Conscience and the Constitution

Study center

The 1944 Nisei draft at Heart Mountain, Wyoming: Its relationship to the historical representation of the World War II Japanese American evacuation

by Arthur A. Hansen
Professor of History and Director of the Oral History Program
California State University, Fullerton

Statement of Purpose

By examining a controversial aspect of the World War II eviction and detention experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry-the drafting of U.S. citizen Nisei from behind barbed wires at a federal internment facility in Wyoming administered by the War Relocation Authority-this brief unit of several-days duration is designed to introduce students to two controversial historiographical issues. The first one involves the changing representation of past reality. The second, and closely related, issue pertains to how historical truths and value judgments are reflective of a society's circumstances and power relations. Since the situation under examination occurred in 1944 during the Japanese American Evacuation- yet achieved renewed prominence within the movement for Japanese American redress between the late 1960s and the present-this unit may be taught profitably in conjunction with either World War II or recent U.S. history.


The teaching unit offers a means of studying a major event in Asian American and U.S. history, the World War II Japanese American Evacuation, that not only invites an investigation into its causes, developments, and consequences, but also induces an appreciation for how the past as a whole is constructed, communicated, and used as a source of identity and empowerment. Too often, students are taught about the details of events like the Japanese American Evacuation without comparable classroom time devoted to placing them into a meaningful historical context and situating them within an appropriate historiographical frame of analysis. While discharging this dual burden, the teaching unit ideally should capitalize on the contested response to the draft at the Heart Mountain center-compliance and dissent-to prod student exploration of the problematic nature of such concepts as loyalty, patriotism, and heroism. In this connection, the roles played at Heart Mountain in 1944 by three "representative" Nisei (Frank Emi, Ben Kuroki, and James Omura) should be catechized.


  • to examine the perception, widespread within the American public even after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, that the Japanese American Evacuation was justified on the grounds of wartime security, generally humane in its implementation, passively conformed to by Americans of Japanese ancestry, and limited in significance to the period of U.S. participation in World War II;
  • to correlate Asian American historical experiences with U.S. history;
  • to connect the Japanese American Evacuation to the pre- and post-World War II experience of Asian Americans, in general, and Japanese Americans, in particular;
  • to introduce the phenomenon of intracultural variation and demonstrate its significance in terms of a highly stereotyped ethnic community in an acute crisis situation;
  • to sensitize students to a prominent historiographical question (objectivity versus subjectivity), non-traditional forms of evidence (photographs and oral histories), and innovative historical concepts (hegemony/counterhegemony oppression/resistance, history/memory); and
  • to assist students in appreciating that historical study, to be true to the complexity of the past, must embrace such dualities as change and continuity, generalities and particularities, and consensus and conflict.

Historical Narrative

On 2 November 1944, in the Federal District Court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Judge Eugene Rice sentenced the seven leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC) to four years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas for conspiring to violate the Selective Service Act and for counseling other draft-age Nisei (U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry) at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center to resist military induction. The moving spirit among these convicted men was Frank Seishi Emi, a twenty-year-old Nisei grocer from Los Angeles, California, who was married and the father of two small children.

After a four-month internment at California's Pomona Assembly Center, the Emi family transferred to Heart Mountain in northwestern Wyoming in September 1942. One often detention camps in desolate western and southern areas administered by the War Relocation Center (WRA) for evicted West Coast Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, Heart Mountain reached its peak population of 10,767 by January 1943. The next month, Emi was obliged, like all adults in WRA camps, to fill out a "loyalty" questionnaire. Dismayed by its two most controversial questions - one of which asked: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States wherever ordered?"-and by news that a segregated army unit of Nisei volunteers was being formed to showcase Japanese American loyalty, Emi responded that "under the present conditions I am unable to answer these questions." He then advised other confused Heart Mountain Nisei to answer likewise. In December, Emi heard an older camp Nisei well versed in the U.S. Constitution proclaim that the government had abridged Nisei rights without due process of law and, therefore, they should cease pursuing appeasement. Consequently, Emi and several other Nisei joined with this spokesman to create the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

The FPC did not galvanize into a viable organization, however, until 20 January 1944. On that date Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announced that the army, which in early 1942 declared American Japanese undraftable because of ancestry, had reinstated normal selective service for Nisei as a step toward their regaining full citizenship. By mid-February the FPC was holding regular meetings and by month's end had 275 dues-paying members. Frank Emi (whose domestic situation exempted him from being drafted) and the FPCers reacted to the resumption of the draft by noting, suspiciously, that Nisei were treated as citizens only when it was to the government's advantage. They maintained that if the government restored their full citizenship rights they would gladly comply with selective service requirements. Toward this end, the FPC first consulted an attorney about pursuing a test case challenging the application of selective service law to men interned behind barbed wire, and then petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt to clarify their citizenship status.

In March-April 1944 the FPC's influence peaked. Not only did the organization gain widespread support for its position, but sixty-four Heart Mountain Nisei refused their preinduction physicals. In early May a federal grand jury indicted all but one of these resisters. Tried as a group in Wyoming's largest mass trial, the sixty-three men were found guilty on June 26 and sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary. A month later, Frank Emi and the other six FPC leaders were secretly indicted by the same grand jury. Although not waiving their right to a jury trial, like the resisters had, their plight (as indicated earlier) was virtually the same.

The day before the Wyoming court convicted the FPC steering committee, it acquitted yet another Nisei on trial for being a party to the alleged conspiracy, thirty-one year old journalist James Matsumoto Omura. Born near Seattle, Washington, Omura served in the 1930s as English-language editor for a string of Japanese vernacular newspapers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In this capacity, he earned the enmity of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) leadership, whom he assailed as frivolous, obsequious flag-wavers and castigated for presuming to speak for all Nisei in spite of their organization's comparatively scanty membership. The bad blood between the JACLers and Omura curdled when he launched the first Nisei magazine of politics and culture, Current Life, in October 1940. In featured editorials for his progressive monthly, Omura berated them regularly through the final published issue of January 1942. By then, owing to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and this situation set the stage for a showdown between the JACL leadership and James Omura.

On 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt, capitulating to pressure by politicians, nativist groups, and influential media figures, signed Executive Order 906 -- purportedly for "military necessity." This document, which authorized the secretary of war to establish military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded as deemed necessary or desirable," was the instrument by which 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were incarcerated for up to four years in concentration camps like Heart Mountain. Four days after its issuance, James Omura and Fumiko Okuma (the business manager of Current Life to whom Omura was secretly married) appeared in San Francisco at hearings sponsored by a House of Representatives select committee chaired by Congressman John Tolan of California to investigate "national defense migration." Earlier a parade of JACL leaders had informed the Tolan Committee that the government could count on their complete support should mass eviction and detention of their entire ethnic population be viewed as imperative for prosecuting the war. To this position, whereby loyalty was equated with the sacrifice of rights and accommodation to authority, Omura and Okuma flatly dissented. While the fiercely patriotic Omura agreed with JACLers that subversive actions within the Japanese American community should be reported to government officials, he denigrated their notion that mass evacuation was a necessary evil and disparaged their chauvinistic policy of "constructive cooperation." "I would like," intoned an indignant Omura, "to ask the committee: Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler's mistreatment of Jews? Then is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be mistreated and persecuted?"

On 27 March 1942, the army issued a proclamation declaring that in two days the free movement of Japanese Americans out of the strategic defense areas of the West Coast would be frozen and their enforced movement into assembly centers begun. Omura, who had determined not to linger in San Francisco for internment, fled to the "free zone" of Denver, Colorado, where his wife had already rented space to house Current Life. Unable to continue the magazine's publication, Omura started an employment placement bureau. In addition to assisting Denver's burgeoning war refugee population (Colorado's Ralph Carr was the only Western governor to welcome Japanese Americans) find jobs free of charge, Omura filed several racially discriminatory cases through the War Manpower Commission that led to Nisei defense jobs. To pay his bills, Omura took gardening jobs, worked in a munitions factory, and wrote free-lance articles for Denver's several Japanese vernacular newspapers. On 28 January 1944, he accepted the position of English language editor for one of them, the Rocky Shimpo.

Almost a year prior to editing the Rocky Shimpo, Omura had contested the JACL supported Nisei combat unit because it was segregated and, therefore, a symbol of racism. Omura's appointment to his new post closely followed Secretary of War Stimson's announcement about Nisei draft resumption, another policy that Omura knew the JACL had urged upon the government. When this measure caused the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee to mushroom, Omura opened the Rocky Shimpo's pages to that organization for news releases. Omura editorial banner Then, on 28 February 1944, Omura wrote his first editorial about draft reinstitution and the reaction to it by those detained in WRA camps. His concern at this point was not Heart Mountain, but the actions taken at the Granada, Colorado, and Minidoka, Idaho, centers. There draft resistance had been sporadic and punctuated with denunciations of democracy and avowals of expatriation to Japan. Whereas Omura believed that the government should restore a large share of the Nisei's rights before asking them to sacrifice their lives on the battlefield, he could not condone impulsive, reckless, and irresponsible draft resistance.

It soon became plain to Omura that the Fair Play Committee represented an organized draft resistance movement dedicated to the principle that citizen Japanese should do their duty as Americans, equally, but not before being treated equally by the U.S. government. Thereafter in his Rocky Shimpo editorials he supported the FPC, not as an organization but solely on the issue of restoration as a prelude to induction. That the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp newspaper, was staunchly pro-JACL (and, as such, censorious of the FPC for placing Japanese American loyalty and patriotism at risk) assuredly added fuel to Omura's fiery editorials. These gained members for the FPC and dramatically increased Rocky Shimpo sales in Heart Mountain and the other camps (where, opined Omura, "at least 90 percent of the people.. . are opposed to the JACL"). But Omura's hard-hitting editorials also caused the government to sever his connection with the paper in mid-April 1944 and then, two months later, prompted the Wyoming grand jury to indict him plus the seven FPC leaders.

At the Cheyenne trial involving Frank Emi and James Omura (who was acquitted under the First Amendment constitutional right of "freedom of the press") a third Nisei, Ben Kuroki, was in attendance as a potential government witness. Although not called to testify, Kuroki was interviewed by a Wyoming Tribune reporter at the trial's closing. In the resulting article he branded Emi and his cohorts as "fascists," blasted their activities as "a stab in the back," and bewailed that "they have torn down all [that] the rest of us [Nisei] have tried to do." Considering what Ben Kuroki had accomplished in the war, these words carried great weight.

Born and raised in Nebraska, the twenty-five year old Kuroki and his farming family had not been subject like most Japanese Americans to mass eviction and detention. One of a handful of Nisei the Army Air Corps accepted for service, Kuroki overcame immense prejudice against him to become a gunner in thirty perilous bombing missions over Axis North Africa and Europe. Rotated back to the U.S. as the first bona fide Nisei war hero in early 1944, Sergeant Kuroki's canceled appearance on a hit radio show in southern California triggered a cause celebre. Annoyed that this cruel slight had occurred because the network feared the highly decorated Kuroki's ancestry might offend West Coast residents, the elite Commonwealth Club invited him to address them in San Francisco on February 4. Much of Kuroki's talk covered his wartime experiences and how they had deepened his respect for democracy. But before concluding he alluded ruefully to the prejudice he had met in California upon his return from battle: "I don't know for sure that it is safe for me to walk the streets of my own country." Capstoning his oration, Kuroki echoed the JACL Creed-"Though some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people"-and reminded his listeners that Nisei soldiers were proving their loyalty to the United States on the bloody battlefield of Italy. When Kuroki sat down, the 600-plus audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation.

The combat Nisei to whom Kuroki referred were in the 100th Infantry Battalion. Rooted in prewar Japanese American volunteers and draftees in Hawaii, the 100th was activated as a special battalion in mid-June 1942 upon being sent to the mainland for training. Not until late September of the next year, however, did the 100th see duty on the Italian front and suffer its first casualties. In January 1944, the battalion gained a glowing reputation for its stouthearted performance in the Battle of Cassino. This battle and others decimated the battalion's original 1,300 soldiers, and replacements and reinforcements were badly needed. Eventually these troops would be supplied by the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which arrived in Europe in June 1942 and thereafter incorporated the battle-tested 100th as its 1st Battalion.

The 442nd, destined to become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history, was comprised initially of Hawaiian and mainland Nisei who had volunteered for service when the government announced its formation on 1 February 1943. The expectation was that Hawaiian Nisei volunteers would number 1,500 and their mainland counterparts twice that figure. Almost the reverse occurred. In Hawaii, where there was no mass wartime eviction of Japanese Americans, more than 2,600 were inducted (out of the nearly 10,000 who volunteered); on the mainland, only around 800 volunteers were inducted (from the total volunteer pool of approximately 1,250 Nisei in the WRA camps).

That so few of the eligible 23,600 draft-age Nisei in the camps had volunteered-at Heart Mountain out of 2,300 eligible men a mere 38 were volunteers-was of dire concern to the War Department, the WRA, and the JACL. Therefore, when the Nisei draft resumed in January 1944, they hoped that those eligible would readily comply with selective service regulations and, if necessary, fight and even die for their country. In April of that year, while FPC draft resistance was still intense at Heart Mountain, the army encouraged by the WRA and the JACL decided to send Kuroki on a morale building tour of three WRA camps, beginning with turbulent Heart Mountain.

The partisan Heart Mountain Sentinel paved the way for Kuroki's visit. In its April 8 issue it printed two letters from "outsiders" side by side: the first was from a Caucasian member of Kuroki's bomber team saluting him as a person who had "proved himself as loyal an American as any man who had ever crossed the ocean"; the second letter was from Nisei George Nomura attacking the FPC for its "diabolical plan to evade their undeniable obligation to serve this state [USA]." The front page of the Sentinel's April 22 issue juxtaposed its lead story about the war hero's imminent visit with a smaller item announcing James Omura's ouster as Rocky Shimpo editor; also on this page was a reprinted letter from seven Caucasian members of the Iowa National Guard acclaiming the valor and patriotism of Nisei soldiers from Heart Mountain with whom they had shared the fight against fascist forces in Italy.

Kuroki's week-long, end-of-April excursion to Heart Mountain was chronicled in printed accounts and photographs by the Sentinel in its April 29 and May 6 editions as being an unblemished triumph: "Kuroki 'Takes' Heart Mountain." But two private accounts of the Nisei sergeant's visit, even though deriving from a stridently pro-Kuroki and anti-FPC perspective, tell a rather different tale.

Forward to: Part 2 of this study guide

Back to: Study center


Updated: February 2, 1999