 1944 were the institution we now recognize them to be; the Warren Court had not yet been born, and the activist era in the area of individual rights that it would usher in was still in the offing. But it was not far in the offing. Brown v. Board of Education, the most daring defense of individual freedom ever undertaken by any branch of the American government, was just a decade down the road. Already on the Supreme Court, beginning to find their judicial voices, were several of the eventual leaders of the Warren Court revolution. Decisions protecting the rights of Communists, blacks, labor unions, and unpopular religious groups were starting to appear with some frequency. The federal courts that would hear the prosecutions of the Japanese American draft resisters were in flux, moving from earlier, more timid times on matters of civil rights to the bolder ones that lay ahead.

The federal courts, however, failed the resisters dismally. With but one exception, the federal judges hearing the cases waved aside the resisters' attacks on the legality of drafting internees and ran shoddy trials that produced across-the-board convictions. This disappointing group of federal judges then sentenced the resisters to lengthy terms of imprisonment—most commonly two to three years, but sometimes as long as five—in federal penitentiaries such as Leavenworth and McNeil Island. The resisters traded in their years of detention as pariahs in relocation centers for years of incarceration as felons in federal prisons.

Only one federal judge saw the cases differently. Judge Louis E. Goodman of the Northern District of California dismissed the government's charges against the twenty-six draft resisters from the Tule Lake Relocation Center, saying that the decision to prosecute them was "shocking to [his] conscience" and a violation of due process. The government did not appeal his decision, and so it might be said that the Tule Lake resisters won. But even these twenty-six winners ultimately lost: their prize for beating the draft evasion charges was a trip back to the barbed wire confines of their concentration camp.

This story is an untold chapter in the history of the American justice system. With the exception of Judge Goodman, the chapter is a bleak tale of callous judges and overzealous prosecutors. But the chapter is a depressing one in a larger sense as well, because it is far from clear that the law would have enabled the courts to reach more satisfying results. Judge Goodman's decision was a good deal longer on courage than on careful legal analysis, and what little analysis there was pushed due process doctrine into uncharted—possibly unchartable—terrain. The cases of the Nisei draft resisters thus illustrated with unusual poignancy how law can deviate from justice.

The resisters' story, however, is not just a story about a failed judicial process. It is also a story of failure in the most elemental process of American life—the process of assimilation. The America that entered the Second World War was a nation that had long cherished the image of the patriotic resister: a colonist heaving tea into the waters of Boston Harbor, Patrick Henry rising to demand his freedom or his death, Thomas Jefferson penning the list of the Crown's offenses in the Declaration of Independence. This was part of what set America apart from the totalitarian regimes it was battling: good citizenship was not the sole preserve of the obedient. To the children of its Japanese immigrants, however, America would not extend the option of loyal protest. Through the force of the criminal sanction, it demanded that these young Japanese Americans prove their patriotism through unquestioning obedience to authority, ironically a trait more Japanese than American.

Ultimately it was not only the federal government that demanded this of the draft resisters; much of the Japanese American community did too. And herein lies the greatest and most painful irony of the resisters' experience. Notwithstanding its wartime demands, the federal government soon made amends with the Japanese American internees who resisted the draft. President Truman granted them a Christmas Eve pardon in 1947, removing from their records the stigma of their felony convictions for draft evasion. To this day, however, the resisters have not been pardoned by some members of their own community who see their wartime defiance as an act of disloyalty and betrayal. So powerful was the condemnation within the Japanese American community for years after the war that many of the resisters did not share their story of oppression even with their own children. Even today, fifty-seven years after the resisters' federal court trials, the oldest and most prominent Japanese American civil rights organization has only just begun to overcome years of bitter internal conflict over apologizing to the resisters. And the sizable literature on Japanese America's wartime exile and incarceration almost completely omits the resisters' tale, focusing instead on those, like the sixty-five Minidokans "welcomed" into the army by Lieutenant Harrington, who said "yes" to the draft rather than "no."

What follows is, in a double sense, a story of untold patriotism.

Heart Mountain resisters released from prison
A group of Heart Mountain resisters poses in prison-issued suits on July 14, 1946, the day of their release from McNeil Island. Yosh Kuromiya stands in the back row, second from the left. (courtesy of Yosh Kuromiya)

More about the history

Read historical documents and background information for a documentary film, "Conscience and the Constitution," about the draft resisters at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming.

The Heart Mountain Digital Preservation Project features documents and photographs from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Collection at the John Taggart Hinckley Library.

Website of the Tule Lake Committee has photos and information about the Tule Lake camp.

The history section of the Japanese American Network includes links to information about WWII internment camps and Japanese American veterans.

Links to statutes, the legal cases, and scholarly articles are included on the website Internment of Japanese Americans maintained by Vernellia R. Randall, Professor of Law at the University of Dayton School of Law.

C. John Yu has a website on Japanese American internment which includes stories contributed by internees, as well as many other resources.


Top illustration credit: Partial image of lithograph, courtesy of Roger Shimomura.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from Free to Die for Their Country: The Japanese American Draft Resisters of World War II by Eric Muller, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Eric Muller
Free to Die for Their Country: The Japanese American Draft Resisters of World War II
With a Foreword by Senator Daniel K. Inouye
©2001, 250 pages, 16 halftones
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-54822-8
Paper $15.00 ISBN: 0-226-54823-6

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Free to Die for Their Country.

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