Portland-area cousins recall WWII and Japanese internment
Portland-area natives remember their loved ones who fought in World War II, who are now being honored by Oregon as part of a dedication to the Japanese Americans who fought for this country.
Earlier this month, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill passed by the state Legislature to designate Highway 35 as the Oregon Nisei Veterans World War II Memorial Highway. The highway is slated to be formally dedicated Aug. 13. The new name honors Nisei veterans — Japanese Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War II.
Among the local residents who had relatives fighting in the conflict are Ron Iwasaki, whose family founded Iwasaki Bros. plant nursery in Hillsboro, and his cousin, Dwight Onchi, a former Washington County Sheriff's deputy and Sherwood Police Department sergeant.
While the history is fuzzy at times, Iwasaki and Onchi say both of their families were impacted by the war's fallout and forced relocation.
The Iwasakis already had secured land in Washington County by the time the war broke out and President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which gave the U.S. Army sweeping powers to declare exclusion zones and round up people expected to have sympathy for America's enemies.
While the word "Japanese" was not used anywhere in the order, 9066 was used to specifically target Japanese Americans and immigrants in states along the West Coast. Some 120,000 were impacted by the order, most of whom were U.S. citizens by birthright, according to the National Archives.
Even for those living outside of exclusion zones, like the Iwasakis, the anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping the nation, including in Oregon, was enough to make some families consider relocating, even temporarily.
"You weren't forced to relocate, but you might have wanted to because the anti-Japanese sentiment was so hot at the time," Iwasaki said. "So, a lot of them got out of Dodge before the law forced them to."
His father, who already was an experienced farmer by the time forced relocation efforts got underway, received a tip about demand for laborers in Eastern Oregon. So, he moved the family to just outside of Nyssa to work on the sugar beet farms.
They lived in camps that were little more than tents set atop a plywood slab, working all summer and into the fall, until snow started to fall on the high desert. After the war ended, the family returned to Washington County where they still had a home, thanks to German immigrant neighbors who had agreed to watch the homestead for them.
Not everyone was so lucky.
"Depending on the mood of the local population — there were a lot of good guys, don't get me wrong — but there were a lot of bad guys who didn't care if they became squatters or looters," Iwasaki said. "A lot of people came back to find their property wasn't there anymore or wasn't theirs anymore."
Iwasaki's and Onchi's families talked about this being a bigger problem in East Multnomah County and in Hood River County — the site of the memorial highway — but it was a concern for Japanese Americans all over the country, nonetheless.
According to the National Archives, the total property loss for Japanese Americans during WWII is estimated at $1.3 billion. Estimated income loss is more than twice that amount.
It helped that Washington County Sheriff John Connell, himself a farmer, wrote Iwasaki's family an advocacy letter as the anti-Japanese fervor was rising. If anyone gave the Iwasakis trouble, they could show this note, written on official county letterhead, vouching for them.
This didn't stop the Iwasakis from leaving the area, but not every immigrant family had the benefit of powerful connections.
The Onchi family, related to Iwasaki's through marriage, didn't escape the internment camps.
They were taken from their homes in Gresham and Portland in 1942 and housed temporarily at the Portland stockyards, awaiting transport to an internment camp in Tule Lake, California, and then eventually to Camp Jerome in southeastern Arkansas. Onchi said one of his older cousins was born at the stockyards.
His father, Jim Onchi, who'd enlisted in the Army prior to Pearl Harbor, was training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, when he learned of his family's relocation. On a temporary leave from his duties, he went to visit them.
That's when he met Fumi, whose family also was detained at Camp Jerome. They'd shared a cramped train car all the way from Portland. The two were married in the camp in 1944.
Onchi's father was an accomplished judo martial artist. Despite his request, Jim Onchi never was deployed overseas because he "was too important as a trainer" of American troops, Onchi said.
Onchi continued this family passion for judo by becoming a decorated competitor, placing in the top three at the U.S. National Judo Championships in 1967 and 1968. He also competed for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Judo Team in 1973.
Onchi said that growing up, he often felt like he was in the military himself since his father required him and his brothers to undergo the same discipline and training he used on his Army troops. But as hard as his father was on him at times, Onchi's mother was the real coach of the family.
"My mother was always the one reminding me to watch my rice intake and stay trim," Onchi said. "She was really more of my coach."
His uncles, Joe Onchi and Arthur Iwasaki, served in the U.S. Army during WWII. Arthur was part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which is specifically honored in the new Highway 35 dedication. He was wounded in battle twice and received two Silver Stars for heroism along with a Purple Heart.
Other family members also served, including in later conflicts. Onchi's eldest brother died in Vietnam in 1969.
Onchi said he always wondered why Japanese Americans who'd proven their loyalties to the United States were treated like spies. Onchi, who served in the Army Reserves, said he was driven toward law enforcement to further his family's sacrifices for this country.
But it wasn't easy.
"I started out as a deputy with Washington County … then in 1991 I joined the Sherwood Police Department," Onchi said. "It wasn't easy to become a deputy as a Japanese Asian. … I think, even to this day, there aren't many Asian police officers."
Onchi's mother, always pushing, used to tell him he had to work three times as hard as a white man if he wanted to advance in law enforcement.
"My mother would always say, 'Well, you have to do 300%,'" Onchi recalled. "I think that with what they had gone through (during WWII), they really did have to put in 300%."
Nisei Veterans Memorial Highway
The highway dedication — a 41-mile stretch between Interstate 84 in Hood River and Highway 26 near Government Camp — honors the sacrifices of Japanese American service members, but it's also a testament to the resolve of all the Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and detained.
Iwasaki is the commander of the Oregon Nisei Veterans, who are honored as part of the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a platoon made up almost entirely of Japanese Americans.
Gen. David Bramlett, speaking at the 60-year reunion of the regiment in Honolulu, called them "the most decorated" infantry regiment to serve in WWII.
Many of them worked in the Military Intelligence Service, the top-secret agency within the U.S. Army that was tasked with intercepting and translating coded Japanese military messages.
Both Iwasaki and Onchi said family members didn't often talk about this period of their lives. They were of the Silent Generation, born and raised in the throes of the Great Depression and a changing United States. They kept their heads down. They didn't take unnecessary risks.
"It's kind of tradition that people didn't talk about it," Iwasaki said. "What it was, it was. You didn't gripe — I mean you didn't have anyone to gripe to except your neighbor."
Still, as harrowing as the experience was, Onchi said he thinks it brought families and neighbors in this area closer together.
"I think all of those who had been through this internment, I think it pulled them together," Onchi said. "So, when they got back … they supported each other."
Onchi said he didn't really think about the impact of the Nisei veterans until later in his life. Once he did, he started recalling all sorts of memories. Some of his greatest mentors in life also served in the 442nd.
The man who donned a red suit and white beard as Santa Claus at yearly Christmas parties was a Nisei veteran. He helped pull family members out of Vanport during the flood in 1948, just a few years after they'd finally returned to their homes after the war.
Another Nisei veteran was a carpenter who worked with Onchi's father, building houses in the area that still stand.
"Once I became aware of this group, as I looked back, I started to realize how many of my mentors were these Nisei vets," Onchi said.
He and Iwasaki will attend the highway dedication ceremony, which will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Wy'east Middle School Performing Arts Center, located at 3000 Wyeast Road in Hood River.
A flyer detailing the highway dedication efforts summarizes how the designation not only commemorates the veterans who served with distinction, but all Japanese Americans who struggled to reclaim their homes.
"They served with fierce determination fueled by their desire to prove their families' rightful place in the country of their birth, the United States of America," the flyer reads.
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