Arizona campsite to honor resisters: West Sac man one of former prisoners

By M.S. Enkoji

Sacramento Bee Staff Writer


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Noboru Taguma will board a bus today and ride up a highway he first traveled more than 50 years ago as an embittered young man, handcuffed and leg-chained.

He will gaze down the mountain slope as the road rises and recall the steepness that frightened him that uncertain night as he headed to a federal prison camp high in the mountains above Tucson, Ariz.

On this trip, instead of the stark barracks where he stayed for nine months, he will find picnic tables, campsites, a horse corral and hiking trails — a place of honor for a long-ago protest against injustice, a place the U.S. Forest Service will dedicate to people like Taguma.

“It was the only time us farm boys had a chance to fight for our rights,” said Taguma, 76, of West Sacramento, who refused to join the U.S. military during World War II.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the federal government evacuated his family, along with 117,000 others of Japanese descent, from their West Coast homes and moved them into remote internment camps. The same government soon came around and recruited young men in the camps, like Taguma, to join the U.S. armed forces.

Though 20,000 answered the call, eager to prove patriotism and loyalty, another 300, including Taguma, couldn’t justify what the government asked.

“I don’t know what I’d be fighting for,” said Taguma. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

As long as his parents languished behind barbed wire after a life of hard work, Taguma would not go.

“My parents were the most important thing to me,” he said. “I felt sorry for my parents.”

On his dining room wall hang family pictures and photos of a younger Taguma surrounded by other draft-resister buddies.

As he talked about his history and the meaning of today’s ceremonies before he left for Tucson, Taguma waved his arms and pounded his fists, then grinned suddenly at a funny recollection. The passing decades have not allayed his indignation, as he hisses contempt for those who tried to persuade him into the Army.

Taguma, whose family had been sent to Amache, Colo., was sentenced to the prison camp for refusing to serve. He and about 40 other men from several Southwestern internment camps were shipped to the prison camp in the Santa Catalina Mountains. There, they labored in crews building mountain roads for tourists escaping the desert heat. In the open air clearing rocks and boulders, Taguma said, he at least felt somewhat freer than his parents and siblings.

During the war, as many as 300 draft resisters, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and American Indians, stayed in the camp, said Mary Farrell, an archaeologist with the Forest Service.

The former site of the old federal prison camp has been converted into a 20-acre recreation site by the Forest Service. In ceremonies today, it will be named in honor of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American college student from Seattle who became part of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case after he defied the federal evacuation order. He lost his appeal when the court ruled the evacuation was constitutional under duress of war. Hirabayashi was sent to the prison camp where he served four months.

Hirabayashi, a retired college professor, will be joined by 10 other Japanese American draft resisters for the dedication ceremonies at the recreation site, Farrell said. The site will eventually have permanent signs depicting the plight of men like Hirabayashi and Taguma.

“It’s an honor to go,” said Taguma, smiling again.

And to see old friends.

Feeling ostracized by those who chose a different route, Taguma has always found the best solace from the few who sided with him. Survivors, particularly those from California, reunite every few years, Taguma said.

Taguma said that, in the end, the worst injustice is to be misunderstood.

“If young people understand what we did,” he said, “then I’m glad.”

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