Sunday, February 13, 2011

Portrait: George Ishikawa

"My father said to me, 'You are an American. And if you have to serve, you are an American. That is where you belong. If it does come to war, I expect you'll serve under this country".  --George Ishikawa

George and his new wife were driving from Mountain View back to their home in San Mateo, CA when they heard on the radio that they would have to pack up all their belongings and report to the Santa Anita Assembly Center. Like most people from the San Jose area, they were eventually sent to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming. When the U.S. began including incarcerated Japanese-Americans in the Selective Service Program in 1943, many men in the internment camps objected on the grounds that they were being asked to serve in the military while their families were incarcerated and had been denied their constitutional rights. George Ishikawa was the first person I met who had taken a role in the draft resistance movement within the internment camps.

(Photo by Andy Frazer)

Like most interned draft resisters, he promised to report for duty if his family were given their freedom. Many other young men had talked about resisting the draft, but most of them changed eventually their minds. George was one of the first to stick with his decision. He was one of eighty-five Heart Mountain men who were later imprisoned for resisting the draft.

During his trial, George made the following eloquent comment that was used in the front page of Eric Muller's book, "Free To Die For Their Country: The Story of Japanese-American Draft Resisters in WWII":

"We may lose the verdict,
but the verdict shall be man-made;
and with the passing of Time,
eternal truth and right will come to light.
That is my firm belief."

-- George Ishikawa, in a Wyoming county jail, May 1944

When I photographed George just before Christmas 2010, he talked about his memories of leaving their home in San Mateo; a riot in the Santa Anita Assembly Center; and his involvement as one of the earliest draft resisters at Heart Mountain.
  • Before the outbreak of WWII, George recalls his dad telling him to always remember that he was an American, and he should be prepared to fight for America if necessary (LISTEN).
  • His family was driving home one Sunday night in 1942 when the heard the announcement on the radio about Executive Order 9066 (LISTEN), Once his family realized they would have to leave their home, they were given very little time to prepare for the evacuation (LISTEN), Unlike some Japanese-Americans, his family was not fortunate enough to find someone to take care of their possessions while they were in the internment camps (LISTEN)
  • George's family was sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center. He discusses the train ride to Santa Anita (LISTEN), and his arrival at Santa Anita (LISTEN). He also recalled a serious work protest at Santa Anita that started after the guards began confiscating people's personal possessions (LISTEN).
  • After being interned at Santa Anita, George's family was incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. He describes the train ride to Heart Mountain (LISTEN) and their arrival at Heart Mountain (LISTEN).
  • George played a major role in the well-documented draft resistance movement within Heart Mountain. Initially, men didn't know what to think about being drafted. Many were offended at being classified as "enemy alien". There were also rumors that the U.S. Army was assembling Japanese-American men into a suicide battalion. Ultimately, most men felt a responsibility to their families, so they remained quiet about it (LISTEN).  George discusses the confusion over the "loyalty question", his interpretation of his responsibility to defend the United States, and the first few people to stand up and demand their Constitutional rights in exchange for defending the country (LISTEN)Once the draft was instituted, many men in Heart Mountain passively resisted it. But once they were threatened with imprisonment, most of them backed down and enlisted (LISTEN).  George tried to express his reasoning by writing a letter to one of the early leaders of the draft resistance within Heart Mountain. His letter unexpectedly appeared in the camp newsletter, the Heart Mountain Sentinel*. His letter was later picked up by a reporter named James Omura, who published it in the Denver Japanese-American newspaper called the Rocky Shimpo (LISTEN), 
  • People outside of Heart Mountain never received news about what was going on inside of camp. The Rocky Shimpo newspaper began publishing some of that news, but after publishing George's letter, there were ordered to stop reporting news from inside the camp (LISTEN)           

You can also read the TRANSCRIPT of the above interviews. 

After our meeting, I had planned to meet with George again and continue our interview. George had a lot to tell me about his trial and the series of prisons where he was incarcerated. Sadly, I learned that George had passed away before I could meet with him a second time.

"You say, Democracy, that's what we are fighting for... Are we not supposed to be enjoying those sacred blessings and privileges as free citizens before we are to enter the armed forces? We are fighting to restore the rights and dignity of citizenship that is properly due a citizen regardless of his race or color"  -- George Ishikawa

I also found this interesting article about draft resistance in the Wall Street Journal which mentions George Ishikawa. And this photograph from an article from the San Francisco Chronicle featuring a meeting between George and his fellow Heart Mountain friend Takashi Hoshizaki after 58 years.

* I'm still searching through all of the Heart Mountain Sentinel newsletters on the great Densho website. When I find George's letter, I'll post it here.

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