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English a weapon, English a sanctuary by Alec cowan

1941 was a year of adversity for the University of Oregon. While there was much to be thankful for, the university celebrating its 65th anniversary, the ensuing tragedy which threw the nation into war would disrupt everything the young students thought they would be forced to endure.

World War II became immediate anxiety for a generation just beginning their education. On January 15, 1942, Oregon’s Daily Emerald published an opinion column titled “Books or Guns, Oregon Must Decide,” which detailed the dissonance students would face in deciding how to spend their future in a once unfathomable world at war. Newly minted graduates hoping to begin a life-long pursuit of education were pushed between two choices – to defend freedom or exercise it.

“College students, perhaps more than any other class of Americans, have been the victims of that vicious pair, 'Old Man Gloom: and 'War Nerves.' For no other group of Americans are so directly affected as a group as the college student. It has disrupted his plans, destroyed his most cherished dreams.”

Bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It only took four days for the university to mobilize and address how the future of every student was now thrown into question. Students found themselves contemplating their education in relation to their duty. University President Donald M. Erb addressed the university as such:

“Now that we are actually at war, there will be some changes in the usual routine of University life. All of us connected with the University will have to adapt ourselves to the demands of national defense and the demands of local civilian defense authorities. We will also probably introduce facilities for special training of students in civilian defense activities, but as far as possible—and this is at the specific request of the national defense authorities themselves—we will carry on the academic work of the University without drastic change. Above all we should set an example for the rest of the population in using calm intelligence under any emergency.”

The university was split into eight raid zones, with buildings and fraternity houses transformed to spot possible air strikes. According to vigilant reporting in the Daily Emerald, the Oregon state board considered shortening terms to six-day weeks, eight-hour days and four-quarter years to accelerate graduation and allow students to enlist in the war effort. Students were deputized; community defense councils were organized. Committees formed to combat campus fires and rescue persons potentially trapped in bombed buildings.

This transformation revolutionized the utility of college education as well. Those studying the sciences saw their efforts put toward advancing the machinery of war. It was evident that the tools of speech would be tuned for war as well.

Students proficient in writing and rhetoric began utilizing their education to write their support for soldiers abroad. In the W.F. Jewett speech competition-- an annual Oregon contest held since 1916 -- Jane Hooker, a sophomore in arts and letters, won first prize with her speech titled “America’s answer”; second prize, consisting of $10, went to senior in English Dorthy Durkee, for her speech titled “Today for Country, Tomorrow for you.” In war time, students began exercising the old cliché of the pen being mightier than the sword.

In time, this nationalist persuasiveness moved from Oregon to the national theater. On January 14, 1943, Dr. Clarence Valentine Boyer – then chairman of the English Department – gave a speech over radio broadcast in Durham, North Carolina, regarding the role of the English department in relation to the war effort.

Dr. Boyer joined the English department staff in 1926 and served as university president from 1934-38 before resigning due to health complications. He stayed at the university as dean of arts and letters, chairman of the English department and professor of English. Dr. Boyer oversaw an unfortunate period of transition during the great depression, when budget crises threatened faculty positions and enrollment.

According to the Presidential Archives from the Office of the President, Dr. Boyer continued to build infrastructure at the university despite such hardships:

"Just before he took office, in an effort to save money and eliminate duplication, all science classes were moved to Oregon State College and all social sciences moved to the UO. Opposed to this and wanting the immediate return of the science classes to campus, Boyer found himself at odds with the university's Advisory Council, which favored a slower process. In spite of these struggles, Boyer was able to gain funding for three major building projects—the library, the men's physical education building, and the infirmary."

Thus, when Dr. Boyer took to the airwaves in 1943 he was already a figure of repute. His speech was delivered through Oregon’s KOAC AM radio station, located in Corvallis. The speech covered areas of English life and featured quotes from Mill, Milton, Cowper, Burns and Shakespeare throughout. A defense of country needed a defense of English.

“The great importance of training in English composition lies in the fact that writing is one of the chief means of communication,” Boyer spoke. “And communication, at all times essential to civilization, has become an invaluable weapon to the successful prosecution of the war.”

Dr. Boyer's speech was laced with bombastic language deputizing the study of English as a defender of American life. Dr. Boyer also understood the initial disconnect between the utility of English as it related to other, more obvious studies like math and engineering. The university was encouraging students to study in the sciences to better aid the mechanical and technological race.

“To the average citizen, thinking in terms of bombing raids, battleships, bayonet charges, and men dying in the air, on sea, and on land in the thick of the carnage, the quiet study of grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and the relationship of all the parts of a composition to one another may seem unimportant, even a waste of time.”

Dr. Boyer went on to explain that other subjects such as math, science and history were high on the list of important subjects for then Secretary of War Henry L. Stinson. Despite the obvious distinctions, however, Dr. Boyer took pride in noting, in a quote from Stinson, that “A capacity for clear and accurate expression” lies at the top of the secretary’s important list.

Furthermore, Dr. Boyer references that “more than 200,000 able-bodied men have been deferred from induction into the Armed Forces because of illiteracy,” including that “even the private in modern warfare has to be able to think, to read directions, and to understand explanations concerning complicated movements and machines.”

For Dr. Boyer, a command of English was tantamount to life in war – and more optimistically, in diplomacy.

“The distinctive characteristic of literature, as one of the liberal arts, is that it works through the imagination and gains its effects by stimulating the emotions and by creating sympathetic understanding," Dr. Boyer said.

This sympathetic understanding stands in stark contrast with his earlier description of English as weapon and prosecutor, and this speaks to the versatility of English: an opportunity for communication and empathy in one moment, and in another, a force for propaganda.

The speech concluded with a feature on Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Revenge -- a poem dictating the valiant legend of the English vessel The Revenge against the Spanish armada, and a story of heroism against insurmountable odds. A small excerpt of the poem is given here:

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"And they stared at the dead that had been so valiant and true,

And had holden the power and glory of Spain so cheap

That he dared her with one little ship and his English few;

Was he devil or man? He was devil for aught they knew,

But they sank his body with honor down into the deep."

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The literary excerpts throughout the speech show rhetorical finesse, but they also illustrate how great works canonize their historical moments and give life to national identity. President Erb, after hearing the speech via radio, wrote a letter thanking Dr. Boyer for his broadcast.

“There could not be a better case made for the values of English literature and English composition in war as well as in peace,” President Erb wrote.

This tone of fortitude and optimism is featured in many of the writings from the time. For another range of students, however, hysteria over war meant a different threat – and one which came from their supposed sovereign protector. President Erb, in his initial war address to the university, continued:

“There is a special phase of calm intelligence that deserves immediate emphasis. Although this country is at war with Japan, we should keep our perspective in our treatment of our fellow students of Japanese descent. A spirit of sympathy and understanding and tolerance is indispensable. From all I have heard, the attitude toward Japanese students on this campus has been admirable and I want it to continue.”

The conflict around Japanese-Americans would be central to life on the West Coast and in Oregon, half of which was cast under the shadow of the “exclusion zone.” Due to the large population of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, the U.S. government became nervous that these American citizens would act against their country because of a possible allegiance to Japan. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans within the exclusion zone.

To solidify their position on campus, Japanese-American students published letters in the Dec. 11, 1941 edition of the Emerald declaring their allegiance to the United States.

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To the editor:

To those who may have some doubt in their minds, we, the University of Oregon students of Japanese descent, desire to make it clearly known that we, as loyal American citizens, condemn without reserve the unwarranted attack made upon us by the Japanese government.

Being born, reared, and educated in the United States, we are American citizens, and regardless of facial characteristics, consider ourselves to be just as American as our fellow students.

Whenever we are called upon to do so, we shall be ready and willing to bear arms and fight for the Stars and Stripes against Japan or any other aggressor nation. We only ask that we be given a chance to prove our loyalty to our country, the United States.

George Uchiyama, Harold Kay Ito, Shu Yasui, Harry Fukuda, Larry Takei, Samuel t. Naito, Ted T. Hachiya, Makotk M. Iwashita, Kenzo Nakagawa, tadashi M. Osaki, Taku Kawauchi.

To the Emerald:

To those who may have any doubts in their minds in regard to our stand, let it be known that we American-born citizens do pledge ourselves to the cause of the United States of America.

We have ben reared and educated under the principles of democracy of this country which we sincerely cherish and would preserve at all cost. We will at any time voluntarily give our services wherever needed to aid this government. We will be loyal in every respect.

Very sincerely,

Michi Yasui, Mary Furusho, Alice Kawasaki, Midori Funatake, Ellen Ogawa.

Even with such stated allegiance, the risk of internment was ever present. For the 22 Nisei (of Japanese descent) students at the University of Oregon, growing hostility and intrusion from the government made fleeing the exclusion zone difficult. According to a 1941 story in the Emerald, these Nisei had their funds frozen in local banks within days. In some areas, a 5-mile travel restriction was put in place.

Still, there was perseverance.

"Whenever family finances make it possible these students plan to try to gather the shattered remnants of their college careers together and carry on their education under the difficult situations of other schools," the Emerald wrote in May of 1942.

The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) was created to allow the relocation of Japanese-American students as an alternative to interment, and Karl Onthank, the dean of personnel administration, represented the University of Oregon and its students in ensuring that they continued their education at schools east of the exclusion area.

By 1943 the council had relocated 1,600 Japanese-American students from West Coast schools. Not only was the NJASRC organizing transfers by writing to university presidents, but the council hoped to organize a funding system for students. The council worked as liaison between the World Student Service Fund, church and various other organizations to provide scholarship opportunities to cover tuition and relocation costs, at one time amassing $70,000 (over one million dollars today). The exodus was in full swing as the grip on daily life was quickly tightening.

“The majority of these students have little or no funds which makes it doubly hard, mentioning, nothing of some of the obstacles that have been placed in our path,” Onthank wrote in the August 5, 1943, NJARSC newsletter. “Even if you don’t believe in miracles or the impossible – please believe us, we are trying – and I can honestly say, some members of the staff are putting forth that which is beyond the average human effort, to help us to some extent realize our goal.”

In cities throughout the exclusion zone, public notices were put up alerting citizens of impending action. (Wikimedia Commons)

The process of transferring was anything but simple. According to the Junior College Journal for September 1943, which documented the work the council performed, transferring universities required proper adherence to university standards. Some schools required FBI verification.

From a numerical standpoint, liberal arts students comprised the greatest percentage of majors in students polled at 28 percent. Following testimonials from transfer universities, it is apparent that a command of English helped solidify a case for transfer. Before the war the study was an academic enterprise – but now, it was an asset in the defense of basic freedom.

As one university’s testimony read, “the Japanese evacuated from Seattle make a much better social adjustment than those evacuated from California, the former group having a better command of English, being more accustomed to mingling with Caucasians, apparently as a group being more extroverted.”

Other testimonials followed suit. “Acting on my advice they arranged for enlistment as soon as school was out," said Dean Wayne W. Johnson. "One of the girls wrote an English theme on ‘What We Americans Will Do to Those Japanese’ and read it in English class. Any other Nisei of this type would be welcome to come to school here.”

The program succeeded in helping students find schools where the fear of internment would be left on the far horizon. However, a sadder state of affairs belied this optimism: while Caucasian-Americans were winning prizes for their elocution, Japanese-Americans were winning their freedom.

But while the university moved to keep students out of internment, life as Japanese-American students would not be easy during or after the war.

The Yasui family's experience is an unfortunate paradigm for the traumas faced by university students. Michi Yasui, a senior in English hoping to become an educator, was dramatically affected by all facets of internment life.

Prior to the war, however, Michi was an enterprising and successful student. For the majority of her college career you can find her smiling in the ‘Symposium’ section of the school yearbook.

"Speech interests have filled much of the activity time of Michi Yasui, prominent member of Hendricks Hall," notes the Oregana yearbook, where her school photo beams on the black and white pages. "She is a member of Sigma Delta Rho, speech honorary and the women's symposium team. Phi Theta Upsilon also claims her as a member."

Michi wasn't just studious but exceptional. Not just an active member on campus, she was selected to represent the university at a symposium in Seattle, where she would speak alongside Jane Hooker (the victor from the Jewett contest) about "How to fit women back into society without throwing the system out of gear." She stood as a representative of the university's enterprising English program.

This success, however, came to a close. Her mother and sister were sent to internment camps in Northern California, and of her two brothers, one spent most of the war in prison for breaking the mandatory curfew. University records from the Office of the President show that Michi was unable to attend her graduation because of the government curfew in Eugene.

Commencement, which took place at 8:00 pm on May 31, 1942, and which was located three blocks from her dorm inside MacArthur Court, would take place after the imposed curfew.

Legally, Michi could not attend her graduation. Even after Onthank wrote a petition calling for Michi's graduation, the Wartime Civil Control Administration denied her, forcing her to miss her graduation taking place just minutes away.

This was more common than it may initially seem. As a 1942 release from the relocation council explains, “it is interesting to note that the man winning the highest honors at the university of California on May 13, 1942 was unable to be present to receive his medal because he had been evacuated.”

"It was actually a fluke," Michi later said. "I could have been stopped because of the five-mile travel restriction. But if I'd sat around waiting for anything, I probably would have been sent to one of the evacuation camps. A lot of things would have been different."

The last of Michi’s brothers, Shu, was relocated to Denver, and she would join him after finishing her finals and leaving Eugene by bus. She met her husband, Toshio Ando, after she arrived in Denver, and together they raised six children. She received her master's in education and fostered a teaching career spanning three decades.

She officially received her University of Oregon Bachelor's degree in English 44 years later, in 1986, thanks to the work of University of Oregon Archivist Keith Richards. It was Richards who found the correspondence between Michi and university officials in the presidential archives. After reaching out to Michi to ask if she'd like to participate in commencement, she agreed after some hesitation. Richards went to the university president, Paul Olum, who brought the issue up with the Board of Deans. The board agreed and Michi made her travel plans.

Many Oregon students who were then-classified as Nisei would receive their degrees decades after they graduated. Oregon House Bill 2823, which was passed in 2007, allowed honorary degrees from Oregon universities to be awarded to those affected by internment.

As the Chronicle for Higher Education reported in 2008, the passage of the bill allowed 19 students to receive their honorary degrees.

Major advancements in the history of Japanese reparations could not have been made without Minoru Yasui, Michi’s older brother, who worked as an attorney for human-rights after interment and was recognized by the ACLU of Oregon, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the Oregon State Bar Association. In 2015 he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for civilian honor in the U.S., from President Barack Obama.

His work led to national legislation, and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 enacted a formal apology to victims of interment and granted $20,000 in restitution to each living survivor. Oregonians celebrate his achievements on May 28, which in 2016 the Oregon government unanimously voted to name "Minoru Yasui day."

Much of the Yasui story feels recursive. After Richards excavated Michi’s dilemma, numerous articles and documentaries have forged the Yasui history in film and paper. These include Zach Bigalke’s 2015 article for the special collections’ journal Unbound, as well as a book by Lauren Kessler titled Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family and the documentary Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. University of Oregon history professor Kevin Hatfield has even used the story as an exposition on the American Dream.

Even with such positive stories, however, the state of Oregon did not always react well to the return of Japanese-Americans when the war made its close. An additional goal of the NJASRC, besides coordinating the transfers for students of Japanese descent, was to counter anti-Japanese sentiment among Americans.

Both during and after the war, such a mission was difficult to control.

“Many Oregonians actively campaigned against the return of Japanese Americans to their communities,” wrote Craig Collisson for The Oregon Encyclopedia. The Oregon government drafted Joint Memoriam No. 9, which was a beckoning to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The memoriam aimed to "prevent the return of said Japanese aliens and said citizens of Japanese extraction to the west coast states for the duration of the present war with Japan."

In Hood River citizens displayed “No Japs Allowed” placards in store windows. Then-Oregon governor Walter Pierce was quoted as saying, "We should never be satisfied until every last Jap has been run out of [the] United States and our Constitution changed so they can never get back."

In the ensuing years columns would run in the Emerald casting skepticism on the newly returned and enrolled Japanese classmates. Where did allegiances lie? Was there a bubbling resentment toward defeat or detainment? Michi's sister Yuka was the first Japanese-American student to return to the university, and her presence was met with the suspicion that the Yasui family worked in a network of spies. Acceptance was something never truly won in the war.

But the work that Onthank and the NJASRC undertook provided a glimmer of hope for students who were put under surveillance and interned. As an anonymous Japanese-American student wrote after being confirmed for transfer in 1942, “I just can’t find sufficient words to describe my gratitude for all that your office has done for me and other Niseis. In our darkest hour you brought forth your loving hands and gave us new hopes and inspiration. Surely Democracy can not and will not die as long as such groups like yours and Colleges that uphold the true ideals of Democracy exist…”

Michi passed away in January of 2006 at 85 years old. Per her wishes, she asked that in lieu of flowers or a memorial service that admirers make a contribution to the Minoru Yasui International Moot Court Fund, 1221 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97401. The Yasui legacy spans parents, brothers, and sisters from California to Colorado, internment to freedom. Above all, it is indomitable.

Eugenians can also see the Japanese American Memorial Garden and Sculpture outside the Hult Center. The sculpture was unveiled on the 65th anniversary of Order 9066 and was installed as a commemoration alongside the Day of Remembrance, which began in 2000 as a similar memorial. Three scripted pillars, themed "Justice," "Honor" and "Perseverance," surround a central bronze statue of a girl reaching for a butterfly -- a testament to youthful hope and futurity. Appropriately, the memorial was designed by Kenge Kobayashi, who, as a teenager, was interned at the Tule Lake camp. Despite their detainment, the history of Japanese Americans continues to break free and mold the Oregon of today.

While the university helped students in need, it did so in a country which immediately victimized its own citizens. For many students, security from foreign threats took priority; for a small number of others, security from their own country was imperative. Throughout this history, however, English remained a crucial skill for communicating, instructing, and, less fortunately, conforming. The University of Oregon's English department has a place in this history as a recognized national pioneer, be it from North Carolinian airwaves or as a piece in the network of sanctuary schools. It is a history both dark and enlightening, enforced yet formative. English was for some a rally, for some survival, and for many others, a legacy.

Information in this article comes from the following sources:

  • Bigalke, Zach. "World War II and the National Japanese American Relocation Council," Unbound, University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives, January 23. 2015.
  • "Books or Guns, Oregon Must Decide," Oregon Daily Emerald, January 15, 1942.
  • Collisson, Craig. "Japanese American Wartime Incarceration in Oregon," The Oregon Encyclopedia, March 17, 2018.
  • Correspondence, map/visual, pamphlets, report. National Japanese American Relocation Council Records 1942-1946, UA 9, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
  • Correspondence, map/visual, pamphlets, report. National Japanese American Relocation Council Records 1942-1946, UA 9, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
  • Documentation of school policies, correspondence. National Japanese American Relocation Council Records 1942-1946, UA 9, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
  • "Funds Frozen in Local Banks," Oregon Daily Emerald, May, 1941.
  • Hatfield, Kevin. “The Yasui Family &The American Dream.” High Desert ESD Presentation, November, 2008.
  • "Jap-Americans Forced to Leave Campus," Oregon Daily Emerald, May, 1942.
  • "Japanese Cash Ordered Held," Oregon Daily Emerald, December 11, 1941.
  • Kelly, Gordan & Lauryn Snyder. "UO Student goes through Commencement - 40 years after her graduation," Then and Now.
  • "Letters Tell of Allegiance to United States," Oregon Daily Emerald, December 11, 1941.
  • "Michi Yasui Ando," Denver Post, January 22, 2006.
  • Niiya, Brian. "Eugene Japanese American Art Memorial," Densho Encyclopedia contributors, December 2, 2014
  • Office of the Dean of Personnel Administration. National Japanese American Relocation Council Records, UA 009, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
  • "Oregon Legislature makes March 28 Minoru Yasui Day," The Oregonian, February 25, 2016.
  • Peter Monaghan, “U. of Oregon Awards Honorary Degrees to Japanese Americans Who Were Expelled in 1942,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 10, 2008.
  • Radio Task (Boyer) 1942-1943, UA 182, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
  • "State Board to Consider Short Term," Oregon Daily Emerald, January 6, 1942.
  • "The Yasui legacy," Special Collections and University Archives, August 8, 2005.
  • "UO Faculty Officials Comment on War," Oregon Daily Emerald, December 11, 1941.
  • "Women to Speak at Seattle Schools," Oregon Daily Emerald, April 8, 1941.
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