Elmhurst College In Depth

A Long Way Home

In 1942, without due process, the federal government sent Himeo Tsumori and Seiji Aizawa to a “relocation center” in a desolate part of the American West. The following year, Elmhurst College rescued them. This is their story.

No fiery locker room speeches were necessary that autumn afternoon. Every Elmhurst College Bluejay already knew that the Homecoming game of 1946 was special. The stands would be packed for the 2:00 p.m. kickoff, even though the football Bluejays were 0 and 4 and had not notched a Homecoming victory in years. But the war was over and the College was celebrating its Diamond Jubilee. Alumni from around the country would be at the game along with most of the students, many of them former GIs who had poured onto campus in the 14 months since the end of the war, hoping to have a little fun, finish their education and leave the ghosts behind.

One of the former soldier-scholars was on the team. He was suiting up as Coach Pete Langhorst went over the plan for the game against Concordia one last time. His name was Himeo Tsumori, a speedy running back who wore Number 35 and was affectionately known around campus as “Little Mo.’’

At a wispy 5-feet-4, with shiny black hair and what the student newspaper called “friendly eyes,” Tsumori was likely to be the smallest man on either team any time he stepped onto the gridiron. But Little Mo played big. He played both sides of the ball, offense and defense, with a chip on his shoulder. “He successfully outplayed and outfought his opponents, who outweighed him 25 to 30 pounds,’’ a writer for The Elm Bark reported. “He always had ‘fight.’’’

His fight was fueled by hurt, anger and gratitude. Little Mo was one of more than 110,000 persons of Japanese descent—two-thirds of them American citizens—who were uprooted and forcibly removed from their homes, farms and businesses on the West Coast in the early days of World War IIy and sent to 10 government “relocation centers’’ in desolate regions of the American West. They received no trials or hearings, and they faced no charges: just guards and guns, panic and prejudice.

In the fall of 1942, Himeo Tsumori was 16 years old and a junior in high school when he and his family were forced to leave their home in San Francisco and go to a windswept desert in central Utah, near Mount Topaz. He would know long nights in freezing emptiness when he thought he’d never “get to return home to America.’’

Practically 100 percent
It was Elmhurst College that saved him. In a moment that now stands among the proudest in its history, the institution faced derision and controversy to do what it thought was right, and brought Himeo Tsumori out of exile. For that, he said, “I will always be grateful.’’

Tsumori wasn’t the only one rescued from the desert. As part of a movement to right the ongoing wrong of the relocation camps, Elmhurst and scores of other colleges and universities throughout the nation’s interior opened their doors to Nisei students in the early years of the war.

Nisei were American citizens of Japanese descent, born in the United States. Most of their parents were born in Japan and were called Issei. Under a racially informed immigration law of 1924, Issei were not eligible for U.S. citizenship.

The government agreed that the Nisei could enroll in the participating schools provided they passed an FBI background check. The students’ parents and younger siblings, however, usually remained behind barbed wire for the war’s duration.

Tsumori came from the nearly treeless Topaz Relocation Center to the leafy Elmhurst campus in 1943. He was accompanied by his buddy, Seiji Aizawa, who was in the stands for that October Homecoming game, along with two female students, Martha Abe and Yuriko Okazaki. They were the original Elmhurst Nisei; others would follow.

The Elmhurst Four were members of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the successor of the German Evangelical Synod of North America, whose members had founded the College in 1871. A campus organization, the Student Refugee Committee, and President Timothy Lehmann brought them to Elmhurst over the vocal and bitter opposition of a small band of local citizens, including members of the American Legion. The Elmhurst Press ran a front-page editorial with the headline, NO ROOM FOR JAP STUDENTS IN THIS TOWN. But on the campus, support for the Nisei was “practically 100 percent,’’ President Lehmann noted at the time.

 “Democracy is on trial here as elsewhere,” Paul Jans, the chairman of Elmhurst’s Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter to his colleagues. “The local community must be willing to accept the challenge for itself which the nation has thrown to the rest of the world…We must make our contribution so that a majority of local American people will insist on fair treatment of these Japanese and not succumb to race baiters.’’

We were stunned
Today, two of the Elmhurst Four, Martha Abe and Yuriko Okazaki, are deceased. Himeo Tsumori and Seiji Aizawa are in their mid-80s and live in Northern California. Tsumori is a retired pediatrician in San Francisco. Aizawa resides in Salinas, known as the hometown of the writer John Steinbeck.

After graduating in 1947 from Elmhurst, where he played on the basketball and baseball teams, Aizawa briefly attended Eden Theological Seminary before he realized that the clerical life “was not for me,” and withdrew. He served in the U.S. Army, and after his discharge in 1953, he spent 35 years in Japan working for the U.S. government as a civilian in military intelligence.

The two old Elmhurst lettermen said they believe that what happened to them and their fellow Japanese Americans could happen again in the United States. “Not to us,” Aizawa said, “but to the Muslims, the Arab Americans. I worry about them, knowing the American penchant for disregarding the Constitution. That’s why I think it’s very important that this thing that happened to us be taught to the American public.”    

The day of infamy, December 7, 1941, was a Sunday. Seiji Aizawa, 15 years old, was attending church with his family in San Francisco when Japanese torpedo and bomber planes swooped out of the clouds above the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It was just before 8:00 a.m. in Hawaii, almost 11:00 a.m. in California. “We came home from church and heard about it on the radio,’’ he recalled, 70 years later. “Like everyone else, we were stunned.’’

The attack left 18 American fighting ships on the bottom of the harbor or listing in flames on the fuel- and blood-soaked waters. More than 2,300 U.S. servicemen were killed. The nation was at war once again.

Aizawa’s father gathered his two teenage sons and his young daughter around the kitchen table, with the grim news from Hawaii crackling over the radio. Aizawa’s parents were born in Japan, but Seiji and his siblings were U.S. citizens, born in San Francisco. Anticipating dark days to come, the senior Aizawa told his children to never forget that they were 100 percent American. “There was really no question where our loyalty was,’’ Aizawa said.

Red-blooded, American and clear
A few blocks away, Aizawa’s buddy, Himeo Tsumori, 16 years old, was playing basketball at the YMCA not far from where he was born in Japantown, the segregated San Francisco ghetto where most Nisei and Issei were forced to live before the war. “That’s where my life was for my first 16 years,” Tsumori recalled. “I felt safe there.’’

Tsumori’s priorities were red-blooded, American and clear, at least to him: sports, girls and, a distant third, academics. Short but fast, he was a star on his high school track team. He remembers being nervous, even scared, as he walked into San Francisco’s Poly Tech High School on the Monday morning of December 8.

“It was a kind of funny feeling,’’ he said. What would his classmates and teachers say? Would they blame him? Would they call him names? The principal convened a school-wide assembly to explain as best he could what had happened at Pearl Harbor. “The kids in my class were pretty good,’’ Tsumori recalled. “They didn’t harass me at all. They treated me like they always did, like I was one of them. Which I was.’’

Aizawa also was “one of them,” an American boy with immigrant parents, a story as old as the nation. “Our parents didn’t speak English very well,’’ he said. “We were somewhat isolated from our parents because of the problem of communication. After kindergarten, our language was English.’’

His parents, though, wanted him to learn about the family’s native land and culture, so young Seiji attended a Japanese language school after going to public school all day. Several Japanese schools were in the neighborhood. “I went to a lousy one,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t learn much Japanese.’’

It was completely illegal
Aizawa’s father had emigrated to San Francisco around the time of the great earthquake in 1906. A few years later he returned to Japan to marry the girl who would become Seiji’s mother, and the couple returned to the United States. Like nearly all of the 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the United States before World War II, Aizawa’s parents settled on the West Coast. (Only about 300 people of Japanese descent lived in Chicago before the war.)

Aizawa’s father was highly respected in Japantown. He ran a Japanese-language bookstore; the family lived above the shop. His neighbors sought him out for advice. Three days after Pearl Harbor, two FBI agents sought him out for arrest. “They didn’t even have a warrant,’’ Aizawa said. “As far as I can tell, it was completely illegal.’’

In the hours and days after the attack, hundreds of Japanese Americans and immigrants, as well as German and Italian nationals, were rounded up by the authorities whether or not they had committed a crime. Within 48 hours, nearly 1,300 Issei were in custody.

“My father had done nothing wrong,’’ Aizawa said. “He sold books.’’  

The rounded-up were the intellectuals, the business leaders, the foreign-language newspaper editors, the movers and shakers of their communities with the strongest perceived ties to the country now at war with the United States. The authorities saw them as potential spies and saboteurs. Most of them were held without formal charges in enemy alien internment camps run by the Justice Department for the duration of the war.

Overseas, meanwhile, the Japanese military scored several early and unsettling victories. At home, racist sentiment broke out like a disease, especially on the West Coast. “The country was scared stiff,’’ recalled Herb Muenstermann, an Elmhurst alumnus who befriended both Aizawa and Tsumori during their years together at the College. “Everybody called the Japanese ‘Japs’—it was ‘Jap this’ and ‘Jap that.’ They looked different. They stood out. It was a racial thing. It was disgraceful.’

In cities from northern Washington to southern California, signs were affixed to light posts announcing a curfew for people of Japanese descent. “We were supposed to be off the streets by eight,’’ Tsumori said. The military declared huge tracts of San Francisco officially off-limits to the Japanese. They were ordered to turn in their cameras and short-wave radios.

Other Asian Americans, Aizawa recalled, tried to distance themselves from his people. Some wore buttons proclaiming, “I am Chinese.’’

Behind barbed wire
One day, after visiting a friend, Aizawa was walking home when he was approached on the street by an African American. Even the start of the Civil Rights Movement was more than a decade away; the armed forces that were fighting the Japanese and the Nazis were segregated. As the man passed, he told Aizawa, “Hang tough.’’

“I really appreciated that,’’ Aizawa said.  

Then came another day of infamy­—February 19, 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans.

“We knew something bad was coming,’’ Tsumori said, “but we had no idea we would be sent to concentration camps.’’

The loss of freedom came quickly. “One Saturday afternoon, I ran in the finals of a track meet,’’ Tsumori said. The race was the 100-yard dash; he broke the tape at 10.3 seconds. “It made me feel good,” he said. “At least I went out a winner. The next Saturday I was behind barbed wire.’’

The government called the camps “relocation centers.’’ They included schools, libraries, hospitals and churches, crammed into low-slung military barracks with tar-paper sidings. “They weren’t as bad” as the camps in Germany, Tsumori acknowledged, “but we couldn’t go anywhere we wanted. We had to carry passes. And the guns were pointed in—at us.’’ One day, a Japanese man, 62 years old, was shot and killed by a soldier for wandering too close to the fence.

The War Relocation Authority, or WRA, was created to oversee the mass evacuation. Each family was assigned a number. The Aizawa family’s number was 22406; the Tsumori family’s was 22505. Family members were ordered to pin their numbers to their clothing for the journey to the camps, and to tag their belongings. That was not difficult, since they were allowed to carry only what each person could pack in a suitcase. Tsumori packed clothes, a few books and his track shoes.

“I was just a kid,” he said. “I didn’t really have anything. But our parents lost everything.’’

The permanent relocation centers were built to handle up to 10,000 inmates each. Before they were ready, the people were held in temporary “assembly centers’’—makeshift prison camps hastily erected at race tracks and county fairgrounds, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed soldiers. Tsumori, his parents, sister and two brothers—along with Aizawa, his mother, sister and brother—spent their first months of internment just south of San Francisco at the Tanforan Race Track, the former home of Seabiscuit, the superstar race horse. The government built scores of barracks on the track’s infield, but it could not keep up with the influx of thousands of citizen-internees. Many people were forced to live in converted horse stables. “No matter how hard people cleaned,” Aizawa said, “they couldn’t get rid of the smell of manure and urine.’’

In late September 1942, Aizawa, Tsumori and their families, along with thousands of others, boarded trains for what turned out to be the Topaz Relocation Center. They did not know where they were going at the time. “No one told us anything,’’ Aizawa said. The shades were drawn during the trip into the desert, and armed soldiers walked the aisles. The normally day-long journey lasted three days as the train was repeatedly sidetracked for troop transports and freight trains.

A layer of dust
Tsumori’s father and his sister, May, did not make the trip to Topaz. They had tuberculosis
and stayed behind in a sanatorium near the race track. Tsumori’s father recovered and eventually rejoined the family. His sister never left the sanatorium. She died two years later, “all alone,’’ Tsumori said. “That was the saddest part.’’ May Tsumori was 21 years old.

The Topaz Relocation Center was located 16 miles outside the small town of Delta, about 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. At its peak, about 8,200 people lived there, making it the fifth largest city in the state. All told, about 11,000 men, women and children passed through the gates of Topaz between the day it opened, September 11, 1942, and the day it closed, October 31, 1945. The city-camp was surrounded by peaks: Mount Topaz, Mount Hinckley and Drum Mountain (so called, according to a camp guidebook given to arriving inmates, “because mysterious drum-like noises emanate from [it] at night”).

When Tsumori first arrived at the camp, he and a group of friends set out on foot to explore the mountains. “The barbed wire wasn’t up yet,’’ he said. Two soldiers with machine guns caught up with them and returned them to the camp in a jeep. Temperatures at Topaz could drop to 20 below zero in the winter and soar to 120 above in the summer. Trees had to be shipped in from other parts of the state. A layer of dust covered the ground like grass until the wind kicked up and the dust covered everything, including people. When it rained, according to the guidebook, the dust was “quickly transformed’’ into a muddy “gum-like mixture that has no equal.’’

Delta, with a population of about 1,500, has always been “a tough place to farm and make a living,’’ said Jane Beckwith, a former high school English teacher and lifelong resident who founded the town’s Topaz Relocation Camp Museum. “My mom said people in Delta didn’t notice the Depression because they had been in it so much longer than the rest of the country.’’ When government officials went looking for cheap land for a camp, they found plenty around Delta. “That’s the reason the camp came here,’’ Beckwith said. “People were so poor they would overlook any type of injustice.’’

The Tsumoris lived in a 20-by-9-foot room, heated by a potbelly stove. They had Army-issued cots but little else when it came to furniture, until the father rejoined the family and built chairs, a desk and bookshelves with wood scavenged from around the site. The camp had two elementary schools and one high school. In June 1943, Tsumori and Aizawa were members of the first graduating class of Topaz High School. Tsumori was voted best athlete. Aizawa worked on the yearbook; but for a long time, he recalled, he stopped “thinking about the future.’’

Then the Reverend W. Carl Nugent told him about Elmhurst College in Illinois. “I had never heard of the place before,’’ Aizawa said, but he knew that participating in a new program might get him out of the camp. Suddenly, thinking about the future started to make sense again.

Memories of Elmhurst
Nugent was the pastor of the Evangelical and Reformed Church back in Japantown. When his congregation was sent to Topaz, Nugent and his family followed. With the help of the National Japanese Student Relocation Council, operated by a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, Nugent got the four Nisei students enrolled in Elmhurst College.
“My memories of Elmhurst are much stronger than my memories of the camp,’’ Aizawa said. In his first semester, Aizawa received three Bs, two Cs and an A, in general chemistry. Tsumori received four Bs, one C and an A, in general zoology. Aizawa was a pre-theology student; Tsumori was pre-med.

Aizawa spent Christmas 1943 at the home of his classmate, Herb Muenstermann, near St. Louis. They hitchhiked south along Route 66 and caught a ride with a trucker for practically the entire way. About 100 miles outside Chicago, they passed Tsumori and another classmate, who also were hitching to St. Louis for the holiday. “They just waved and we kept going,’’ Tsumori said.

In 1945, during his junior year at Elmhurst, Tsumori was drafted into the Army. His classmates threw a going-away party for him. It made the pages of The Elm Bark, under the headline FRIENDS GIVE ‘MO’ A SURPRISE SEND OFF. Amid cake and punch, Tsumori received several gifts. “The presentation of an identification bracelet, a New Testament, and a fountain pen, given by all Mo’s friends on the campus,” the paper reported, “was made by Seiji Aizawa.’’

Before shipping off to Europe, Tsumori, in uniform, visited his parents, still living behind barbed wire at the Topaz Relocation Center. By the time he reached his post in Germany, the war was over. Tsumori spent his short time in the military as an administrator in a medical unit. Then he returned to Elmhurst to finish college and play in the Homecoming game of 1946.

The stadium was rocking that day. “Blue and white, fight-fight-fight,’’ the crowd chanted as the Bluejays took control of the game early, scoring two touchdowns, including one by Little Mo, who caught a pass on the five-yard line and ran to “pay dirt.’’ In the stands, Aizawa was cheering his old buddy on.

Two touchdowns
At halftime, the Homecoming queen, Marie Hoefer, and her court were presented to the school. After the crowning, the crowd stood as taps were played for the 14 Elmhurst alumni lost in the war. Elmhurst went on to defeat Concordia, 18-0.

“I scored two touchdowns that day,’’ said Tsumori. “I felt like a hero.’’

Aizawa plans to attend his 65th class reunion next year. “I’m not sure how many of us are left,’’ he said. “But I enjoy going back to see how the place has changed. Elmhurst means a lot to me.’’

Tsumori is not sure when he will return. He does not like to dwell on the past.

So it took some convincing by his curious daughter and grandson to get him to visit the site of the Topaz Relocation Center last spring. He had not seen it since 1945, when he kissed his mother goodbye and went off to fight for his country. “I didn’t want to go back, but they wanted to see it,’’ he said.

There is little left to see. The buildings and guard towers are gone. There is a cement slab—the remnants of the women’s latrine—and several nests of rusted wire, lying on the ground like rattlesnakes. Most of the old camp is buried in greasewood.

The camp museum’s founder, Jane Beckwith, walked the site with Tsumori and his family. She led him to the block where he once lived.

“I have some good memories of this place,’’ he said. “I had my friends all around. Everyone was here. It was easier on me than on the kids behind me. I only stayed a year. Some of the younger kids had to stay for years. I can’t imagine that.’’

He stood in front of what used to be his barracks, located at Block 36, Room 3E. “Over there my friend and I put in a pole-vault pit,’’ he said. “Over there we built a track. We made the best of it.’’

He looked off at the distant mountains, shaking his head. “I don’t think they needed the barbed wire,’’ he sighed. “Where were we going to go if we got out?’’

Then a sly smile spread across his face.

“I went to Elmhurst,’’ he said.

Elmhurst College brought Himeo Tsumori, left, and Seiji Aizawa out of exile in Utah in 1943. Today, the men are in their mid-80s and live in Northern California. Tsumori is a retired pediatrician. Aizawa worked for the U.S. government in Japan before retiring.

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