On the Atomic Bomb and the WWII internment of Japanese Americans


    [This is Ana Marie Lux Between the Lines column of August 1]

    “THE Japanese race is an enemy race. While many second- and third-generation Japanese born on U.S. soil, possessed of U.S. citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted … It therefore follows that along the vital Pacific Coast more than 112,000 potential enemies of Japanese extraction are at large today … The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”

    — Gen. John DeWitt, U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, February 1942

    JANESVILLE–All these years later, Katsumi Neeno chuckles as he reads Gen. John DeWitt’s explanation for recommending that 112,000 Japanese Americans be sent to internment camps during World War II.

    “It’s so stupid,” the 89-year-old Neeno said.

    The retired Janesville pediatrician was a teenager when the government forced him and his family from their California home into a desert camp in Arizona.

    DeWitt of the Western Defense Command had the job of protecting the West Coast. He declared California, Oregon and Washington to be strategic military areas and said that people of Japanese descent posed threats to national security.

    More than seven decades later, Neeno does not resent his country for the violation of his civil liberties.

    “But remember, you are talking to a guy who was 17 years old when it happened,” Neeno said. “If you asked my sister, who is far more sensitive than I, you would get a different answer.”

    He tells his story as a reminder that laws alone cannot protect liberty when people act out of racial hatred and fear.

    This month marks two pivotal 70th anniversaries: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II in Asia.

    But before Japan’s unconditional surrender, Neeno’s father and mother lost everything.

    Fearful of invasion by the Japanese and convinced that Japanese Americans would help with the attack, the public clamored for action.

    The government quickly complied.

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, authorized the massive relocation of Japanese Americans.

    Two months later, Neeno, his father, mother, sister and brother each was allowed to pack one suitcase before being forced to abandon their home.

    Tagged with numbers around their necks, they boarded a bus for the long, hot ride to the middle of the desert south of Parker, Arizona.

    “My parents went with the tide,” Neeno said. “That’s the Japanese way. They had respect for authority. At no time ever in their lives did they criticize the U.S. government for anything.”

    At Poston Relocation Center I, the Neeno family and 10,000 other Japanese Americans lived in barren barracks, which were blistering in summer and freezing in winter. Military police with machine guns stood around the perimeter where barbed wire replaced the sage brush and mesquite.

    “An internment camp with machine gun towers?” Neeno asked. “No, it was a prison camp.”

    The government never filed charges against any of the people, nor was any guilt ever attributed to them. In 1990, President George Bush sent Neeno an apology for the detention and a check for $20,000.

    Neeno will never forget the camp.

    His family lived in a 16-by-20-foot room with straw for mattresses. Adults in the camp set up makeshift classes, and Neeno continued his high school studies.

    The only way people could get out of the camp was if someone inland sponsored them. Neeno’s brother eventually found a sponsor in Illinois. Later, his brother sponsored young Neeno, who washed pots and pans for a while in Chicago.

    The camps closed in 1945, when people who lost everything each got $25 and a one-way ticket to any U.S. city.

    The Neeno children took care of their parents, but many camp residents had nowhere to go and often faced violent prejudice.

    In 1946, Neeno joined the Army. Eventually, he was sent to Japan as an interpreter. During his stay, he met his grandmother, aunts and cousins for the first time in a badly bombed Tokyo.

    “They showed no enmity at all toward me,” Neeno remembers. “They realized I did not pull the trigger.”

    Neeno studied pre-med at UW-Madison and entered medical school in Philadelphia. He completed his residency at Madison’s Methodist Hospital, where he met his future wife, Joan Seeman of Janesville. They have been married more than 60 years and have five children.

    Neeno came to Janesville to practice medicine in 1957, when the city had few minorities. But his race never seemed to matter to his patients.

    “They put their children’s lives in my hands,” he said. “No one ever asked my nationality. I didn’t ask my patients what they were, either.”

    Still, he knows he lost his freedom for a time simply because of his ancestry.

    “If you scratch the surface, there’s an Archie Bunker in all of us,” he said. “I think it is human nature.”

    He knows laws are tenuous.

    “The existence of a legal right is no more protection to individual liberty than the parchment upon which it is written,” Neeno said, quoting retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Clark.

    Still quoting, Neeno added: “Mutual love, respect and understanding of one another are stronger bonds than constitutions.”

    Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

    Questions About The Atomic Bomb Debated 70 Years Later
    Seventy years after the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a new generation still debates the decision that ushered in the nuclear age.

    Last week, students at UW-Rock County discussed the issue during a class on the development and use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.

    At one pole were those who favored the decision to use an atomic weapon. They argued it saved American lives by preventing an invasion of mainland Japan.

    At the other pole were those who say the attack on dense civilian populations was not necessary to end the war.

    David McKay, Dave Carlson and Dave Murray do not teach the bomb class to change anyone’s mind. Instead, they do it to hone critical thinking.

    “No matter what side students are on, I want them to understand that the other side has points they cannot answer,” McKay said. “It’s a very complicated issue.”

    Many students arrive with opinions about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki.

    McKay is the historian, explaining how the U.S. acquired the capability to build the bomb and why the government embraced the idea.

    Murray is the physicist who talks about energy and the structure of the atom.

    Carlson is the philosopher who introduces moral theory and the notion of a “just war.”

    They have taught the class nine times since 1998 and have seen the passing of a generation most passionate about the decision.

    “There are fewer and fewer World War II vets left every day,” McKay said. “The heat and passion of the veterans from when we started this class in 1998 is fading … simply because the vets are gone.”

    The issue is leaving the world of memory and entering into the worlds of myth and history, he added.

    McKay has noticed that students have become more hawkish over the years.

    “I think it is part of the post-9/11 era,” he said. “We live in a time when we are constantly being told to be afraid of everything. And we are constantly being told that if we go to war, what we are afraid of will go away.”

    Carlson senses less interest in the class than when it began.

    “That may have to do with the passing of many more World War II veterans,” he said. “It’s probably harder to attract the attention of today’s students.”

    He said the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still raise important issues about which people can disagree.

    “But there are plenty of debates we need to have about more recent wars,” he said. “The moral questions surrounding our fight against terrorism are live questions and pertinent to decisions we need to make today.”– ©2015 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)



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    1. 31,000 German Americans were interned in World War Two. It wasn’t just Japanese. Why this is important is that one of those who was interned filed a case which went to the Supreme Court. This case deals with the constitutionality of interning immigrants. In Ludecke v. Watjins, the court ruled that when the United States officially goes to war, when the President goes before the Senate and formally asks for a declaration of war, all immigrants in the United States, aged 14 and up, their immigration status becomes Civilian alien Enemy. They are subject to whatever restriction the government wishes to impose, including internment and deportation without access to the courts. This is still on the books. Half of the Japanese were immigrants. My link goes to the legal decision.