A Mixed Reception: Japanese Americans Return to Oregon
"Please Notice: No Jap Trade"
After enduring long years of internment at relocation centers during most of World War II, Oregon's Japanese Americans suffered further indignities as racist and nativist elements in their old communities sought to prevent their return late in the war and into the postwar period. Many internees heard about the hateful intentions of Japanese exclusionists in towns such as Hood River and Gresham and simply chose to start a new life elsewhere in the West. Others returned to their homes, confronted the prejudice, and rebuilt their lives.
Stirring racist sentiments
The absence of the interned Japanese Americans from Oregon communities during the war emboldened many opportunistic neighbors and politicians to stir up mistrust and hatred. Newspaper stories were replete with accounts of Japanese military atrocities during the war and therefore provided ample grist for the mill. It wasn't difficult for many people to make a link between their old Japanese Americans neighbors and the heinous actions of the enemy. Proponents of harsh measures against all people of Japanese descent quoted respected American military leaders to bolster their case. For example, the Oregon-based Japanese Exclusion League Journal highlighted a statement by Navy Admiral "Bull" Halsey that "Japs are not fit to live in a Civilized World!" along with Army General Douglas MacArthur saying that "the Japanese have proved that they are barbarians."(1)
Some Oregon political leaders, including retiring U.S. Senator Rufus Holman, jumped on the bandwagon. But none were more consistently anti-Japanese American than former governor and congressman Walter M. Pierce. In the early 1920s, he supported an Oregon law banning ownership of property by Japanese aliens and a federal law barring further immigration of Japanese aliens. And if anything, his nativist tendencies had deepened over the next two decades. By World War II, he said that "we should never be satisfied until every last Jap has been run out of [the] United States and our Constitution changed so they can never get back." Writing in 1945 under the headline "Japs in U.S. Must Go" in the Japanese Exclusion League Journal, Pierce made his case against Japanese Americans:
Their ideals, their racial characteristics,
social customs and their way of life are such that they cannot be assimilated
into American communities. They will always remain a people apart, a cause
of friction and resentment, and a possible peril to our national safety.
They are an ever-present menace in our midst. Their presence here is definitely
detrimental to our country.
In the half-century they have lived in the United States, they have never been part of community life, but dwellers in miserable "Little Tokyos" or slum farms. On Pearl Harbor Day there were thousands of them, born in the United States and living under the Stars and Stripes who could not speak or understand English.
We are white and Christian. They are yellow and do not accept Christianity. We believe in democracy and individualism. They are totalitarian and believe in the divinity of their emperor. Japanese are aggressive and ever plotting for racial supremacy. ...There is room in the world for both of us, but not on this continent.(2)
Oregon newspaper editors, reflecting public opinion, ran the gamut on the issues related to the return of Japanese Americans. Some newspapers echoed statements of the more rabid nativists. For example, the Albany Democrat-Herald went so far as to question the heroism of Japanese American combat soldiers simply because they had not fought directly against Japanese troops. Moreover, the Albany newspaper was joined by the Pendleton East Oregonian in charging that Japanese Americans were plotting to "out-breed" whites in America to gain control. Other editors, in particular former Governor Sprague at the Salem Statesman, argued forcefully in favor of fair and equal treatment for returning Japanese Americans. Sprague, regretting his role in the internment process of 1942, wrote often and passionately against what he called the "almost insensate prejudice within the white mind." Most editorial writers, however, simply avoided the subject, perhaps out of fear about getting too far ahead of public sentiment on such a volatile issue.(3)
Meanwhile, some advocates of harsh measures pointed to what they claimed to be a long standing conspiracy on the part of the Japanese American community of orchardists in the Hood River Valley. Over the years since the passage of Oregon's 1923 Alien Land Law prohibiting land ownership by Japanese nationals, many had purchased land in the names of their children. Former Hood River County Clerk Ken Shoemaker said that his old job of recording deeds had put him "in an excellent position to watch the 'squeeze method' used by the intruding Japs in Hood River Valley as well as other desirable areas where they seek to penetrate...." He charged that Japanese Americans and aliens would systematically purchase property until they had encircled a white landowner. According to Shoemaker, at that point, "needless to say, the bottom has dropped out of the value of what once was excellent property." That land would then be purchased at a low cost and added to the growing Japanese American holdings so that "white farmers were gradually being smoked out."(4)
Along the same lines, the secretary of the Hood River American Legion post wrote to Governor Snell asking for the "assistance of your legal staff" because "there is a widespread beleif [sic] among the people here that this law [Oregon's Alien Land Law] has been cleverly bypassed for many years." Snell, too politically savvy to put his fingerprints on such an issue, offered nothing more than a bland response. Generally, the governor did little to discourage this and other actions of nativists in the state. And after intense lobbying, the Legislature passed a law in March 1945 closing loopholes in the 1923 law and adding new penalties.(5)
Japanese Americans begin to return
Various groups sent a number of resolutions and letters to the governor and Legislature after the federal government's Public Proclamation No. 21 of December 17, 1944 ended the exclusion of people of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast. Tensions rose in several communities such as Gresham, Sherwood, and Forest Grove in anticipation of the returning internees. One public meeting in Gresham drew over 1,000 people demanding that the return migration be prevented. Delegations to the meeting from Multnomah, Clackamas, and Hood River counties called for the deportation of aliens and for other actions against the Japanese Americans. Meanwhile, Harold Barr, with the Clackamas Implement Dealers Association, informed the governor that many businessmen and farmers in the Oregon City area were "genuinely concerned about the return of the Japs to this district at this time." Barr urged strong action by the governor "against letting them infiltrate back now." And he claimed that Snell would "gain in stature" from taking a stand on the issue:
"The policy of appeasement and pussy-footing should be an example not to follow."(6)
The Oregon House of Representatives soon responded to the political pressure by passing Joint Memorial No. 9 on February 28, 1945. The statement called on President Roosevelt to prevent the return of Japanese Americans "for the duration of the present war with Japan." The legislators based their request on what they described as "considerable antagonism to such return" in Oregon as well as the claim that the internees would be "safer and cause less civilian disturbance in the relocation centers."(7)
The former internees who did trickle back to their old homes during much of 1945 were often met with open hostility by white neighbors. Some found their homes looted and their orchards vandalized while others endured boycotts on the purchase of their fruits and vegetables or heard racial slurs or threats. A few were assaulted physically. Some merchants in the Hood River Valley refused to offer service to the returning Japanese Americans. Ralph Sherrieb put up a sign in the window of his rural grocery store that read: "PLEASE NOTICE: NO JAP TRADE." Sherrieb said that "we just don't recognize 'em around here." We don't want 'em and we tell 'em to stay away from us. So far as we are concerned, it's once a Jap, always a Jap." In a not uncommon refrain, the Hood River post of the American Legion called for the "total elimination of all alien Japanese and their sons and daughters of American citizenship from the Hood River area...and 'fair disposal' of property held by these people."(8)
The glare of the national spotlight
Amid escalating hostility, Hood River was shoved quickly into the national spotlight in January 1945 after the local post of the American Legion removed the names of 16 Japanese American servicemen from a military service honor roll in front of the county courthouse. The action soon caused a firestorm of indignation and drew the condemnation of magazines and newspapers across the country. A column by New York newspaper writer Thomas L. Stokes focused on the hero's death of Hood River resident Frank T. Hachiya who fell to a sniper's bullet after volunteering for a dangerous mission in the Philippines. Although his name had been omitted from the honor roll in the first place (apparently because he and several other local Japanese Americans had registered for the draft outside of Hood River), his story epitomized patriotism and sacrifice. Clearly, the removal of the names of other brave Japanese Americans was well beyond what most Americans would tolerate. Yet the local Legion leaders held firm for weeks under increasingly intense pressure to restore the names.
The ongoing controversy caused problems for Governor Snell, not otherwise known as a friend of Japanese American rights. Snell and other state officials became concerned about the possibility of violence in the tense war of words. He received a state police officer's report on the "Japanese situation [in] Hood River County" at the end of January 1945. The officer surveyed the sheriff, police chief, district attorney, county judge, and others about the possibility of "mob violence in the area." While most discounted large scale violence, one was "afraid there would be scattered cases of fires and assaults." The editor of the local newspaper said that he had heard that "certain men...were carrying firearms and had made the statement that they would shoot the first Jap on sight, but due to the fact that he was acquainted with these men, believed this was only a rumor."(9)
Snell was also concerned with the political fallout of the negative publicity for the state and received advice on what he could do to diffuse the crisis. Hubert Holloway, a New York City public relations expert and former Snell advisor was looking out for Snell's political future when he offered his suggestions:
February 20, 1945
Quite frankly, Earl, I know that you have been concerned by the Hood River situation. It is doing Oregon no good because the whole situation is being built into one of these national incidents similar to that we had in Bastrop, Louisiana, during the days of the Klu-Klux-Klan [sic].
At one time you let me be your public relations advisor. If I can still act in that capacity, I would like to strongly urge that you do everything possible -- as you are no doubt already doing -- to get the Hood River people to restore these names. In fact, I would like very much for you to be able to announce that it had been done because I know that it would be helpful to you throughout the country.
Snell replied to Holloway that he had discussed the issue several times with the Hood River post commander of the American Legion who maintained that "their position is logical and well founded." The governor relayed that the commander "had stated on several occasions if any branch of the federal government will direct a communication to them which contains a statement that the names of those in question are Japanese loyal to the United States that such names will be reinstated immediately." But while President Harry Truman had decried the post's actions, apparently no federal agency had satisfied the Hood River commander's demands. Meanwhile, national American Legion officials, who normally allowed local posts great autonomy, finally gave in to the pressure and embarrassment by instructing the Hood River post to restore the names. The post's leaders, even while submitting to orders, remained defiant, which caused the editors at The Oregonian to muse that they had "repented under compulsion." The newspaper noted that the Hood River post, "while restoring the names of the nisei service men, utters in the same breath its decision, a continuing resolve, to oppose the return of any Japanese to the Hood river valley."(11)
But along with the many instances of blatant racism, intimidation, and hatred, some Oregonians welcomed the returning Japanese Americans and publicly campaigned in support. Many church leaders and others rallied against anti-Japanese American legislation, calling it "anti-Christian and undemocratic." They argued that "passage of such legislation would serve as a precedent and an invitation to further legislation which might well penalize Americans because they are Christians or because they are not Christians; because they are property owners or simply because they live on the wrong side of the tracks." The campaign peaked in Gresham at a March 16, 1945 meeting that drew about 1,000 supporters. The event featured a speech by former Governor Sprague in which he said that he knew of "not one single act of sabotage or traitorism committed or on record as having been committed by any person of Japanese extraction in the state of Oregon, and to the best of my knowledge I know of none on the entire Pacific Coast."(12)
Meanwhile, others rallied like-minded individuals in Hood River County. The Reverend Sherman Burgoyne worked tirelessly to restore the names of the Japanese American servicemen to the honor roll and to organize support in Hood River for fair treatment. Other citizens formed the League for Liberty and Justice, led by Mrs. Max Moore, a grandmother and operator of an electric shop. Moore said that the group organized "because we did not want the country to think that everyone in Hood River approved of the removal of the names from the county courthouse. We wanted America to know that there was tolerance as well as intolerance in Hood River, that many Hood River people believed in fair play. We took the title of our organization from the final words of the pledge of allegiance to the American flag--'with liberty and justice for all.' That's what we stand for."(13)
On a individual level many Oregonians also resisted the pressure to reject the the Japanese Americans. Taro Asai experienced the value of good neighbors first hand when he returned home to his 40-acre orchard near Hood River. A staff sergeant in the Army, Asai had read in the Army newspapers about his name being removed from the honor roll. And he certainly was alarmed by letters from home that told about the organized resistance proclaiming "there is no room in Hood River for Japs." So he felt great relief in seeing with his own eyes that his neighbors, Carl Smith and his wife, had taken good care of his fruit trees. Asai later commented that "the Smiths have shown us what the brotherhood of man really means. They watched over our farm while my parents were in the relocation camp and my brothers and I were in the army. They have been the best friends and neighbors anyone could possibly have." Carl Smith returned the compliments in recounting his experience: "The Asais always have been our friends. We helped them out when they were in trouble. It cost us some of our friends. They accused us of being 'Jap lovers.' Of course that was ridiculous. We were only helping neighbors in trouble."(14)
Over the coming years only about half of the prewar population of Japanese Americans returned to the Hood River Valley. Those who did return generally kept a low profile until the hatred fanned by Walter Pierce, Ken Shoemaker, and others dissipated. The end of the war in August 1945 started the slow healing process. While some neighbors, both white and Japanese Americans, refused to let go of their bitterness, most found ways to get along and move forward. Japanese Americans eventually reintegrated with the social and cultural life of the community, returning to stores, schools, and churches. Government responded too. In the late 1940s the federal government reimbursed a small portion of the economic losses suffered by Japanese Americans due to internment. The Oregon Supreme Court struck down the Alien Land Law in 1949. Hundreds of Oregon Issei, those born in Japan, applied for citizenship after Congress lifted the ban in 1952. And in 1965 Congress finally reversed the strict and racist immigration quotas that dated back to the 1920s.(15)
1. Banner Quotes, The Japanese Exclusion League Journal, May 1945. Page 1, Folder 22, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA.
2. David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003), Page 224; "Japs in U.S. Must Go, Says Oregon Ex-Governor," The Japanese Exclusion League Journal, May 1945. Page 4, Folder 22, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA.
3. Floyd J. McKay, An Editor for Oregon (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1998), Pages 183-187.
4. "How Japs 'Freeze' U.S. Farmers," The Japanese Exclusion League Journal, May 1945. Page 2, Folder 22, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA;
5. Letter from G.R. Frey to Governor Snell, February 17, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; Letter from Governor Snell to G.R. Frey, February 20, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; Linda Tamura, The Hood River Issei (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), Page 210.
6. Letter from Clifford Schneider to Governor Snell, February 12, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; Letter from Harold Barr to Governor Snell, February 12, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
7. "House Joint Memorial No. 9," Oregon Legislative Assembly, February 28, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
8. "All Quiet on Hood River Front as Japs Return to Valley," The Sunday Oregonian, June 16, 1946, Magazine Section, Page 1; Floyd J. McKay, An Editor for Oregon (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1998), Page 184.
9. "Officer's Report Oregon State Police" Re: Japanese Situation in Hood River County, January 30, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
10. Letter from Hubert Holloway to Governor Snell, February 20, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
11. Letter from Governor Snell to Hubert Holloway, February 26, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; "Applause for Hood River Post," The Oregonian, March 7, 1945, Page 4.
12. Letter from Irving Enna, First Congregational Church to Members of the Oregon State Legislature, March 5, 1945. Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA; Floyd J. McKay, An Editor for Oregon (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1998), Page 186.
13. "All Quiet on Hood River Front as Japs Return to Valley," The Sunday Oregonian, June 16, 1946, Magazine Section, Page 1.
15. David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003), Page 225; Gordon Dodds, Oregon: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977), Page 190.