The fear of Japanese invasion forced many college aged Nisei (pronounced “Nee-say”) to abandon their studies and relocate to concentration camps in rural America. The plight of these second generation Americans of Japanese descent was recognized, and a group of religious organizations, led by the Quakers came together to help. They persuaded the War Relocation Authority that specially selected college students would not be a threat, especially if they were allowed to study at colleges east of the Rocky Mountains.
The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was formed and started identifying colleges that would be willing to admit Nisei students. They also identified students who could be cleared to travel east. Eventually, around 4,300 students resumed their studies through the program.
Most of these schools were in predominantly rural states, and it was often a culture shock for the predominantly urban Nisei students to arrive on campus. But they were excited about the chance to get out of the camps.
Kaz Tada was thrilled to be relocated to Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska. Wesleyan had a quota of 20 Nisei students. With normal enrollments way down because of the war, 20 students was a significant group. Kaz says the decision to come to Wesleyan was “the most momentus decision in my life.” His cousin was already here, and he became friends with other Nisei students quickly. He met his future wife, Justyn, at Wesleyan, played on the basketball team, and became editor of the campus newspaper.
Kaz says in Lincoln he never experienced the racist hatred that was directed at the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, even though the Nisei were aware of the emotions the attack generated.
The University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL) was also among the first schools to accept Nisei students. There had been students of Japanese heritage on Nebraska’s campus since the late 1800s. By the 1940s, some Japanese American students were already enrolled as undergraduates and in the medical and dental schools. So, the University of Nebraska registrar made every effort to admit as many Nisei students as possible. UNL’s quota started at 25, went up to 50 and eventually reached 60 students.
In general, the Nisei students tried to keep a low profile on campus, but they sometimes spoke to high school students, church groups and Lincoln-area clubs about their patriotism and the war. Two UNL Nisei students were so concerned about proving their patriotism that they joined a newly formed, all-Japanese Army unit. In 1944, the War Department created the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and started drafting and recruiting Japanese men for it. Kei Tanahashi and Harry Tanaka left UNL to join the unit. Later, both were killed in action.
Another Nebraska native, Ben Kuroki, had to fight to even join the U.S. Army Air Forces. Ben had been born in the small Nebraska town of Gothenburg and grew up in Hershey. When the war began, he and his brother Fred convinced a Air Force recruiter to let them enlist at a time when the official policy was to reject Japanese-Americans. Ben wanted to be a pilot, but had to talk his way into machine-gun training and onto bombing missions for the 93rdBombardment Group. He flew on 30 missions in B-24 Liberators over Europe including the 1943 raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. When he had completed his European tour, he was on leave in California in 1944 when he spoke about his love for America at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. He received a standing ovation.
Despite the fact that he had completed more missions than most airmen, Kuroki wanted to bomb Japan. The Air Force rejected him apparently concerned about what would happen to a Japanese-American or any extended family members still in Japan if he was captured. It took the intervention of a U.S. Congressman from Nebraska and the Secretary of War, Hanry L. Stimson, to make an exception for Kuroki. “I have the face of a Japanese, but my heart is American,” Ben said. He became a gunner in the 505thBombardment Group based on the island of Tinian. He flew another 28 raids of Japan. The added up to a total of over 50 raids when many airmen felt lucky to survive half that number. After the war, Kuroki earned a journalism degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and had a long career in newspapers and public relations. He died at the age of 98 in September 2015.
Many, but not all Nisei men and women were excited about joining the war effort. At the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, more than 900 men and women did serve in the Army and Navy. But, another group of nearly 100 young men refused military service until their constitutional rights were given back. The draft resisters were arrested, tried, found guilty and sent to prison.
In 1990, the federal government apologized to the surviving Nisei who had been interned. Kaz Tada says that the act gave him some sense of closure.