Fair Play Committee (Heart Mountain)

Hawai'i-born Kiyoshi Okamoto began in November 1943 the Fair Play Committee of One at Heart Mountain concentration camp. Okamoto was educated in Los Angeles, and he became a construction engineer. At the Heart Mountain camp, Okamoto was disturbed by “un-American practices” such as the loyalty questionnaire and nisei service in the military. Additionally, white War Relocation Authority (WRA) officials treated Japanese Americans with disdain and discriminated against them, and the WRA curtailed freedom of speech and provided substandard living and working conditions. More fundamentally, Okamoto saw the concentration camps as an un-American practice.

As the Fair Play Committee of One, Okamoto agitated for a clarification of the legal status of nisei and their rights as citizens in open forums. Over time, he attracted a number of members, and they formed the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC). The committee gained renewed prominence when on January 20, 1944, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced nisei would become subject to the draft because of the exemplary service of nisei volunteers in the army. This new policy represented another change in the government's classification of nisei men since Pearl Harbor from “enemy alien” and hence unacceptable for military service to volunteers, to draftees. To make matters worse, the change came on the heels of the WRA's loyalty questionnaire, which had asked if Japanese Americans were willing to serve in the U.S. military. The questionnaire stirred a storm of suspicion among Japanese Americans in the concentration camps, and those fears appeared to be confirmed by Stimson's announcement. A few, especially members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), praised the government's change of heart as a way for nisei to demonstrate their loyalty on the battlefield. Most others, like members of the FPC, saw the government's action as another assault on Japanese American citizenship and rights. Having been removed and confined in concentration camps, they said, Japanese Americans were now being forced to serve to defend phantom freedoms denied them.

“We, the members of the FPC, are not afraid to go to war—we are not afraid to risk our lives for our country,” the committee explained in a mimeographed bulletin to the Heart Mountain camp. “We would gladly sacrifice our lives to protect and uphold the principles and ideals of our country as set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for on its inviolability depends the freedom, liberty, justice, and protection of all people including Japanese-American and all other minority groups” (Emi, 43). But Japanese Americans, without any charges against them or evidence of wrongdoing, have had their constitutional rights stripped away and

were being forced to defend those lost liberties in racially segregated units. Is that the American way? they asked. “No!” Accordingly, the bulletin promised, FPC members will resist the draft until their rights as U.S. citizens are restored.

In March 1944, 12 nisei refused to board the bus to undergo selective service physical examinations, and by the end of the month, 54 of the 315 nisei young men ordered for selective service physicals failed to comply. The FPC called for a general strike. The WRA charged Okamoto with disloyalty, and quickly arrested him and shipped him off to Tule Lake concentration camp, which was a camp for “disloyals.” Isamu Horino, another FPC leader, was charged with disloyalty and also sent to Tule Lake. A third FPC leader, Paul Nakadate, was subjected to a lengthy interrogation to ascertain his loyalty.

James Omura, editor of the Rocky Shimpo, a Japanese American newspaper based in Denver, praised the FPC's stand. Heart Mountain's camp director wrote to the WRA head, complaining that Omura's editorials bordered on “sedition,” and asked for an investigation of the paper. In April 1944, federal agents seized Omura's records and correspondence, and the Alien Property Custodian, the manager of the paper's assets because it was formerly owned by noncitizen issei, and fired Omura and his staff.

On May 10, 1944, a federal grand jury in Cheyenne, Wyoming, indicted the 63 draft resisters. Their trial took place the following month in the largest trial for draft resistance in U.S. history. Federal district judge T. Blake Kennedy found them all guilty and sentenced them to three years in prison. “If they are truly loyal American citizens,” Kennedy lectured, “they should … embrace the opportunity to discharge the duties [of citizenship] by offering themselves in the cause of our National Defense” (Daniels, 127).

The FPC leaders, seven of them, and editor James Omura were charged with unlawful conspiracy to counsel, aid, and abet draft violations. Their trial was held on October 23, 1944, in federal district court in Cheyenne, and Judge Eugene Rice sentenced the seven leaders to a four-year term at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Omura won acquittal. On appeal more than a year later, the court agreed the judge's instructions to the jury were improper, and the seven FPC leaders were released from prison. Still, draft resistance continued at Heart Mountain concentration camp, and 22 more men were indicted and convicted of draft resistance.

The original 63 served just over two years of their three-year sentence, and on Christmas eve, 1947, President Harry Truman granted a presidential pardon to all nisei draft resisters. As Judge Louis Goodman stated in dismissing the indictments against 27 draft resisters from Tule Lake concentration camp, “it is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty and then, while so under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the armed forces or be prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion” (Emi, 47).

References

Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.

Emi, Frank. “Draft Resistance at the Heart Mountain Concentration Camp and the Fair Play Committee.” In Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary. Edited by Gail M. Nomura et al., 71–77. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989.