Harvey Itano's release from Tule Lake

The text below is excerpted from a letter from Tom Bodine to Harvey Itano, dated 23 June 1992.

I have wanted to check with you my version of the story of your departure from Tule Lake on the 4th of July 1942 and to ask your permission to let me use it, as the 50th anniversary of the occasion approaches. On the morning of that 4th of July, I received a telephone call at our office in Berkeley where we were hard at work accumulating, sorting and analyzing transcripts of the 2,000 nisei who had been enrolled in institutions of higher education on the West Coast. The phone call came from the offices of the Western Defense Command on Market Street in San Francisco and summoned me to come there at once. I drove across the Bay Bridge (no gas rationing in California until November, 1942) and reported to an Army officer whom I took to be General Bendetsen, who had in his office with him a civilian gentleman to whom I was not introduced.

Bendetsen had before him an article I had written in the Christian Century, I believe, criticizing conditions in the Puyallup Assembly Center outside Tacoma, Washington, where I had visited as a then staff member of the American Friends Service Committee in Seattle. He scolded me for what he felt was an unfair criticism of the Army and threatened to deprive me of further visitor's permits if I ever wrote anything of the sort again.

He then asked me if I knew what day it was. When I replied "Fourth of July," he asked me rhetorically if I knew what the Fourth of July commemorated. He -replied to his own question by saying it stood for the Declaration of Independence, which promised "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." He went on to assert that none of the evacuees had been deprived of any of these in the Evacuation, first into Assembly Centers and later into the Relocation camps. He asked me if any evacuee had been deprived of life and paused for me to agree with him. I thought of some of the older evacuees living in Army-style barracks with central latrines, but admitted that none had been deprived of life.

He went on to declare that no evacuee had been deprived of liberty. When I started to demur, he said, "Young man, do you know the meaning of 'liberty'?" "Liberty is derived," he said, "from a Greek word referring to liberty of the spirit. It has nothing to do with physical liberty" I was about to protest vehemently when the civilian present caught my eye and winked at me, so that I remained silent.

"And as for the pursuit of happiness," he went on, "these people have never been happier. They are fed and housed and don't have to work. They are creating gardens and taking classes and enjoying themselves." What with that, he opened a bottom drawer of his desk and took out a sheet of paper and began to read to me the menu of the 4th of July dinner that was being served in all of the Centers that day.

At this point, the civilian interrupted and identified himself as John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War, who had come out to the West Coast, among other assignments, to sign a release for Harvey Itano, the Gold Medal winner that year from the University of California in Berkeley. Itano had been accepted at the University of St. Louis Medical School in a class that as due to start on the 6th of July. A decision had been reached in Washington that the Japanese American college students in the camps were to be released to pursue their studies on college campuses to the east, away from the West Coast, and he, John J. McCloy, wished to symbolize that this was the intention of the Roosevelt administration, by signing a release order for Harvey Itano.

A soldier secretary was summoned, the release order was dictated, typed, and signed by McCloy and handed to me! I was told to drive to Tule Lake immediately and to take Harvey Itano to Klamath Falls, Oregon, to catch a train to St. Louis. I was told to hurry as St. LouisUniversity required that students report for classes on time and Harvey Itano should not be late. (In war-time civilians did not travel by air; Harvey Itano was to travel by train.)

I dashed to my car and drove to Tule Lake. On arrival I reported to the Camp commandant on duty, who, it being the 4th of July, was a young Army lieutenant, younger even than myself. The lieutenant expressed amazement and didn't believe me, nor the release form signed by the Assistant Secretary of War. He was certainly not going to release one of those "Japs" under his control.

I reminded him how serious it was for a soldier to disobey orders, stressed the urgency of Harvey Itano's release, and suggested he phone the offices of the Western Defense Command in San Francisco to learn if the release order was for real. He telephoned, and I could hear the officer he spoke to in San Francisco blister him for disobeying an order.

Whereupon the young lieutenant cried to me to hurry and we jumped in his Jeep and drove wildly through the camp scattering dogs and children and old people out of our way. We drove up to the Itano's barrack and the soldier pounded on the door, certainly frightening Harvey's parents. None of them had seen me before, but Harvey quickly packed, said his goodbyes and off we went.

Gas rationing had not yet come to the West Coast, but the black-out had and for part of the ride to Klamath Falls, I had to drive with slits of light for head lamps. We arrived at the railroad station an hour or so late, but fortunately, it being war-time, the train was also late. We stood in pitch-dark on the platform as the train pulled in, huge and black and frightening... I still remember how brave Harvey Itano seemed to me as he left the relative security of my company and climbed the steps of the train to go off into the unknown.

Harvey Itano graduated from Medical School with honors and later became a surgeon of some eminence in Los Angeles. The next student was not released until October, so slowly move the wheels of bureaucracy in Washington, too late for timely entrance into colleges in the East. By the end of the War the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council had helped a total of 3500 American citizens of Japanese ancestry find their way from camp to college.

[Note added: The comment that Harvey became a surgeon is incorrect. After finishing medical school, he obtained a Ph. D. in chemistry from Cal Tech and became a molecular biologist.]

[Tom Bodine was the West Coast Director of the National Student Relocation Council. The Council was started in Berkeley, California in 1942 but later it was moved to Philadelphia. Tom Bodine was 27 years old in 1942 and now resides in Bloomfield, Connecticut.]

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