BEND, Ore. — Eric Ballinger peered through a glass display case at the Des Chutes Historical Museum at the khaki uniform his grandfather Harry Takeshi Morioka wore when he served with the U.S. Army during the final days of World War II.
“My grandfather’s uniform really tells the story,” said Ballinger, who lives in Bend. “One of honor, sacrifice and the willingness to fight for freedom even when his family was relocated and living behind barbed wire.”
During the winter of 1942, Morioka and his family were taken from their home in The Dalles and placed in a series of 10 internment camps along with 127,000 other first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.
But even after internment and the 20-year history of civil rights abuses that preceded it, more than 22,500 of these people — collectively referred to as Issei (first generation immigrants) and Nisei (second generation) — joined the U.S. military when given a chance to show their loyalty to the land they called home.
Morioka and many other men who volunteered for this duty made a tremendous difference in the war’s Pacific Theater by translating intercepted messages and interrogating captured prisoners of war.
However, when these Issei and Nisei soldiers came home from battle, many of them were met with disrespect and racism in their home communities. This was the case in Hood River, which gained international notoriety for how poorly it treated its returning heroes simply because of where their families were from.
“There were a lot of actions taken in the community to discourage these Japanese Americans from returning,” said Portland State University professor Linda Tamura, who wrote about the Columbia River Gorge’s Issei and Nisei in her book, “Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence: Coming Home to Hood River.”
The display case holding Morioka’s uniform and a handful of his personal effects sits at the center of an exhibit Tamura and the history museum’s staff put together to tell the story she researched for her book. Through the exhibit, she hopes to teach an important lesson about what happens when a community’s hate toward an ethnic, racial or immigrant group spirals out of control.
“What would you do?” Tamura asked. “How would you respond if something like this happened again?”
During the late 1800s, apple orchard owners in Hood River and other parts of the Columbia River Gorge won several awards at international competitions that prompted a huge spike in the demand for their fruit.
Tamura said these landowners needed a cheap source of labor and started recruiting Issei, who came to the Western United States to build the railroads, to tend to their trees and clear land so more orchards could be planted. Many of these immigrants were given five acres of land — enough for a small farm — for every 15 acres of forest they cleared.
But over time, the increasing Issei population prompted fears of a possible takeover among the white landowners and farmers. Tamura said the gorge’s last productive homestead lands were being claimed, and people were afraid they might not be able to get the property they wanted to expand their farming operations or pass down to their children.
“The 1920s saw the culmination of a push against Japanese immigration,” said Kelly Cannon-Miller, executive director of the Des Chutes Historical Museum. “You don’t always find pleasant things when you dig into your community’s past.”
During this time, the Oregon State Legislature passed laws that barred Issei from purchasing or leasing land in the state and allowed cities to refuse their business license applications because of race and immigration status.
Cannon-Miller said this sharp anti-Japanese sentiment reached into Central Oregon when three businessmen from California, one of whom was a Japanese-American, announced plans to build a seed potato farm in northern Deschutes County.
According to newspaper reports, ranchers and other prominent community members responded to this announcement by threatening to show one of the landowners “a juniper tree with a rope hung over a limb to see if he can take a hint.”
They followed up on this lynching threat by demanding the landowners remove an armed guard they hired to protect the farm or “there would be need for coffins and a coroner,” and then cheering when the guard was removed and a squad of masked gunmen attacked the farm and its workers. Though no one was killed, it was enough to scare the workers away and the project’s developers — who had promised to bring irrigation to that part of the county — shut it down two years later.
“That sends a message for decades,” Cannon-Miller said. “It says don’t move here, it’s not friendly here.”
Ballinger said Morioka, who was born in 1915, grew up in the middle of the controversy, but that didn’t stop him from experiencing a “typical Nisei childhood” similar to that of most immigrants’ children, regardless of their nationality.
He said Morioka learned how to speak both English and Japanese because his parents only spoke their native tongue. He often acted as an interpreter for his parents and helped deliver their produce to the markets in Portland because he was the only person who could talk to the shopkeepers and find his way through town.
But the normality of this childhood came to an end in February 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that gave military commanders the ability to create a strategic exclusion zone across parts of Washington, Oregon, California and New Mexico, remove any Japanese Americans who lived there and place them into internment camps in the Western U.S.
Morioka and his family were taken from their home in The Dalles to a temporary relocation center in Portland — a facility Ballinger said consisted of nothing more than a few converted horse stables next to some railroad tracks — only to be taken to northern California’s Tule Lake Internment Camp, where they were kept throughout the entire war.
“No one really talked about any of this stuff,” Ballinger said, explaining his mother didn’t know her family had been placed in an internment camp until she learned about them in high school one afternoon and confronted Morioka about it when she got home. “All my grandparents said was that ‘We did what we were told.’ “
Ballinger said he didn’t find out about grandfather’s detention until he was in his 20s and had a chance to spend a summer with Morioka before he died in 1996. Ballinger said the lesson he learned from this experience made him appreciate who his grandfather was and set an example for him to follow every day.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military classified all Japanese-American men as enemy aliens and made them ineligible for the draft because of fears they might join the Japanese Army if there was an invasion. This policy change also meant Japanese-Americans who previously joined the military were demoted and assigned to noncombat roles.
“They were forced to trade their guns for mops and deck swabs,” Tamura said, explaining that her father and her uncle — both of whom were Nisei — joined the military after Pearl Harbor despite this mistreatment.
The U.S. government reversed this policy in February 1943 and gave Japanese Americans — particularly the Nisei, who were American citizens because they were born in this country — the ability to join the military and serve with dignity.
“(Roosevelt) said no loyal citizen should be denied the right to exercise their citizenship,” Tamura said as she explained the reason for this policy shift and the formation of a special combat team for Japanese-Americans.
Most of the Nisei volunteers who answered this call came out of the internment camps and were assigned the U.S. Army Reserve’s 100th Infantry Battalion, which was based out of Hawaii, or the newly formed 442nd Infantry Regiment. They fought in the European and Pacific theaters and won many awards including multiple Medals of Honor and a Congressional Gold Medal.
Nisei volunteers also served in the Military Intelligence Service, a unit of Japanese-, German- and Austrian-American soldiers who provided translation, interpretation and interrogation services to combat units in the war.
“They were called the secret weapons,” said Tamura, whose uncle had served with the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. Because of the help they provided during the war, she added, this group of soldiers — which included Morioka — was given a Presidential Unit Citation in 2005 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.
But rather than get the hero’s welcome, Tamura said, many Nisei soldiers were met with animosity and the same unwelcome feeling that they experienced before they went off to the war.
Because people at the internment camps were only allowed to bring one suitcase with them, Tamura said, most of the Issei and Nisei families who lived in the Columbia River Gorge had to sell their farms and equipment very quickly and at a very low price. These families were charged an exorbitant price to get their land back when they came home from the camps at the end of the war, she said, if they were given the chance to get it back at all.
Some business and community groups in Hood River refused to serve any Japanese-Americans who lived in the community and even after the war, continued to advocate for laws that would take away their citizenship and their land. But that was nothing compared to a 1942 incident that happened when the town removed the names of 16 Japanese servicemen from a veterans memorial outside the Hood River County Courthouse.
Cannon-Miller said this incident triggered a wave of negative feedback as veterans who served with the Issei and Nisei condemned the town for its actions. Even The Bulletin’s editorial page — which just 25 years earlier rallied the public against the Japanese landowner during the potato farm controversy — joined in this condemnation.
“Our leaders were telling us, ‘That’s not OK,”‘ Cannon-Miller said, “It’s not OK to treat our heroes in this way.”
Tamura said the few Issei and Nisei who came back to Hood River after the war kept to themselves and focused on running their farms and supporting their families. She said little by little, they rejoined their community, played active roles with veterans and service groups and started a gradual healing process.
“It was a very slow process,” she said, explaining that almost 46 years after World War II ended the American Legion chose two Nisei to serve as the grand marshals for the 2001 Veterans Day Parade. The veteran’s group also dedicated a brick in honor of the Nisei veterans and helped build a memorial for them at a local ceremony.
Ballinger said his grandfather, who opened a successful TV and radio repair business in The Dalles after the war, never once talked about any of the animosity he experienced when he came home to his farm in The Dalles. But looking back on things, Ballinger said the hardship Morioka experienced during the internment camps and when he came home from World War II probably motivated his desire to serve his community and help his fellow residents as much as he could.
“That was his way of showing his loyalty,” Ballinger said, adding his grandfather’s devotion to a community that treated him so poorly gives him “an amazing example” to follow. “He tirelessly gave back because he wanted to prove he was a loyal citizen and that he was dependable.”
Ballinger said his grandfather’s silence taught him a lesson as well.
“(My family) never really had any bitterness,” he said, before quoting an ancient Japanese saying. “Why bring up the bad? It can’t be helped, so there’s no sense in bringing it up.”