In another era, he might have been described as an all-American boy. He was a hardworking farm kid who crank-started the tractor by himself when he was 14. He saved his dollar-a-week allowance to buy a chemistry set. At the library, he checked out science books.
In that era, however, Yoshiro “Yosh” Tokiwa was not going to be an all-American boy. He was Japanese American. That ancestry put the Tokiwas and thousands of other West Coast families behind barbed wire during World War II. The U.S. government classified them as enemy aliens after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. They spent the war in remote internment camps stretching from California to Arkansas.
Now a 97-year-old retiree living in Vancouver, Tokiwa has represented his generation at recent ceremonies around the region honoring nisei, those born of immigrant Japanese parents. For example, he was on hand when Vancouver city officials in July dedicated Nikkei Park. He sat beside Oregon Gov. Kate Brown earlier this month when she signed the authorization naming Highway 35, between Hood River and Government Camp, the Oregon Nisei Veterans World War II Memorial Highway.
Eighty years ago, Tokiwa, his parents and four siblings had to leave their home in Salinas, Calif., where they worked on a lettuce farm. They couldn’t take much with them, and a neighbor stored a lot of their belongings. But some bargain-hunters scored real deals. Tokiwa remembers his father selling a new refrigerator for $15.
The family got off a train at Arizona’s Poston Relocation Center on a sweltering July day in 1942. “Roastin’, toastin’ Poston,” Tokiwa said recently in the Cascade Park home he shares with his wife, Julia. “I asked what the temperature was, and a guy said it was 105.”
President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, authorizing the removal people from designated zones as “protection against espionage and against sabotage.” While ethnicities were not mentioned in the order, authorities targeted residents of Japanese heritage from most areas of the West Coast. Up to 120,000 people were sent to live behind barbed wire in 10 internment camps in California, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. Almost two-thirds of them were American citizens by birth.
With the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the nation issued an apology to Japanese American internees and provided reparation payments.
At Poston, the extended Tokiwa family demonstrated loyalty when several members served in the Army’s Japanese American unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Nisei were ineligible for the draft, but military officials couldn’t ignore all that manpower. They sought volunteers and started to draft men from the relocation camps.
Tokiwa said he was asked if was willing to volunteer and he replied: “Sure. Just let my family go back home.” He would if he could, the recruiter said, but it was not within his power. Tokiwa waited to get drafted.
Tokiwa was a truck driver in the 442nd. He didn’t see any combat. German forces in Italy surrendered a couple of days after his unit’s troop ship steamed into Naples.
One of Yosh’s cousins, Rudy Tokiwa, did enough fighting for the whole family. A Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, Rudy was one of the heroes highlighted in “Facing the Mountain,” Daniel J. Brown’s book about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Nisei soldiers compiled a distinguished combat record in Europe, receiving seven Presidential Unit Citations.
Tokiwa is one of the few surviving 442nd veterans in the area and represents the unit where he can. That’s what he did a year ago when the U.S. Postal Service rolled out its “Go for Broke” stamp. Four veterans of the 442nd were invited to an event in Portland. Tokiwa was the only one who was able to attend, said Ron Iwasaki, one of the event’s organizers.
At age 97, Tokiwa is still able to carry the 442nd’s banner — figuratively speaking — in events around the region. When you look at the veteran’s cap he wears, you see a red, blue and silver unit patch that symbolizes another aspect of the team’s wartime service. The patch shows a hand holding the torch of liberty. The nisei soldiers wanted their families to have all the benefits of liberty that other Americans enjoyed.
As President Harry Truman said in a 1946 tribute to the 442nd: “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.”
Hometown discrimination is why Tokiwa didn’t learn to swim until his family was at the Poston Relocation Center. While growing up in Salinas, young Yosh learned that the public pool wasn’t for kids like him. It wasn’t anything official, but he knew where he wasn’t welcome.
But there were more significant restrictions, and they were official government policies. By the 1920s, Asian immigrants (and their children) were not allowed to own or lease farm land in California.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1922 that Asian immigrants could not become American citizens, even though their nisei children were citizens by birth. It wasn’t until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952 that Asians could become citizens. Tokiwa’s parents became citizens in 1954, he said, and could finally own land.
When President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, it disrupted the lives of some 120,000 Japanese Americans who were removed from the West Coast. Two-thirds of them were native-born U.S. citizens. (German Americans and Italian Americans also were interned, but in much smaller numbers.)
Poston, where the Tokiwa family spent the war, consisted of three separate camps. When the combined population peaked at 17,867 in September 1942, it was the third-largest community in Arizona.
Tokiwa spent his senior year at the Poston II high school, but he also worked. He was a night watchman. Then he drove farm vehicles for Poston’s agricultural operation. When internees dug an irrigation canal to bring water from the Colorado River, they widened a section to make a pool. That’s where Tokiwa finally learned to swim.
Like her husband, Julia Tokiwa wound up behind barbed wire with her family. She was only 4 when they were relocated from Sumner, near Tacoma, to the wartime internment center at Minidoka, Idaho.
After his discharge from the Army in January 1947, Tokiwa used his G.I. benefits to enroll at what then was San Jose State College. The guy who had saved his allowance to buy that $7.50 chemistry set graduated from the University of California in Berkeley with a degree in biochemistry.
‘Go for Broke’
About 18,000 Japanese Americans served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. About 600 were killed. For its size and length of service, it was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Members of the 442nd (its motto was “Go for Broke”) received more than 4,000 Purple Hearts; about 5,000 Bronze Stars; almost 600 Silver Stars; and 21 Medals of Honor. Two-thirds of the soldiers were Hawaiian-born and a third were from the mainland. The 442nd was activated on Feb. 1, 1943. An all-Hawaiian unit that was formed earlier, the 100th Infantry Battalion, became part of the 442nd.
Tokiwa spent a long career as a state and federal environmental scientist, retiring at age 85. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he oversaw efforts to protect the public from hazardous materials when decommissioned Navy ships took on new roles as memorials and museums.
One of his assignments took him to a spot that bridges the beginning and end of America’s WWII timeline. Tokiwa worked on PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) remediation aboard the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor. The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. On Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, Japanese delegates signed surrender papers on the deck of the battleship to end the war.