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Oregon Town Was a Haven During WWII : Northwest: Hundreds of Japanese-Americans were evicted from the West Coast amid wartime hysteria. But this farming town welcomed them.

August 29, 1993|JEFF BARNARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ONTARIO, Ore. — Elsewhere, they were herded into camps, or hounded out of towns. Elsewhere, Japanese-Americans caught up in the passions of World War II were stripped of their American dreams.

But not in Ontario.

Hundreds of Japanese-Americans, forcibly relocated from the West Coast, came to Ontario in the years after Pearl Harbor because they found an island of pragmatic acceptance in this eastern Oregon farming town.

"What happened here is the experiment the nation should have done, instead of what it did," said Ontario hardware store owner John Kirby.

Kirby is one of the organizers of a museum that will tell the Ontario story; with $4 million from Congress, it's scheduled to open in 1995.

It will tell the story of people like Tom and George Iseri. Their father left Japan in 1900 when he was 16. When the war came, he was married with 10 children and owned a general store in Thomas, Wash., outside Seattle.

Then, two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast to be sent inland against the possibility that they might help an invasion.

"They come right out and tell you they're going to throw you in the concentration camp. 'We don't trust you.' The other side of their mouth they say you're going to put the crops in because we need the food," Tom Iseri said, his voice brittle with emotion.

His family was sent to one camp in California; Tom Iseri was sent to another in Idaho. But an old friend, Bill Rogers, took him on as managing partner of a new produce packaging and shipping operation in Ontario in the spring of 1943, and the Iseri family settled there.

Why were the Iseris and others like them accepted here? Part of it was the Japanese-Americans already living in Malheur County--the War Relocation Authority counted 137 Japanese-Americans living there before the war.

Many came with the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1890s, said Bob Sims, a dean at Boise State University. Others came to farm after the Owyhee Dam opened in 1932, allowing the desert to bloom.

Ontario's Japanese-Americans were quick to condemn the attack on Pearl Harbor and deeded their community hall to the war effort.

But Ontario also stood out because of the courage of a few men.

Elmo Smith was mayor and publisher of the Eastern Oregon Observer; he later became governor. During the controversy, he wrote: "If the Japs, both alien and nationals, are a menace to the Pacific Coast safety unless they are moved inland, it appears downright cowardly to take any other stand than to put out the call, 'Send them along; we'll cooperate to the fullest possible extent in taking care of them.' "

Jess Adrian, a real estate man, helped them find farms. Lee Cables, the Chevrolet dealer, hired a half-dozen as mechanics, including two of Tom Iseri's brothers.

By war's end, the county's Japanese-American population had swollen to 1,500.

"No doubt they made money on being good to us, but it took a guy with some guts to do what these guys did," said George Iseri.

It wasn't all rosy. George Iseri was in a store, talking to a sailor, when the clerk asked in a loud voice, "Don't you know those guys are Japs?" Some customers didn't want his brothers working on their cars.

When his family went to town, George Iseri would tell his mother not to speak Japanese, to be sure no one thought they were talking about them. A group of elders made sure the Japanese-Americans paid their bills.

"We were very, very careful," he said.

Joe Saito's family had moved to Ontario in 1934 from a farm east of Portland. Saito's father rented a farm where he grew potatoes, onions and sugar beets.

"We weren't accepted very well in those days," Saito said. "Our parents had never worked into the mainstream. The Grange wouldn't let us in."

Nevertheless, Saito heeded the Army's call for volunteers.

"I was kind of a proud American," he said.

Saito eventually was assigned to the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-Americans; he worked his way up to second lieutenant.

Mike Iseri died fighting in France with the 442nd. Two other brothers, Oscar and Carl, served with the occupation forces in Japan.

After the war, they returned to Ontario and worked hard to be part of the community.

Joe Saito joined the American Legion and the Lions Club. George Iseri joined Kiwanis and later served on the City Council.

"As fellows came back from the service, things got better," Saito said. "Maybe soldiers understand what it's like to be in combat with each other. You're just people.

"To be accepted on a social level, you just also have to be successful economically too. Our people have been."

Japanese-Americans now account for 800 of Ontario's 9,500 people. They have the state's only Buddhist temple outside Portland, a judo club and a reputation as some of the best onion farmers in the valley.

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