During the course of the forcible eviction and detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, Japanese Americans as individuals and groups, including draft resisters, disobeyed laws they deemed to be in violation of their civil liberties. The U.S. government prosecuted those violators, notably individuals whose cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Those rulings became legal pillars of presidential powers during national emergencies. Already in the U.S. Army, a group of nisei soldiers refused combat training while their families were being confined in concentration camps. Those who were convicted were sentenced to terms in federal prisons. In 1947, President Harry Truman pardoned all of the war's draft resisters.
Located in the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, Arizona, the Catalina Federal Honor Camp was originally established in 1939 to house convicts who worked on a nearby highway. Like the concentration camp, the honor camp had barracks, a mess hall, a laundry, shops and classrooms, an area for the administrators, and a vegetable, chicken, and turkey farm. The honor camp, however, had no barbed-wire fence or guard towers, and instead had painted rocks marking the camp's borders. During World War II, the honor camp held draft resisters and conscientious objectors (those who violated the draft law because they refused to participate in all wars), including for a time Gordon Hirabayashi who was a Quaker and a conscientious objector.
Gordon Hirabayashi deliberately violated the military curfew because he wanted to test the legality of the government's forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1943 that the military had the right during wartime to impose restrictions like curfews on Japanese Americans. After his arrest, Hirabayashi was held in Washington State's King County jail for several months, and after the Supreme Court decision against him, three months at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp.
Japanese American draft resisters from Granada and other concentration camps spent time at the honor camp. The United States at the start of World War II classified Japanese Americans as ineligible for military service, but in need of men for the war, changed that classification making the nisei eligible to the draft. Many Japanese Americans volunteered and others were drafted, but more than 300 refused to serve in the U.S. military on the grounds that their civil liberties had been
violated and those rights had to be restored before serving their country. Heart Mountain concentration camp was the center of that draft resistance movement but young men at other camps also joined in with mixed outcomes.
A judge dismissed the case against 26 draft resisters from Tule Lake concentration camp because, he stated, it was “shocking to the conscience” that U.S. citizens were confined allegedly because of “disloyalty” and then compelled to serve in the military. Another judge fined the some 100 draft resisters at Poston a penny because confinement in a concentration camp was sufficient punishment. But the judge who ruled on the cases of the draft resisters at Heart Mountain sentenced 63 of them to three years imprisonment and he questioned their loyalty. In addition, the judge sentenced the seven leaders of the Heart Mountain resistance movement to prison terms in Leavenworth Federal Prison. Later, 22 more from Heart Mountain were tried and convicted of violating the draft law. About 45 Japanese American draft resisters, mostly from Granada concentration camp, served their sentences in Catalina Federal Honor Camp.
During the war, then, the honor camp held convict laborers, Japanese American resisters, and other draft resisters and conscientious objectors. They broke rocks with sledgehammers, cleared bushes and trees, drilled holes for dynamite, and worked at the farms to produce food. After the highway was completed in 1951, the honor camp became a facility for juvenile offenders, and later, a youth rehabilitation center. As a part of the Coronado National Forest, the former honor camp was named the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site in honor of the wartime Japanese American resister.
Located about 15 miles northwest of Kansas City, Kansas, Leavenworth was built in 1897 by U.S. Army prisoners who were the first to be incarcerated there in 1903. The prison was completed in the 1920s, and it held military and civilian convicts in separate quarters.
The seven Japanese American draft resistance leaders from Heart Mountain served time in Leavenworth, together with 28 nisei soldiers from Fort McClellan, Alabama, who in March 1944 refused to undergo combat training while their families were being held in concentration camps. After a court martial, the 28 were sentenced to 5 to 30 years in prison.
Located on McNeil Island in Puget Sound about 10 miles southwest of Tacoma, Washington, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary was built in the 1920s and 1930s. Like the Catalina Honor Camp, McNeil Island was a work prison where inmates canned fish, cleared land, and farmed.
Heart Mountain draft resisters as well as Gordon Hirabayashi spent time at McNeil Island. More numerous than the Japanese Americans, however, were the war's conscientious objectors such as members of the Jehovah's Witness church.
Gary Y. Okihiro