Robert L. Yano had just turned 18 and registered for the draft when he was forced from his family’s farm in Kingsburg (a city in Fresno County, California) and shipped to an internment camp in Arizona.
“It’s just a desert,” Yano recalls of the camp, one of many in the United States that imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants during WWII. “Nothing but sagebrush and rocks… and they had machine-gun towers with the machine guns pointing toward you. Not out, but toward you.”
The US Government changed Yano’s classification from citizen to illegal alien – for no other reason than his ethnicity. He remained in the camp until, at age 19, he was allowed to fight for his country. He spent two years as an Army infantryman in France, Germany and Italy, while the nation he was fighting for kept his father and siblings in an internment camp.
His mother, who was visiting family in Japan shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbour (on the island of Oahu, Hawaii), was never allowed to return to Kingsburg. She died of illness before the end of the war without being able to communicate with her family back in Fresno County.
Yano’s story is one of many from local people presented in a travelling exhibit, Courage And Compassion: Our Shared Story Of The Japanese-American WWII Experience, held at Kingsburg Historical Park until Feb 4, 2018 – which marked Yano’s 94th birthday. It will continue till Feb 25 in Ohio.
The exhibition is a project of the Go For Broke National Education Centre, a non-profit that educates the public about Japanese-American WWII veterans and their contributions to democracy. The displays were funded in part from a grant administered by the US National Park Service.
Yano was at the exhibition every day since it opened early last month. Recently, he talked to a class of eighth graders from Rafer Johnson Junior High School who came to visit. One boy asked if Yano ever tried to escape from Gila River War Relocation Centre camp.
Yano chuckled, then responded seriously, “No, no. But do you know why? I would say we have a little bit more pride than to escape. Because if you escape, that’s not the right thing to do. You’re breaking the law, actually.”
But, he added, that doesn’t mean he never left the camp. Yano and a friend once sneaked out and hitchhiked to Arizona’s capital city Phoenix to watch a cowboy movie and eat hot dogs. Then they hitchhiked back and sneaked back in.
Being an internee was a heavy blow to his spirit. “I’m a citizen one time, born and raised here, put behind barbed wires, and then I’m not a citizen,” Yano said. “I’m nobody.”
Yano said he joined the US Army “maybe to show that I am a good American”. In 2011, Yano received a Congressional Gold Medal for his service with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII.
Kingsburg is among the smallest cities on the Courage and Compassion exhibit’s 10-city US tour. Dave Meyer, the local curator, says Japanese-Americans made up about 20% of Kingsburg’s population of 1,500 in 1940.
At that time, the town had many services that catered to Japanese-Americans, including three grocery stores, a noodle house, a boarding house, labour service, and a Buddhist temple with a language school. The temple and one of the Japanese-American grocery stores were burned down during WWII.
Meyer hoped the museum exhibition helped people see “that fear drove us to take actions against people that were unjustified and illegal in every sense because they had constitutional rights”.
“Two-thirds of the people who were interned were American citizens and theoretically could not be told that they had to move there,” Meyer says. “And now, with the fear we have about refugees, migrants, all of this stuff – I’m not suggesting that anyone is going to lock them up, but I think you need to be aware of how quickly civil rights can go down when people are afraid.”
The executive order that created what US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to as concentration camps was signed 76 years ago on Feb 19, 1942. Yano says what happened to him was “really disappointing” but “I have no bad feelings”.
He shares his story with the hope people will learn from history, so what happened to his family never happens again. A girl who visited the Courage and Compassion exhibition asked Yano, “Out of all the hard times you’ve been through, what was your happiest moment?”
“I think my happiest moment was when they said we were going home,” Yano replied, referring to the war in Europe. “I missed home. There’s no place like home. There’s nothing like home.” – The Fresno Bee/Tribune News Service