When the internees fought back
It remains one of the most shameful episodes in American history.
That time when the United States rounded up tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them American citizens, and locked them up in camps far from their homes… simply because of their ancestry.
It was the internment during World War II of Japanese-Americans,1 and one part of that story is told today by the United States National Archives (NARA).
NARA produces a number of blogs and other wonderful daily features,2 but one that’s at the top of the list for The Legal Genealogist is one that features a daily dose of documents held at NARA called Today’s Document.
Once upon a time, you could get it on your phone or tablet, but software issues put an end to that, so now we need to read and view it daily online on social media outlets like Facebook.
Today, April 19, the featured document is from a court case, a criminal prosecution in the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming in 1944. A criminal case brought against Kiyoshi Okamoto and others for counselling refusal to acceptance induction into the armed forces of the United States while the legal status of those to be inducted remained that of internees.3
The case, United States v. Kiyoshi Okamoto, et. al., involved what was called the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee: “The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee was a membership organization of draft-age Nisei men at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center that advocated for a restoration of Nisei civil rights as a precondition for compliance with the military draft and counseled noncompliance with the draft in order to create a test case of the lawfulness of conscripting the incarcerated Nisei.”4
Ultimately, the leaders of the organization were prosecuted in United States v. Kiyoshi Okamoto, et. al. for illegally conspiring to counsel others to commit the felony of evading the draft, while 63 young men subject to conscription were prosecuted in one trial and 22 in another for refusing induction. All but one of those charged — a newspaper editor from Denver — were convicted.5
The document chosen by NARA today may have played a role in that one acquittal: it’s a letter dated 75 years ago today from the Fair Play Committee to that Denver newspaper and its editor, James Omura, noting that Omura had not been part of the Fair Play Committee’s efforts: “neither Mr. Omura nor his editorial have … in any way or at any time influenced or encouraged the FPC or its members to resist or violate the Selective Service law or any portion thereof, or violate any other existing law or laws of the United States.”6
Now… here’s the rest of the story.
The Fair Play Committee leadership was sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to four years; the younger draft-resisting men to three years in prison. All appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
The convictions of all of the young men were upheld, with the appeals court concluding that the appellant whose case represented all of those convicted “chose to disobey a lawful order because he claimed his rights had been invaded. Two wrongs never make a right. One may not refuse to heed a lawful call of his government merely because in another way it may have injured him.”7 Those men served their prison terms and were ultimately pardoned by President Truman in 1947.8
But the Fair Play Committee leadership found a more sympathetic ear among the judges of the Circuit Court of Appeals. The trial court had refused to allow the jury to consider whether the men had “acted in good faith or bad faith, (taking) into consideration their sincerity or insincerity of belief that the status and rights of American citizens of Japanese descent, evacuated from their homes and detained in the relocation center, could be lawfully determined or clarified by the courts upon refusal of such persons to comply with the orders of the draft board and upon criminal prosecution for such refusal…”9
Relying on the 1945 Supreme Court case of Keegan v. United States, the court held that “‘One with innocent motives, who honestly believes a law is unconstitutional and, therefore, not obligatory, may well counsel that the law shall not be obeyed; that its command shall be resisted until a court shall have held it valid, but this is not knowingly counseling, stealthily and by guile, to evade its command.’”10
And the 10th Circuit reversed all of the convictions of the Fair Play Committee leaders, sending the case back to the trial court for a new trial — a trial the United States never brought back to court.
Telling the stories of our ancestors requires looking at all the relevant documents.
Some of which we may come across in a daily dose of documents held at NARA called Today’s Document.
Check it out.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A daily dose of documents,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 19 Apr 2019).
- See generally Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: remembering the internees,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Feb 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 19 Apr 2019). ↩
- See, e.g., “The National Archives Blogs,” Social Media at the National Archives, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 19 Apr 2019). ↩
- Status update posted 19 Apr 2019, National Archives, Today’s Document page, Facebook.com (https://www.facebook.com/ : accessed 19 Apr 2019). ↩
- “Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee,” Densho Encyclopedia (http://encyclopedia.densho.org/ : accessed 19 Apr 2019). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “Letter from Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee members Minoru Tamesa and Frank Emi to Rocky Shimpo Editor James Omura,” 4/19/1944; United States of America vs. Kiyoshi Okamoto, et. al., 1943 – 1944; Criminal Case Files, 1890 – 1949; Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009; National Archives, Denver. ↩
- Fujii v. United States, 148 F.2d 298, 299 (10th Cir. 1945), cert. den. 325 U.S. 868 (1945). ↩
- “Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee,” Densho Encyclopedia. ↩
- Okamoto v. United States, 152 F.2d 905, 907 (10th Cir. 1946). ↩
- Ibid., 152 F.2d at 908, citing Keegan v. United States, 325 U.S. 478, 493-494 (1945). ↩