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Fred Korematsu, 86; Fought WWII Internment of Japanese Americans

April 01, 2005|Claudia Luther Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

Fred Korematsu, the Japanese American whose court case over his refusal to be interned during World War II went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became synonymous with this nation's agonized debate over civil liberties during times of war, has died. He was 86.

Korematsu died Wednesday of respiratory illness at his daughter's home in the Northern California community of Larkspur, according to his attorney, Dale Minami.

"He had a very strong will," Minami said of Korematsu. "He was like our Rosa Parks. He took an unpopular stand at a critical point in our history."

In February 1942, about 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry -- including citizens and noncitizens -- were ordered out of their homes and into camps after Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Korematsu did not turn himself in and was arrested, jailed and convicted of a felony for failing to report for evacuation.

Korematsu was one of several who challenged the constitutionality of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment. His case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1944 the court upheld the order.

But as was discovered many years later, the court -- and the nation -- had been gravely misled about the potential dangers from Japanese Americans.

Indeed, the Korematsu case was cited as recently as April 2004. At issue before the Supreme Court was whether U.S. courts could review challenges to the incarceration of mostly Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Korematsu, then 84, filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying, "The extreme nature of the government's position is all too familiar."

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration's policy of detaining foreign nationals without legal process at Guantanamo Bay was illegal.

The public stance taken by Korematsu in this and other civil liberties issues in the previous 20 years was in stark contrast to the four decades after the war in which he hid details of the ordeal from his own children.

"He felt responsible for the internment in a sort of backhanded way because his case had been lost in the Supreme Court," legal historian and author Peter H. Irons said in a PBS "POV" documentary on Korematsu by Eric Paul Fournier.

The Korematsu case was reopened in the 1980s because of Irons, who was researching a book on wartime internment. Irons discovered that the government lied to the high court, a lie that would provide the basis for a landmark 1983 federal court decision to vacate Korematsu's conviction.

Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was born Jan. 30, 1919, in Oakland, where his Japanese-born parents ran a plant nursery. After graduating from high school, he was working as a welder when Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into war.

Official concerns that Japan would find sympathizers in the Japanese American community on the West Coast surfaced immediately, including the idea that there might be an effort to get messages to Japanese submarines offshore.

Like many other Japanese American homes, the Korematsus' house was searched for flashlights and cameras, "everything that they thought we would use for signaling," Korematsu said.

The following February, Roosevelt granted broad powers to the War Department to carry out internment, acting upon the assertions of Gen. John L. DeWitt, the Army general in charge of the West Coast, who believed that Japanese Americans were more loyal to Japan than to the United States.

Korematsu, then 22, watched as his parents prepared to leave their home, but he decided to remain behind with his Italian American girlfriend.

"I didn't think that the government would go as far as to include American citizens," Korematsu said in Fournier's documentary, which won an Emmy in 2002.

He soon discovered it would. He traveled about, changed his name and had plastic surgery on his eyes. But on May 30, 1942, he was arrested.

While in jail, Korematsu was visited by Ernest Besig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, who was looking for cases to test the constitutionality of internment.

The lawyer posted $5,000 in bail to free Korematsu, but the military police wouldn't release him. Korematsu was taken to Tanforan racetrack, an assembly center for Japanese Americans south of San Francisco, where he spent time in a horse stall.

"There's no floor, it's just dirt, so the wind was blowing through that and it was cracks all around the walls, and there was a light bulb up there, one light bulb on the ceiling and that was it," Korematsu said in the documentary.

He ended up in a camp in Topaz, Utah, where he was shunned by his fellow inmates for having attempted to dodge internment.

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