Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
Behind the barbed wire of the Japanese internment camp at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, a few men received their orders to report for duty. It was 1944, and they had been drafted.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States feared follow-on attacks would be conducted by persons of Japanese descent living within its borders. FDR issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the military to relocate Japanese descendants into camps. Barely a month later, Congress passed Public Law 503 supporting the order. Over 120,000 people were removed from their homes to remote relocation camps. Two-thirds of them were American citizens.
While the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was quick to make nisei—U.S. citizens of Japanese descent—ineligible for service, by 1944 the war machine was turning at such a pace that nisei were again made eligible, despite the fact they were currently being held in internment camps against their will.
At the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, two men decided to protest.
Kiyoshi Okamoto had founded the Fair Play Committee, a group dedicated to supporting the Constitutional rights of interned nisei. Frank Emi led the group, which had hundreds of followers in the camp, and found its battleground in the draft: members of the FPC would refuse to serve until the status of their citizenship had been clarified and the racial segregation of the Selective Service had been removed (nisei were eligible to serve only in segregated units).
“I believe this draft law was not intended for me. I was evacuated without due process of law; I am concentrated without due process of law; I was deported from my home state without due process of law; I am detained within barbed wire fences by force of military threat without due process of law; I exist within this militarily guarded enclosure as a Citizen without a Country without due process of law; the whole transaction effecting me is based upon unconstitutional interpretations without due process of law.” – Kiyoshi Okamoto, Draft protest letter
As the group organized, they posted bulletins announcing their intentions and their purposes behind them. Emi helped frame Okamoto’s constitutional protest into action. The FPC’s first bulletin quoted Abraham Lincoln: “If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive the minority of any constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify a revolution.” In the second bulletin they stated that denials of constitutional rights cannot wait for the war to end and that their intent wasn’t revolution but a clarification of their rights. The third bulletin, dated March 1, 1944, opened with familiar words:
“No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” —Article V of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary solitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” —Article XIII of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
And ended with the words that changed protest into civil disobedience.
Thus, the members of the FPC unanimously decided at their last open meeting that until we are restored all our rights, all discriminatory features of the Selective Service abolished, and measures are taken to remedy the past injustices thru Judicial pronouncement or Congressional act, we feel that the present program of drafting us from this concentration camp is unjust, unconstitutional, and against all principles of civilized usage. Therefore, WE MEMBERS OF THE FAIR PLAY COMMITTEE HEREBY REFUSE TO GO TO THE PHYSICAL EXAMINATION OR TO THE INDUCTION IF OR WHEN WE ARE CALLED IN ORDER TO CONTEST THE ISSUE.
James Omura, a journalist at the Denver-based Rocky Shimpo, was the only one to report on the arrests that followed. One in nine men at Heart Mountain refused induction. By the summer of 1944, 63 had been arrested. Shortly thereafter, another 22 were jailed.
At the mass trial in 1944, the 63 men were convicted and sentenced to three years in Federal prison. They were denied a hearing before the Supreme Court. The leaders of the Fair Play Committee had their conviction overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1945. The court ruled their jury improperly ignored civil disobedience as a defense. Omura was indicted but eventually acquitted under First Amendment rights of the press.
The 63 were released in 1946 after serving two years, and the remainder were released on Christmas 1947, when President Truman pardoned all wartime draft resistors, nisei resistors included.
While the members of the Fair Play Committee resisted the draft, others embraced it. The Japanese American Citizens League actually petitioned the government in early 1943 to reopen the draft to nisei. The government responded by accepting volunteers for a segregated combat team led by white officers, the 100th Infantry Battalion. The battalion grew into the nisei 442 Regimental Combat Team, which would become the most heavily decorated unit in U.S. military history, earning over 9,500 purple hearts.
This week marks the 60 anniversary of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the nation’s first peacetime draft.