Gordon Hirabayashi, convicted of violating curfew and refusing to report to a relocation camp during World War II, will go to federal court on May 18 at 2 p.m. in an attempt to wipe his record clean.
The retired sociology professor partitioned the court to vacate this 41 year-old convictions and declare unconstitutional the military orders which caused the mass evacuation of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry.
Attorney Roger Shimizu said the government agrees Hirabayashi’s convictions should be vacated and the underling indictments dismissed, “but the government does not take the position that they were wrong as far as the military orders were concerned.”
The former Seattleite, who as then 23 and a senior at the University of Washington, defied President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which mandated that all Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast report to internment camps. Hirabayashi also violated an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
“If I hadn’t taken that path, I wouldn’t have been free anyways,” he reflected.
Hirabayashi is able to contest the 1944 Supreme Court decision which upheld his convictions because of discovered evidence showing government officials lied and suppressed information regarding the military necessity of internment. In this way, Hirabayashi was denied the right to due process and the right to a fair trial.
Peter Irons, a law professor at the University of California in San Diego, discovered a box of documents obtained from government archives through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents refuted allegations of spying and espionage on the West Coast—the main reason given for evacuation.
The internment was based on rumors of “disloyal” activities, fueled by wartime hysteria and racism, and Gen. John L. Dewitt’s claim that the Japanese were an enemy race and posed a security threat.
But the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had, in their possession, evidence which disproved these assertions.
Dewitt told the War Department that he received reports of signal lights visible from the coast and of unidentified radio transmissions being intercepted. According to an FCC memo found by Irons, the transmission were from stations outside the United States.
Iron’s discoveries gave Hirabayashi grounds to reopen his case through a legal device called, “writ of coram nobis,” a petition which was filed on January 31, 1983. It’s not a retrial, Hirabayashi emphasized, but it gives him a chance to clear his name and have the court put “up front, on the record” the wrongs committed by government.
A fundraiser for Hirabayashi’s case was held May 3 at the Nisei Veteran’s Committee Hall to educate the community about World War II occurrences and to help pay for the cost of bringing a coram nobis case to court.
The event, sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League, attracted close to 150 people and over $1000 was raised.
The original May 4 court date was postponed because the lawyers filed a request for larger courtroom. “What we want to impress upon the judge is that this is indeed a community issue,” Shimizu said. He urged people to attend the hearing, which will be at the federal courthouse in Seattle, and support Hirabayashi’s constitutional fight.
A film, shown at the fundraiser, told the story of another battle fought during the war. “Nisei Soldier: Standard Bearer for an Exile People” is Loni Ding’s 10th film made for public television. It should be completed and televised sometime later this year.
The finished portion contained rare footage from official army files and unseen news clips of the 1940s. It featured the 442 Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans, who earned 3,600 purple hearts and 2,000 other decorations, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Their battle history was unsurpassed by any outfit of comparable size.
The 442 fought not only the enemy, they also “fought fascism, served their country and helped bring their families out of exile.”
Hirabayashi and Chester Tanaka, a 442 member, see the battles they fought as the same. Tanaka told Hirabayashi, “What we went to battle for, in the final analysis, is what you are battling…It’s the other side of the coin…There are many ways to fight for your country and the Constitution.”
The military actions against Americans of Japanese ancestry have turned Hirabayashi’s fight into one of raising the level of American standards to what people can be proud of. He said, “This is an American battle, not a Japanese American one.”