The night of my Grandpa Homer’s high school graduation, he was living in the barracks of a detention center in California with his mom, his sister and thousands of other Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II.
Last weekend, he finally got the graduation party he missed out on all those years ago.
My mom had received Grandpa’s diploma by mail from his old school district in Oregon, and she saved it for a family get-together the day before Father’s Day. She asked my aunt and uncle to bring my cousin’s mortarboard cap, and the family came over and played “Pomp and Circumstance” at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.
“It kind of took me by surprise,” Grandpa told me later. “[Your mother] said, ‘I have something for you,’ and someone gave me the cap and I opened the package and saw my diploma and said, ‘Oh my god!’
Someone gave me the cap and I opened the package and saw my diploma and said, ‘Oh my god!’ Homer Yasui, 92
Seventy-five years ago, Grandpa lost his chance to walk onstage in his cap and gown with the rest of his class. On May 13, 1942, he, his mother and his little sister Yuka were rounded up with other Japanese-Americans in Hood River, Oregon, and put on trains to what was then called an “assembly center” in Pinedale, California ― a hastily converted detention facility where thousands of Japanese-Americans were temporarily imprisoned before being sent to more permanent prison camps around the country.
Grandpa was 17 then, and a typical American teenager. The military instructed everyone to bring only what they could carry, so he packed a baseball mitt and baseball hat. He remembers thinking it was “kind of stupid” that everyone at the station was formally dressed.
Grandpa’s senior class was scheduled to graduate the following month, but by then, he and all the other young Japanese-Americans in the Hood River Valley, along with their families, had become prisoners of their own government.
Not that he was bothered much at the time. For years, Grandpa would joke about the “freedom” he had behind barbed wire, first at Pinedale and then at a “relocation center” in Tule Lake, California. No longer forced to work all summer on the family farm, he could smoke, play poker and chase girls.
The FBI had already taken his father away, shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. (Grandpa’s father, Masuo Yasui, wouldn’t be released until 1946, and was never actually charged with a crime.) Grandpa’s older brother Min was forced to endure months of solitary confinement for deliberately breaking a discriminatory wartime curfew. But for Grandpa, the injustice of his family’s ordeal didn’t really register until years later.
“I was so dumb in those days. I wasn’t worldly,” Grandpa said. “I also said, ‘Well, I’m in camp, OK.’ I never thought about my civil liberties being denied me and all that. Most people my age never thought about it.”
He eventually settled into a job as a hospital orderly, where he remembers tending to a white boy with terrible burns. With no big cities nearby, the prison camp at Tule Lake was the closest option for medical care in an emergency. The young man yelled that he didn’t want to be treated by “Jap” doctors. Ultimately, he succumbed to his injuries and died.
The boy’s death made an impression on my grandfather, and he told us all the story years later. Once he left Tule Lake, he went on to graduate from the University of Denver and then Hahnemann Medical School and Hospital in Philadelphia. He married my grandmother, Miki, and became a surgeon.
“The only graduation I ever participated in was my medical school graduation,” Grandpa told me. “I got my cap and gown, and Miki saw me and she blew a gasket, because a bunch of us doctors didn’t even have the sense to get our gowns pressed.”
He has one graduation photo from that day, taken by an itinerant street photographer. “We’re all dressed alike and we look real crummy,” he said.
In the years and decades that followed World War II, America’s consensus that people like my grandfather had been imprisoned “for their own protection” or “for the good of the country” began to erode. (But that sentiment lives on, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath.)
Grandpa’s sister Michi triumphantly returned to the University of Oregon in 1984 to accept her college diploma ― decades after she was barred from her own graduation ceremony because of the military curfew imposed on Japanese-Americans. She was in her 60s at the time.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging that the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
And in November 2015, Grandpa and his sister Yuka met President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House. There, among Hollywood stars, trailblazing scientists and sports icons, Obama awarded their brother Min a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom for challenging the U.S. government’s wartime policies all the way to the Supreme Court.
Grandpa shook the president’s hand and got a hug from the first lady. He said it was one of the proudest moments of his life.
Compared to that, maybe it wasn’t such a big deal when Grandpa got a message from Hood River Valley High School this year, offering him a chance to come back for an official graduation ceremony. He declined, because at 92, he wanted to stay home with Grandma and take it easy.
I asked Grandpa about the invitation and whether he thought it meant his hometown had taken a step forward. He chalked it up to his brother Min being recognized as an “exemplary citizen.”
“I think Hood River’s very late in doing this,” he said, “because many colleges have done this earlier, and cities like Seattle and Los Angeles recognized their mistakes after 30 or 40 years. And it took Hood River 75 years.”
“But that’s great,” he added. “Better late than never, while some of us are still alive to tell the tale.”
Listen to Homer tell the more of the Yasui family’s story on the podcast “Hear in the Gorge,” produced by Sarah Fox.