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Japanese American Dream

In 1942, George Shigeru Hara was an idealistic all-American boy growing up in downtown Portland, Oregon, where his parents managed a small hotel. As a senior-year student at Washington High School, he was a cheerleader, judo expert, basketball player and class valedictorian. He dreamed of being a doctor or perhaps a minister. Then one sunny morning in May, all that he’d known in his 17 years was ripped out from under him.

Instead of attending a cap and gown graduation, Hara was rounded up along with thousands of other Japanese Americans in Oregon and Washington and sent to The Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion in Portland. From there, the Hara family was transported on a dark train, window shades drawn, to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in western Idaho, one of ten internment camps hastily set up in rural, remote areas of the United States.

The Japanese internment era of World War II would last two and a half years, and would forever change the experiences of Japanese Americans in this country, including those of George Hara. But Hara’s story is not solely one of hardship. Ultimately, his journey would be one of strength and persistence, of hope and validation. On that day in 1942, it was impossible to predict that this man, on his way to incarceration, would become a doctor, father, groundbreaker, Mt. Bachelor enthusiast and recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal in a life that spanned nearly nine decades.

 

img_4575_450_600Life During World War II
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear of Japanese Americans skyrocketed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 incarcerated 110,000 Japanese Americans, sixty-two percent of whom were United States citizens. These were Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation Japanese Americans, born in the U.S., like George Hara.

Japanese Americans who lived through that time remember FBI agents rifling through their homes without a search warrant. Others remember once-friendly neighbors spying on them. Hara recalled, “We punctually and obediently went (to the Livestock Pavilion) with the one suitcase we were allowed. We waited in long lines and were then individually identified and numbered. I remember the wafting smell of manure from the animals that had been kept there before us.”
George Hara’s wife, Yoneko, was also interned at Minidoka, though the two didn’t meet until several years later. Today, she is 94 and lives in Portland’s Forest Park. Yoneko Hara remembers guards telling the internees that they were in the camps for their own safety. “If it was for our own safety, then why was there barbed wire all around us, and why were the guns always pointing in on the camp?” she questions.

From Minidoka, George Hara tried to join the U.S. Navy. He was denied because of his Japanese heritage. Eventually, thanks to the help of a religious organization, he was granted special permission to leave Minidoka and attend Ohio Wesleyan University in St. Delaware, Ohio. While he was there, his wife relates, Hara tried to join the cadets and was turned down, again because he was Japanese. In 1943, the U.S. Army opened military service to Japanese Americans—25% of enlistees came from Minidoka—and George Hara returned to the camp in anticipation of being drafted.

 

 

On the Warfront 
Once he was enlisted, George Hara quickly became a valuable asset to the U.S. Army, as did many of his Nisei peers. Because Hara spoke and wrote fluent Japanese, he was inducted into the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The Army felt that an in-depth knowledge of the Japanese would be the MIS’s secret weapon in defeating the enemy. And indeed it was soldiers like Hara who helped translate enemy plans, positions and military operations, as well as assisting in interrogations of prisoners, all of which helped the Allies win the war.

“Six thousand Nisei in the war in the Pacific saved over a million American lives and shortened the war by two years,” said Major General Charles Willoughby, the Chief of Intelligence under General Douglass MacArthur during World War II.

Despite Willoughby’s accolades at the conclusion of the war, it took quite some time for these Japanese American soldiers to receive recognition—until just this summer, in fact. This past June, the Nisei soldiers who served in the MIS 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 101st Army battalion, including Hara, were finally officially recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in Washington D.C. To commemorate the honor, the Smithsonian dedicated a permanent display along with a digital exhibit to relate the stories of the Japanese American soldiers who fought two war fronts: one with the enemy and one against the bigotry they faced at home.

 

Back in Oregon
Unfortunately, prejudice on the home front didn’t entirely fade away after the war. Despite the hardships of displacement and the toils of war, when Hara returned to Portland, Oregon, he once again aimed for the American dream. He attended Oregon Health Science University and became an obstetrician, and in 1949 married Yoneko. The couple would go on to have five children. According to Yoneko and their grown children, George Hara wanted to put the war and bad memories behind him, but that wasn’t always possible, even in peacetime.

“We were just a young couple and we wanted to rent a house,” recalls Yoneko. “But when we went to go look at the house, the owners looked at us and told us it was already rented. However, when I looked at the newspapers for several weeks I saw it was still for rent. Obviously, they didn’t want us there.”

Phyllis Hara, the youngest of the five Hara children, says those slights, some obvious and some not so obvious, never deterred her father from wanting the best life possible. “All the things he went through never deterred him from what he strove for,” she says. “He was the first Japanese American to join the Oswego Lake Country Club, and he was the first person of color to join the Multnomah Athletic Club. He was always breaking down barriers.”

One of the places Hara and his family broke new ground—and new snow—was on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor. Phyllis says at a time when not many people of non-European descent were skiing in Oregon, her father made it a point that all of his children would learn to ski well. “As a doctor in Portland, he saw other families taking ski vacations and saw no reason why his family shouldn’t learn to ski, too.” Almost every school holiday, the Hara children and both of their parents could be seen on their skis schussing down the slopes of Mt. Bachelor. The family’s ties to Central Oregon became so strong that today, three of the five Hara children live in Bend.

John Hara, the eldest Hara child, says he believes part of his father’s legacy was that he made all his children believe anything was possible. “He imparted in us that we could do anything, and should live anywhere we want to,” says John, who lives in Reno, Nevada. “Why do you think my siblings, Leslie, Phyllis and George, all live in Bend now? When we were growing up, we loved to ski at Mt. Bachelor, and that’s because of my father.”

Leslie and George Jr. are both University of Oregon School of Architecture graduates who founded their own Bend-based firm, Hara-Shick Architects, P.C., now known as HSR Architects. Phyllis is a retired sales executive for Microsemi. All three still ski at Mt. Bachelor.

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Truth Seeking Mission
As Hara aged, he continued to enjoy life in Portland with his wife, and to visit Bend to see his children and grandchildren. But he didn’t live long enough to make the trek to Washington D.C. this past June, when he and 19 of his fellow Nisei soldiers were officially honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. He passed away from cancer in February 2013, at the age of 89. Less than a year before, Senator Ron Wyden, knowing Hara was ill, stopped by the Hara’s home in Portland and surprised the elderly doctor with his own small, private Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. “My dad was such a humble man,” recalls George Jr. “He never thought what he did was special enough to warrant that kind of attention.”

In June, Hara’s family traveled to Washington D.C. to witness the honor of the bestowing of the Congressional Gold Medal. “When I was sitting there, listening to all these speeches, all I could think of was how proud my dad would’ve been,” says John Hara. “I really missed his presence there. Most of those Niseis are gone now, and it’s sad they weren’t really recognized for their service while they were here.” He continues, “Even today, it’s always surprising to find Americans, even some of my friends, who don’t know that Japanese Americans were put into camps, and what a crucial part the Niseis had in the war. That is why it was so important to me personally that my sisters and children and nieces and nephews came to D.C. for this ceremony. In history we seek truth, and it all goes forward through our children.”

George Hara kept detailed scrapbooks and diaries during World War II. Leslie Hara-Shick has spent hours pouring over these mementos. “My dad was meticulous about documenting his life,” she says. “The items he left behind speak to who he was as a person. He was very aware of his race, and he worked so hard to give his children a life where they didn’t have to feel different.”

George Jr. adds, “In his diary he speaks to not being accepted and knowing it was a tough road ahead of him. But he wrote, ‘that’s life and you adjust to it.’ And he did, and because he did, we were able to assimilate easier into our own lives, too.”
To see the digital Smithsonian exhibit about George Hara and other Nisei soldiers, see cgm.smithsonianapa.org/stories/george-hara.html

 

 

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