Chaplain George Aki
As a California native raised in Fresno, George Aki’s boyhood experience differed vastly from those born in Hawaii. Japanese on the mainland faced real discrimination in their daily lives, but it was on the day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor that George saw his life crumbling before him. "December 7, 1941, is one day I shall remember till I die," he wrote. "I was stunned! How I hated Japan. I was bitter because all my future hopes were shattered and gone."
The Aki family lived in anxious fear when the FBI and local police began rounding up anyone who had close connections with influential Japanese business or community leaders. Many of their long time neighbors became suspicious and watched their every move. Some reported their activities to the authorities.
"So Misaki and I had a meeting to discuss our future," George said. He began his marriage proposal: "If, and that is a big IF, the evacuation goes into effect, we might get separated, so should we plan to get married as soon as possible?" She answered "yes."
Then on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 declaring that all Japanese, whether alien or U.S. born, living on the West Coast would be evacuated and incarcerated. Two days before George’s graduation, on May 6, 1942, his worst fears became reality: he and Misaki were among the 6,000 Japanese herded into the converted horse race track at Tanforan. "My country let me down!" he wrote. "I, to this day, cannot believe it! I was a prisoner of my own country." His diary entry on that day states, "George Aki died on May 6, 1942!"
But several small miracles took place shortly afterward, restoring George’s faith in both God and humankind. Most important was his ordination ceremony hurriedly planned by the Reverend Robert Inglis of the Plymouth Congregational Church of Oakland, who was known as a dedicated worker in easing the pain of the Japanese during the evacuation. He gathered an ecclesiastical council of 15 Caucasian clergy and laity from local churches, and they met at Tanforan Race Track to ordain Reverend George Aki. Over 500 of the Japanese evacuees gathered in the mess hall to witness the ordination. The moderator began:
"We are here for a noble adventure of faith…. These are days which glorify commanders of men, backed by tanks and planes…. The Christian minister is not a commander of men. He is doubly a servant, first of Christ whose will is ever his, and consequently, of his fellow men…. As this is no day for the ordinary service in the spirit of Christ, so is this no ordinary event!"
The day gave Reverend Aki a new beginning and hope that he had believed was lost. It was to be a turning point in his life.
Shortly after, although Reverend Aki was not an accredited teacher, he was asked to be on the faculty for the junior and senior high school that was being formed at Tanforan. About a thousand students registered, and a few weeks later the student officers organized a school assembly. Held on a beautiful, sunny June morning, the students gathered in the grandstands, where spectators had watched horse racing before it was transformed into a temporary internment center, and began with a salute to the American flag. At the close of the program, the entire student body stood up – surrounded by high barbed-wire fences and guard towers – to sing "God Bless America." The ensuing silence was awe inspiring, and George Aki was deeply touched by what he felt were truly noble leadings of the young Japanese Americans who had been forced to leave their homes, their friends, their schools and the everyday blessings that one normally takes for granted. He looked up at the sea of young faces and decided to "forgive" all the wrongs done to him and "stand beside the U.S. and guide her" in whatever humble way he could.
Reverend Aki spent the next four months at Tanforan before being loaded with others onto overcrowded trains headed to a more permanent concentration camp in Utah in late September. They were told to keep the shades down at all times for an interminable period, maybe two or three nights, while armed guards kept watch over them. Once there, George and Misaki endured the harsh Utah weather, with its dust storms and bitter cold. In January 1943 they were granted a transfer to the Jerome Internment Center in Arkansas so George could be with his family.
Four months later, the War Department began taking volunteers for the segregated 442nd, and Reverend Aki volunteered as Army chaplain. Others in the camp turned on him, calling him "traitor" for supporting the country that took everything and imprisoned them because of race. But Reverend Aki’s pledge to carry out his duties as a Christian minister was foremost in his thoughts. "I could not blame them but was still glad that I could uphold my ordination pledge," he said, "to go where my church goes. And those Army volunteers would be my church."
In March 1944, Chaplain Aki joined the 442nd RCT at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. As the last chaplain to serve the unit, he stayed behind to train replacements and was later deployed to Italy. Because the war was coming to a close in Europe by the time he got there, one of his main tasks was to locate the isolated graves of the American soldiers who had been hastily buried during the heat of battle. When they found a body, Chaplain Aki, along with his assistant, Raymond, would immediately look for the dog tag. As he identified the dead soldiers, he wondered about their own shattered dreams for the future and "what moved them to fight for the country that stripped them of their birthright and cast them and their families into American made concentration camps?"
Chaplain Aki’s lifelong personal mission from that point was to do what he could to honor the men whose lives were cut short in a strange land without loved ones and friends to be near them. "I was never a hero," he said, "but I was glad and privileged to be on the "Go for Broke" team.
After he returned to Fresno, California, Reverend Aki and the entire Japanese community gathered at the railroad station to receive the war dead and their honor escort. Since the days at Tanforan and the single school assembly organized by the high school students, the chaplain says that he has always wondered how many of those boys volunteered to "stand beside her and guide her," and in doing so gave up their lives. He reminds us that although these men earnestly desired to come home and live out their lives, they desperately wanted a stake in building a world of peace and justice. For that, he says, we should remember their sacrifice and continue their legacy.