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‘Relocated' idealist lived — and died — devoutly ‘pro-American'

July 05, 2004|By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, Staff Writer

Yoko Thomas never knew her father.

When she was born, he was dead, and since it confused her as a 5-year-old why no daddy lived in the house, Yoko sidled up to her mother one day and asked, as little kids do, "How come?"

Miye had not prepared for this moment.

"She became hysterical and started sobbing," remembered Yoko.

There was no talk of freedom, no mention of sacrifice, or even of her father, Pfc. Joe Shiomichi of Brawley. Just fury and a lifetime of silence on the issue.

Yoko, now 59, was so disturbed by her mother's reaction that she suppressed her curiosity for the next half century. The life of Joe Shiomichi, however, could not easily be ignored.

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Joe was the youngest of three kids, a Boy Scout while at Westmorland Grammar School, then a top shot-putter at Brawley Union High School. After graduating as salutatorian in 1938, Joe left the family farm for the University of California, Berkeley. But history would take its course.

On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed American ships at Pearl Harbor, Joe's older brother, Tokio, was delivering 12 tons of pears from Chico to Los Angeles when he heard the news on his truck radio. Immediately he thought it was a joke. Didn't Orson Welles fool a lot of folks with "War of the Worlds" not too long ago?

Tok went to a football game after dropping off the pears. It was at halftime, however, that he realized the seriousness of the situation when an announcer ordered all military personnel to report to their posts.

The next morning Tok signed up for the Army but was rejected by the draft board. Military officials classified him as a 4-C enemy alien.

A day of infamy would pave the way for another.

On Feb. 19, 1942, about two months after the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that created 10 internment camps for 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry as a "protection against espionage and against sabotage to national defense material."

Joe Shiomichi had just graduated from UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Japanese Students Club and a member of Phi Epsilon Chi fraternity, when he was forced to "relocate" with his family to Poston, Ariz. The Shiomichis were driven at gunpoint from their melon farm in Brawley.

Most descendants of the two other Axis powers, Germany and Italy, were left untouched.

Bitterness, however, was a road that Joe refused to stumble across.

After 10 months at Poston Relocation Camp, Joe Shiomichi kept his patriotism much like his brother Tok, who became one of the first Japanese Americans to volunteer for the war once President Roosevelt allowed it. Joe wanted to sign up soon after, but their mother begged him not to — one son, she said, was enough.

But in a letter dated March 11, 1943, Joe revealed to his college roommate and best friend since third grade, Eddie Tokeshi, his trouble sticking to that fear-driven order. At the time he began his courtship with Miye Kojaku, another Berkeley student at the camp, adding to the "thoughts constantly in a turmoil" in his head.

A decision was at hand.

"I've become more and more convinced that we must take a firm stand now in asserting our beliefs in regards to being Americans. We may have just causes for some of our grievances but I certainly don't feel that those grievances should be kept so long and harbored within us to the point of distorting our views for the future. …

"Because there have been a few uprisings and a few outbursts of pro-Axis feelings, I've gone the other extreme and have continually asserted that I am pro-American," Joe wrote. "By volunteering for the Army, I feel that the Niseis are building up something concrete with which to fight discrimination after the war is over."

Joe Shiomichi, known as the gentle chemistry teacher at Poston, also had little patience for the Niseis, or second-generation Japanese Americans, who refused allegiance to the United States — they "are either damned fools or want to be deported to Japan," he told Eddie.

But many of his younger students, such as Lawrence Yatsu, felt the oppression of internment. It was undeniable. They had no textbooks, lab materials or classrooms. So the teacher gave the students a few words to chew over.

As Yatsu recalled to The Times-Picayune in 2000, Joe Shiomichi took him for a walk one day and said, "Larry, all this is a temporary aberration. We don't belong in a camp. But don't be bitter. Don't let this get you down.

"America is the best country in the world. There will be flukes and aberrations along the way. But get past it. This is temporary. America is the greatest country — don't forget that."

Yoko Thomas, in discovering her father for the first time, read his words and grieved for her mother, whose sentiments were opposite of his.

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