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World War 2 History: George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, Spent Years in Internment Camps

Updated on April 18, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Mr Sulu

George Takei as Star Trek's Hikaru Sulu.
George Takei as Star Trek's Hikaru Sulu.

Three Months in a Horse Stall

George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the starship USS Enterprise in the Star Trek television series and movies, spent his formative years detained with his family in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

George Hosato Takei was born in 1937 in Los Angeles, California. He was four when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and had just turned five when two armed soldiers, bayonets fixed, came to the Takei home and pounded on their door. His family, with only what they could carry, were driven away and taken to the Santa Anita Race Track. As they left, George remembers their neighbors watching their expulsion, waiting to loot their belongings. At the race track, George, his two younger siblings, mother, and father were assigned a single horse stall, stinking of manure. They lived in that horse stall for three months while an internment camp was being built in Arkansas.

Waiting to be Taken Away

WWII: A Japanese family awaits "evacuation" to a "relocation center" in San Francisco. April 29, 1942.
WWII: A Japanese family awaits "evacuation" to a "relocation center" in San Francisco. April 29, 1942. | Source

Executive Order 9066 and Japanese Internment

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt in March 1942, stated: "I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas from which any or all persons may be excluded." While it did not say anything regarding what we would now politely call racial profiling,” EO 9066 was used to round up 120,000 people of Japanese descent and imprison them for the duration of the war. Most of them were American citizens.

Please Save Our Kittens

WW2: A Japanese family prepares for evacuation. The sign reads: "Kittens for a nice home. To be given away."
WW2: A Japanese family prepares for evacuation. The sign reads: "Kittens for a nice home. To be given away." | Source

Rohwer Internment Camp (Arkansas)

When the internment camp near Rohwer, Arkansas was ready, the Takeis and others were put on a train for the long, grueling 1,700-mile journey. The camp, hot, muggy, mosquito-infested and built near a swamp, was surrounded by barbed wire fences and sentry towers with searchlights and manned by soldiers, their machine guns pointed at the inmates below. The flimsy barracks were covered with tarpaper. George remembered the searchlights would follow him whenever he went to the latrine at night. He also recalled the Pledge of Allegiance at the camp school and how he looked out the window at the barbed wire and sentry towers while reciting “with liberty and justice for all.”

Most of the inmates felt betrayed by their country. When asked if he would serve in the US army, swear allegiance to the US government and foreswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor (something he'd never done in the first place), George's father refused. Because of this, the Takeis were then transferred to a camp in Tule Lake, California.

Better "Security" in the California Desert

WW2: Tule Lake Relocation Center under construction near Newell, California. April 23, 1942.
WW2: Tule Lake Relocation Center under construction near Newell, California. April 23, 1942. | Source

Tule Lake High Security Internment Camp

Located in a desolate, dry lake bed in the north of California, Tule Lake was a high-security camp with three layers of barbed-wire fences. The mood there was much darker. Bred by distrust and resentment, some inmates came to wish that the US would lose the war. The younger men were especially hopeless; some became militants, wearing headbands with the rising sun, shouting “Banzai!” and inciting riots. These were met with swift reprisals by the guards and the turmoil fed upon itself. George remembered one riot he was witness to. One man had been taken to the stockade, and people angrily gathered, shouting his innocence. Jeeps roared through the gate and soldiers leapt out and aimed their weapons at everyone in the area, including George and his father. His father grabbed his hand and dragged him away.

George also remembered that people became very depressed. The most severe cases committed suicide. Some accomplished this by walking toward the barbed-wire fence, ignoring the sentries' orders to stop until they were shot dead.

Thule Barracks Fill the Horizon

WWII: Tule Lake Internment Camp (AKA "Relocation Center") circa 1943.
WWII: Tule Lake Internment Camp (AKA "Relocation Center") circa 1943. | Source

Released to Start Over

The Takei family lived as prisoners for three years, until after Japan's surrender. Arriving in Los Angeles, they found themselves in a bustling, colorful world full of life. Like released convicts, the real world seemed threatening. The family, lugging their cheap suitcases walked past block after block. The building and homes got tawdrier and tawdrier; the streets began smelling of urine and stale beer. They finally found a place to stay in Skid Row. George's little sister wanted to go “home” to the internment camp.

We're Sorry

Over forty years later, the government apologized to the internees, two-thirds of which were US citizens. Not one was ever charged with a crime. President Reagan reluctantly signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which expressed regret and awarded survivors $20,000 each. A federal commission had concluded that there had been no military reason to detain them and that it was based on race prejudice and the failure of political leadership. George Takei's father didn't live to hear his government's apology or collect the $20,000. George gave his money to the Japanese American National Museum.

George Takei, of course, went on to fame, best known for his portrayal of helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek franchise. In 2012, he starred in Allegiance, a musical inspired by his boyhood experiences in the internment camps. Allegiance made it to Broadway where it played from 2015 to 2016, expressing the message “Never forget, never again.” It remains to be seen if the message holds true.

The Takeis' Journey

show route and directions
A markerLos Angeles, CA -
Los Angeles, CA, USA
get directions

B markerRohwer, AR -
Rohwer, AR 71670, USA
get directions

C markerTule Lake, CA -
Tule Lake, California 96134, USA
get directions

Ten Largest Permanent Detention Camps

  • Amache, Colorado (August 1942 – October 1945). Peak population 7300.

  • Gila River, Arizona (July 1942 – November 1945). Peak Population 13,350.

  • Heart Mountain, Wyoming (August 1942 - November 1945). Peak population 10,750.

  • Jerome, Arkansas (October 1942 - June 1944). Peak population 8500.

  • Manzanar, California (March 1942 - November 1945). Peak population 10,050.

  • Minidoka, Idaho (August 1942 - October 1945). Peak population 9400.

  • Poston, Arizona (May 1942 - November 1945). Peak population 17,800.

  • Rohwer, Arkansas (September 1942 - November 1945). Peak population 8500.

  • Topaz, Utah (September 1942 - October 1945). Peak population 8150.

  • Tule Lake, California (May 1942 - March 1946). Peak population 18,800.

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • nishlaverz profile image

      nishlaverz 4 years ago from N.E England

      There were similar camps in the UK where those people with German or other enemy heritage were taken.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      nishlaverz, I wasn't aware of that. I'll have to look into that then. Do you know where any of these camps were?

    • Charles James profile image

      Charles James 4 years ago from Yorkshire, UK

      The Isle of Man.

      Some were semjt to Canada and were torpedoed and drowned.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      An outstanding Hub about a shameful period in our history in the US.

      Thanks for writing this. A former poet laureate of the State of Oregon was interned (was from Fresno, CA back then) and wrote of it in his book of poems called Legends From Camp by Lawson Inada. Two wonderful novels that deal with the internments are Scent of Cedars and The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, both set in the Pacific Northwest.

    • Michele Travis profile image

      Michele Travis 4 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

      Thank you for writing this hub. We were never taught in school about this, although we should have been. How horrible it must have been for them. Being born in the United States, then sent to these 'camps'. So horrible people committed suicide. You taught me something today.

      Thank you again.

      Voted up.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very interesting hub, very informative. I think I heard that Takei was in an internment camp, but I wasn't aware of everything he went through (including after being released) and I also wasn't aware of all the conditions in which internees lived.

    • umbertoobrian profile image

      umbertoobrian 4 years ago from Speedway, Indiana

      Americans of Japanese heritage were treated badly. There were Americans of Italian and German heritage also interned and stripped of their rights. A famous case is the one of Joe Dimaggio's father who operated a fishing boat but was barred from the wharves of San Francisco because he was still an Italian citizen.

      War hysteria is an old story, I know many people of German heritage whose grandparents were bi-lingual until WW I when they had to stop teaching and speaking German.

      http://www.lowermerionhistory.org/texts/schmidtd/i...

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dimaggio/peopleevents...

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi xstatic. I'll have to look into those books. Thanks for the tip-- and the comment.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Michele Travis, thanks for reading and commenting. I understand there were also camps for German-Americans and Italian-Americans as well as foreign nationals, though I believe they were detained more or less on a case-by-case basis. I say more or less because I'm sure there were innocents detained-- what the hell, let's just say imprisoned-- in those camps as well.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      NateB11, I had no idea George was detained as a child in the camps until I saw a recent picture of him visiting the remains of the Rohwer Detainment Camp. Thanks for commenting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      umbertoobrian, I agree about war hysteria. I understand that German Shepherd dogs were renamed Alsatians in World War I because breeders were afraid the breed would suffer in popularity. Fifty years later sanity returned and German Shepherd was reinstated as the official name. I don't know for sure but I think "Alsatian" is preferred in the UK. Still, not as pathetic as some in the US, including congress, renaming french fries as freedom fries because the French opposed invading Iraq. Lamer than lame-- but at least the politicians got to preen and strut.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England

      Whoa poor Sulu, there's so much I didn't know about George Takei and I'm a big fan of the classic 60's Star Trek series. Thanks for a fascinating article UnnamedHarald.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Steve. Thanks for commenting and voting. When I remember my life when I was 5 to 8 years old-- I'm sure if I'd gone through all that then I would be seriously screwed up. It's amazing to me that even though George has been in the cultural landscape for more than 40 years, we're only just learning this about his life.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      I didn't know that. thanks. Here is an idea courtesy of my grandfather: Masons in Nazi Germany.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting Mhatter. Masons in Nazi Germany. Hmmm. I have to admit, that's something I haven't looked into...until now. Thanks for the idea.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi UH. A very nice hub and as usual very well presented and photographed. It dismayed me a little when I read that people were walking to the wire and then being shot. This in the USA. Thank goodness things are so much better now.

      Voted up and more.

      Graham.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Graham. Thanks for the comment. Yes, the whole episode is deeply disturbing-- not just because we did it, but because we did it based on race. I understand the German/Italians that were interned, though in much smaller numbers, have never received an apology.

    • umbertoobrian profile image

      umbertoobrian 4 years ago from Speedway, Indiana

      On the flip side of this dark moment is the very real Japanese intelligence operations all along the Pacific Rim. I will have to do much more reading, but the Japanese had an extensive network of agents in places as far apart as Russia, prior to WWI and Chile, during the interwar period.

      And yet, the children of Japanese-Americans served honorably and well in Europe. They comprised one of the most decorated combat battalions of WWII.

      I hate to say this, and maybe it is wrong, but the German/Italian internees could not make a racial argument for reparations and we, sadly, live in a world that is not color blind.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      umbertoobrian, well-said. There were Japanese (and Germans and Italians and Anglo-Saxon Americans) who were spies or agents loyal to our enemies who deserved to be imprisoned. I also did not write about the schools, rations, supplies, sporting events, horticultural activities, etc available to the internees. These were not labor or death camps as found in Axis-controlled territories. But they were concentration camps, regardless of names like "detention center" or "relocation center" which people-- whole families-- were sent to based on their race. Supposedly, that is not what America does. Sadly, that is what America did. It seems like we threw the baby out with the bathwater to ensure "our" safety. What I fear is that the government learned the wrong lesson-- "don't get caught detaining innocents". Thanks very much for your comment-- plenty to think about.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Imagine, visiting your wife late at night, because your kids will turn you in.

    • umbertoobrian profile image

      umbertoobrian 4 years ago from Speedway, Indiana

      Mhatter99, completely off topic. See the film "The Lives of Others." It is about the Stasi and the extreme measures they used to monitor the people of East Germany. Chilling.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. A fascinating, sad and terrible part of history I didn't know. Worst it was going on in the U.S. Thanks for sharing. Passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Gypsy. Thank you for reading and commenting-- and sharing.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      Sad how in times of crisis Governments will often take action first and think second, and basic human compassion and fair play may go right out the window. And sometimes when they take action, they grossly overreact or - as you put it in one of the answers - they throw the baby out with the bathwater. I like the irony of the Takeis looking 'out the window at the barbed wire and sentry towers while reciting with liberty and justice for all'. I wonder if the hypocrisy struck home with any of those in charge?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Greensleeves. Yes, I think Governments act without thinking in times of crisis-- about citizens' rights. Trouble is, when are we not in a crisis anymore? Thanks for commenting.

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