NVC Newsletter

A Hakujin’s View of Gordon Hirabayashi

by John Hartman
March 2015, Volume 65, Issue 3


I am very fortunate for so many reasons.  One is that I am retired, and, it gives me the opportunity to travel extensively.  I am also grateful to have a friend who lets me use her second home in Tucson, Arizona every January for two weeks.  I’ve been traveling to Tucson in January for about five years now.  I enjoy hiking in the mountains surrounding Tucson and seeing the sights in the area.  

During one of my trips to Tucson I took the Catalina Highway to the top of Mount Lemmon.  Off that highway is the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, formerly the Catalina Federal Honor Camp.    Being curious, I stopped to explore.  It took a little searching but I soon came upon a kiosk with a description of how Gordon Hirabayashi  (who I knew had Seattle connections) ended up at this spot and eventually had a recreation site named after him.

The kiosk did a nice job summarizing Dr. Hirabayashi’s resistance to internment and his belief that treating Japanese American citizens of the United States differently from other citizens is unconstitutional.   He was a pioneer of civil rights a decade before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus.   So, how did Dr. Hirabayashi end up in a prison camp near Tucson?

After being convicted of curfew violations, he was sentenced to 90 days in prison.  He was in Spokane working for the American Friends Service Committee when the FBI tracked him down and informed him it was time to serve his 90 days in jail.  The FBI wanted him to serve his time in the federal tank in the Spokane County Jail.  Dr. Hirabayashi protested saying he had intentionally requested his sentence be increased from 60 days to 90 days so he could serve his time in a road camp.  Given that he was not allowed to go to what was called Military Area No. 1 (which I assume was all of the west coast), the only road camp he could go to was the one near Tucson; then called the Catalina Federal Honor Camp. 

Unfortunately, the Feds had no money to get him to Tucson, and Dr. Hirabayashi didn’t have the money either.  So, Dr. Hirabayashi said he would hitchhike to Tucson – 1600 miles!  The District Attorney in Spokane agreed to write a “To Whom it May Concern” letter describing what he was doing and that he wasn’t wandering around illegally.   We know he arrived safely, served his time at the road camp and was given a bus ticket back to Spokane.  What really peaked my interest was:  How did a Japanese American man manage to hitchhike 1600 miles from Spokane to Tucson in the middle of World War II?  I decided to read Gordon Hirabayashi’s book to find out (A Principled Stand:  The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States).

The chapter in Dr. Hirabayashi’s book describing his trip from Spokane to Tucson is called “Thumbing to Jail”.  In many ways, this is the most humorous and revealing chapter of the entire book.  Dr. Hirabayashi hitched from Spokane to Pendleton, down to Boise, to Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson.  It took him two weeks to get to Tucson.  He spent many hours waiting for a ride, but he was never attacked or even harassed.   Many of the rides came from police officers who were sympathetic.  

Here is a passage from the book that I think reveals much about who Gordon Hirabayashi was, the strength of his convictions, the calmness of his demeanor, and the right-ness of his cause.

On a lonely road in southern Utah, a farmer in a truck picked me up.  He said, “You’re a Chinese aren’t you?
I said, “No, I’m an American”
“I knew that,” replied the farmer, “but you are a Chinese American, aren’t you?”
I answered, “My parents came from Japan; therefore, I’m an American of Japanese ancestry.”

After a few moments, he said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have picked you up.”
Trying to be a good Quaker, I said, “Well, I don’t want to get a ride under false pretenses, so if you’ll stop the truck, I’ll get out.”

He thought that over and said, “Well, I picked you up, so you can stay.”

With time on hand, I explained to him why I was hitchhiking to prison to serve time for a wrong constitutional decision.  When we reached his house, he made me go upstairs to take a bath, fed me dinner, put me back in the truck, and drove me to a well-traveled crossroad.  A minor victory, but a moral one!