World War 2 History: George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, Spent Years in Internment Camps
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 David Hunt