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02/25 2017

Casualties on the Home Front: Japanese-American hot-rodders and Executive Order 9066

Casualties on the Home Front Japanese American hot rodders and Executive Order 9066

Lacking materials to build a garage, Yoshihiro Okamuro — known to dry-lakes racers as Yam Oka — set up his engine rebuilding shop in the backyard of his rented home in Glendale, California, following his release from the Manzanar relocation camp. This image was taken in May 1945; Okamuro is at the far left.PHOTO BY ONLINE ARCHIVE OF CALIFORNIA/UC BERKELY BANCROFT LIBRARY; CHARLES E. MACE, PHOTOGRAPHER (IDENTIFIER NUMBER: WRA NO. H-699)

FROM CHICKIE HIRASHIMA TO LARRY SHINODA, NISEI AUTOMOTIVE TRAILBLAZERS SPENT WWII IMPRISONED IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY

BY:  NORMAN MAYERSOHN

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Editor’s Note: Feb. 19 marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it authorized the removal of persons from prescribed military areas in the western United States. A forced relocation of people of Japanese ancestry followed, sweeping up some of the most influential mechanics, racers and customizers of the newborn automotive culture that flourished in California.

Rex Mays Takio Chickie Hirashima 1933 Indianapolis 500 No 33 Gilmore Special

Driver Rex Mays and mechanic Takeo “Chickie” Hirashima (misspelled “Takio Harishima” in the photo caption) in the No. 33 Gilmore Special ahead of the 1935 Indianapolis 500.PHOTO BY /COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

From the grandstands, fans at the Indianapolis 500 in 1935 would have strained to see the slight figure crouched alongside pole winner Rex Mays each time the Miller-powered No. 33 Gilmore Special bellowed past. Mays led the field for 89 laps, but No. 33’s run ended on lap 123, the victim of a broken spring shackle.

By then, however, Mays’ riding mechanic, barely over 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, was on his way to becoming a giant of the Speedway. In 1936, this California-born wrenchman was again at Mays’ side, and again they qualified on the pole. The next year he rode with Jimmy Snyder, setting an Indy qualifying record in a last hurrah for onboard mechanics. Successes piled up; a promising career as an engine builder and crew chief at America’s premier auto race seemed assured.

Instead, the spring of 1942 found Takeo Hirashima behind barbed wire, incarcerated at a U.S. government facility known opaquely as the Manzanar War Relocation Center. His offense: being born to Japanese parents.

Set in the arid Owens Valley of eastern California, Manzanar was one of 10 so-called internment camps established under Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, as a reaction to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The strike had inflamed fears of disloyalty — and potentially sabotage — by people of Japanese ancestry, particularly in the event of an enemy invasion force landing on the West Coast.

The government’s pre-emptive move was to herd, without due process or a declaration of martial law, some 120,000 men, women and children living in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona into remote concentration camps. Two-thirds of them, official accounts explain, were Nisei — a generation of citizens like Hirashima, born in America to immigrant parents, labeled as enemy aliens, assigned identification numbers and, essentially, deported within the borders of their own country.

Civilian exclusion order no 5 Japanese American internment posted San Francisco

An exclusion order directing the removal of Japanese-Americans from San Francisco, posted following the issuance of Executive Order 9066.PHOTO BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, DORTHEA LANGE, PHOTOGRAPHER (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-USZ62-34565)

Pearl Harbor may be 75 sepia-toned years in our past, but distrust of those with an immigrant heritage remains a powerful force. The reminders come as the passage of time shrinks the ranks of those who bore witness to the injustices of places like Manzanar, much as the years have taken away combat veterans of World War II and Holocaust survivors.

Yet within the record of a country’s unfounded fear of immigrants — and the stain of racial intolerance left by imprisoning an innocent population — lies a history worth honoring: Among the Nisei were some of the most influential pioneers of a developing American car culture that claimed California as its spiritual epicenter.

Hirashima, a married man of 30, was one of about 10,000 people, mainly from Southern California, held at Manzanar. Among those he might have encountered there were a youngster named Lawrence Kiyoshi Shinoda, whose artistic talent would take him to General Motors’ design studio and the creation of a Detroit icon, the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray; Yoshihiro Okamuro, known among the racers as Yam Oka, a formidable competitor on the dry lakebeds northeast of Los Angeles; Garry Koike, a crew member and resident intellectual of Carroll Shelby’s team, seen in pit lane photos from the 1967 Le Mans win; and Sush Matsubara, a record-setting drag racer who earned renown at the wheel of Funny Cars.

All five were natural born American citizens, natives of California.

Manzanar Relocation Center California Japanese American internment camp Ansel Adams

High school recess period, Manzanar War Relocation Center, California.PHOTO BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, ANSEL ADAMS, PHOTOGRAPHER (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-PPPRS-00338)

By the time war broke out, a West Coast population with roots tracing to Japan was well established. Immigrants had begun arriving in the 1890s, drawn by the available farm work. Even with restrictions on citizenship, land ownership and immigration in place, there were more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. by 1920.

Among those early arrivals from Japan, the generation known as Issei, were strivers who saw opportunity in the rapidly developing American West. A passion for performance machines arrived with them.

Jiro Fujioka landed in California in 1903, buckling down to study engineering at the university now known as Caltech. He would open repair businesses in Wichita, Kansas — Japanese Fred’s Garage — and later in Los Angeles; preside over the Japanese Automobile Club of Southern California; and develop a car to be produced in Japan. That manufacturing plan was upended by the 1923 earthquake that devastated Yokohama. Still, Fujioka prospered as an Oldsmobile dealer in the Little Tokyo enclave of Los Angeles and found further success selling trucks to Japanese market farmers.

It’s no stretch to consider Fujioka, who adopted the Americanized first name of Fred, as something of an early day Roger Penske — including the attraction to motorsports. In 1915, Fujioka arranged for a pair of Mercer Raceabouts to be shipped to Tokyo for a series of promotional races by Japanese drivers.

Japanese Freds Garage Fred Jiro Fujioka advertisment

An advertisement for Jiro ‘Fred’ Fujioka’s Wichita, Kansas garage. A mechanic, dealer and entrepreneur, Fujioka was arrested on suspicions of espionage soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor; subsequent internment cost him his businesses.PHOTO BY /COURTESY OF THE AACA LIBRARY

Fujioka’s community involvement, both locally and in earthquake relief work, brought him to the attention of watchful authorities in the months before Pearl Harbor. That, according to his daughter-in-law, Linda Fujioka, a docent at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, is why the FBI wasted no time in arresting him as a spy just hours after the Dec. 7 attack. Fujioka was released for transfer to the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, camp after a temporary stay at the Pomona Assembly Center east of Los Angeles; his son William left pre-med studies and enlisted in the Army, serving in an all-Nisei unit in Europe.

The businesses Fujioka lost were valued at $18 million in 1942, the family says. Disheartened, he did not rebuild them after the war. “He couldn’t become a citizen until 1952, but when he did, he was so proud to vote,” Linda Fujioka said. Still, she noted, the shame of the war years persisted until his death at 84. “He never told us about the camps,” she said, signaling a generation’s shame.

In the prewar years, California was the incubator for America’s nascent car culture, the Rift Valley of hot-rodding. A vibrant customizing movement was birthed in the body shops where street rods were personalized to owners’ tastes. Racers wrung ever-more power from Ford’s popular flathead V8, testing the modifications both in illicit face-offs on public roads and, in more organized competitions, for timed speed runs on the barren expanses of Mojave Desert dry lakebeds. Performance engine parts — cylinder heads, intake manifolds, fuel-injection systems — appeared from single-bay garages, the ambitious start-ups of the time.

Nisei mechanics and drivers engaged in every facet of this movement. On dry lakes like Harper, El Mirage and Muroc (which became Edwards Air Force Base and an alternate landing strip for Space Shuttles), they also found respite from the racial tensions that shadowed everyday life in the cities. The longstanding prejudice against all Asians simply didn’t concern those who came to race their cars.

Yam Oka racer roadster

Yam Oka, shown here post-WWII and internment, was a dry-lakes contender before the war.PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES

The speed-questers from the Los Angeles Basin trekking over the tortuous mountain passes included hardscrabble weekend amateurs like Danny Sakai, Tsuneo Shigekuni and the Morimoto brothers. The list of their fellow competitors reads like a roll call of pioneers who would go on to create the postwar performance industry: Vic Edelbrock, Ed Iskenderian, Wally Parks, Phil Remington. The nicknames used to define each group’s identity—Buddhaheads and round-eyes—were tossed around playfully, even among the Nisei, and vacant of malice.

Actions backed up the words: With the departure for internment at the Amache camp in Colorado looming, Shigekuni and his teammate brother scrambled to stash away whatever racing equipment they could. The racing historian Tom Madigan relates that their ’41 Mercury’s V8 was stored by Edelbrock—both their toughest competitor and a fellow member of the Road Runners car club. Edelbrock checked in on them at the Santa Anita assembly center where they were held before the train trip east, and kept the engine intact until the brothers returned.

The concentration camps — a characterization that’s as accurate as it is disturbing, even if these barbed-wire-and-watchtower detention centers were not the death camps of Nazi Germany — were intended to be as self-sustaining as possible. The daily activities included farming and maintenance chores; period images by leading photographers like Dorothea Lange, working for the War Relocation Authority, and Ansel Adams portrayed a community where schoolchildren pledged allegiance to the flag and baseball teams scrambled for a winning run. The barracks-style housing — hastily built, uninsulated and primarily tar paper — was crude and crowded, with common bathrooms and scant privacy. People were paid for their work ($19 a month for professionals, $16 skilled, $12 unskilled) in the fields, mess halls or for producing war supplies, and doctors were compensated, if meagerly, for tending to the population. Camp newsletters were published in English, and chapels were established.

Creativity flourished, as well. For a booklet about Manzanar compiled by the National Park Service, Larry Shinoda, the future Corvette designer, related his experiences.

“We had one week to get ready,” he recalled. “We could only take what we could carry. What would you take? We each crammed a duffel bag with necessities. I added a picture of our dog Spotty, a small tool box I received for Christmas, and because I loved to draw cars and hot-rods, I brought my notebooks and pencils.”

Manzanar Relocation Center California Japanese American internment camp tractor repair Ansel Adams

The camps were designed to be as self-sufficient as possible. In this photo, taken at Manzanar, mechanic Harry Hanawa repairs a tractor for driver Benji Iguchi.PHOTO BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, ANSEL ADAMS, PHOTOGRAPHER, [REPRODUCTION NUMBER LC-DIG-PPPRS-00376]

Twelve years old when he arrived at the camp, Shinoda quickly showed a knack for mechanical innovation. The families had arrived without furniture, so he designed reclining chairs for his mother and grandmother, using wood scavenged from the shipping crates that the camp’s toilets came in. It was a preview of the genius that would lead him to a career of creating Packards, Corvettes, Boss Mustangs, Indy 500 race cars and even RVs.

Shinoda also witnessed one of the rare incidents of violence in the camps. In an interview just weeks before his 1997 death, he told of a riot at Manzanar in 1942. “One Army guy got hit with an apple and he opened up with a machine gun,” he explained. Two people died and 10 were wounded. Prejudice, which he would encounter as an adult in Detroit, came in other forms at Manzanar. “I got sandwiched both ways,” he said. “I didn’t speak Japanese and yet was among Japanese.”

Manzanar Relocation Center Japanese American internment camp science lecture classroom Ansel Adams

Those in the camps worked to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Here, students attend a science lecture at the Manzanar Relocation Center, where Larry Shinoda and other future automotive stars were interned.PHOTO BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, ANSEL ADAMS, PHOTOGRAPHER (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-PPPRS-00351)

The youngest Japanese-Americans may have been more resilient in the face of financial loss — their parents’ homes, businesses and possessions were liquidated with as little as a few days’ notice — but the memories are indelible. Kenny Hirata, 89 years old and still active in drag racing as a car owner, recalls the surprise of his parents when they first heard about Pearl Harbor. “My mother and father were shocked that a small country like Japan would strike the United States,” he said.

Hirata was an eighth-grader when he arrived by train — window shades drawn, guarded by armed soldiers — at the Gila River camp in Arizona, carrying all his remaining worldly possessions, after reporting to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds in California. Such facilities, especially those with horse tracks, were pressed into service as human marshaling yards, often with the camp-bound families cleaning out the stables for use as temporary shelters.

The family farm, which was looked after by white neighbors, had grown tomatoes around Stockton, California. It was there that Kenny (Kinya was his given name) developed an attraction for the cars and companionship of the local gas station. Arizona was a stark change of landscape, a parched contrast to his home in the San Joaquin Valley. Even harsher conditions greeted those wrenched from temperate coastal areas and herded to the seasonal extremes of Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Arkansas and Wyoming.

Still, for Hirata life in the sand-and-cactus landscape was relatively carefree, with a wealth of nearby playmates, and life in the crude barracks freed him from weed-trimming and other chores of home upkeep. For all the hardship imposed by confinement and close quarters — 16 feet square for the family of four — his parents never complained and did not show bitterness. “The U.S. is looking out for the safety of the country,” he recalled them insisting.

442nd Regimental Combat Team Japanese American soldiers June 1943

Soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team line up for inspection shortly after arriving at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in June 1943. Military service offered Japanese-Americans (including dry-lakes racers Mino Kamimura and Frank Morimoto) a path out of the camps, even if it placed them in the line of fire.PHOTO BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, BUREAU OF PUBLIC RELATIONS, U.S. WAR DEPARTMENT (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-USZ62-127108)

Some of the dry-lakes racers were gone from the camps long before the end of the war, though gaining release meant putting themselves more directly in harm’s way. A path had been created in 1943, when the U.S. Army began recruiting volunteers for an all-Nisei unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This option not only freed the interned men from their confinement, it also offered a way for American-born volunteers like Hirashima, the Indy-car mechanic, to prove his loyalty.

Mino Kamimura and Frank Morimoto, dry-lakes racers, served in this unit; each had enlisted before Pearl Harbor and transferred to the 442nd and each earned a Bronze Star. Fred Fujioka’s son William fought with the 442nd, as well.

The unit fought valiantly, taking part in the rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Forest in France, as well as campaigns in Italy and Germany, earning the nickname of Purple Heart Battalion and the distinction of being the most decorated Army unit for its size and length of service. One of the regiment’s achievements was liberating a unit of Dachau, a Nazi death camp, by the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion—an action not officially acknowledged for years afterward. At the same, there were Nisei soldiers in the 442nd whose own families were still held in concentration camps in the U.S., just as there were parents in the camps who were notified that their sons had died in combat.

Not surprisingly, legal challenges to the incarceration came as early as 1942, with several cases eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Under the wartime powers in place, the decisions initially supported FDR’s executive order on narrow rulings dealing with technicalities like curfew violations. Finally, in December 1944, the court directly addressed the order detaining people of Japanese ancestry in the concentration camps, ruling in favor of Mitsuye Endo, a woman fired from her job with the California Highway Commission job and sent to the Tule Lake center, on the northern border of the state.

Officially, the detentions ended before victory was declared in either front of the war, though the camps were not entirely shut down until 1946. People left to attend college, care for family or do farm work; still, the confinement was inside barbed-wire fencing interrupted by towers with armed guards. Those released typically got a train ticket and a small amount of cash — $25 or $50 — to restart their lives. Homes, businesses and cars had been stolen or vandalized, but they persevered.

1956 Indianapolis 500 Pat Flaherty Victory Larry Shinoda

Victory celebrations following the 1956 Indianapolis 500. Larry Shinoda, who designed the bodywork for the No. 8 John Zink Special, stands to the right of winning driver Pat Flaherty in the light green shirt.PHOTO BY INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

For Shinoda, life after the camp — and after serving in the National Guard during the Korean War — offered an opening to pursue racing. He built Ardun-equipped drag-race cars — lettered Chopsticks Special on the side — and won his category at the NHRA Nationals in 1955. Shinoda could be found in the pits at Indianapolis, too, where he was involved in designing a race car.

But the struggles imposed by his ancestry had not stopped with the return to civilian life. Diversity was not yet a priority in the 1950s when Shinoda joined General Motors, and there were tense incidents despite his recognized talent. Yet the respect for him grew to the point that John Cafaro, today the head of Chevrolet global design and a former chief designer for Corvette, sought Shinoda’s blessing when he took over the Corvette design studio in 1986. The two developed a close relationship, in no small part as a result of the exposure to Japanese culture for Cafaro’s father, an RCA executive who had helped rebuild the country after the surrender.

Larry Shinoda Corvette Sting Ray rendering 1960

This Corvette rendering, sketched by Larry Shinoda in 1960, previewed the Sting Ray.

Drag racing was a natural offshoot of the hot-rod culture, shifting the emphasis from top speed to peak acceleration. Kenny Hirata had lost none of his urge for acceleration when he was released in 1944, bound for Cleveland where his parents found work in a storm window factory, never returning to their farm in California. Aside from becoming the only non-Catholic kid in a Catholic high school, he began something of a normalized American existence, including building a series of souped-up street cars.

Until 1950, that is, when Hirata, confined just few years earlier in a camp guarded by soldiers, was drafted into a soldier’s life for the Korean War. Ever resilient, that proved a temporary detour for him. He earned the rank of sergeant by the time of his discharge, and to better settle into a Midwest life where there were few Japanese-Americans, he joined the VFW and American Legion. Before long he was on a racing team, working up to the ownership of a AA/Fuel Dragster, taking the Top Eliminator title at the 1963 NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis and earning his way into the NHRA Hall of Fame in 2003.

Bob Hirohata Barris custom 1951 Mercury Merc

The Hirohata Merc, one of the most influential (and best-known) custom cars of all time.

To some of the Nisei enthusiasts, style was of greater interest than speed. Those who would reach driving age after war, when the Great Depression had been banished and the country was getting back to work, would become part of the vanguard of the customizing movement. Magazines splashed cars like Tadashi Hirai’s ’55 Buick on their covers, and painters like Dick Katayanagi would gain a following in the universe that also spawned giants like George Barris, Gene Winfield and Dean Jeffries.

Masato Hirohata, known as Bob, was not yet a teenager when he was sent to the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. After the war, the thriving family insurance business in Los Angeles enabled him to have George Barris customize a 1951 Mercury. The Hirohata Merc became perhaps the best known custom of the era, an instant trophy winner, cover subject and inspiration for the craze of chopped roofs that swept through the 1950s. Its status as an icon was locked down when it took the class win at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2015. Hirohata’s trip to Heart Mountain, ironically, began at the assembly center in Pomona, at the same Los Angeles County Fairgrounds site that is home to the annual Grand National Roadster Show and has hosted the NHRA Winternationals drag races since 1961.

Other Nisei picked up largely where they’d left off. Hirashima, known in the pits as Chickie and possessed of a surprisingly deep voice despite his size, raced with the Oka brothers and their track roadsters. He returned to Indianapolis as a top mechanic, winning the race with George Robson in 1946. Hirashima’s engine-building expertise led to him working with the top drivers. In 1959 and ’60, he oversaw the Offy engines that took first and second at each race, notably Jim Rathmann’s epic — and winning — duel with Rodger Ward in 1960.

1946 Indianapolis 500 Victory Circle George Robson Chickie Hirashima

From mechanic’s seat to the Victory Circle: Hirashima, crew chief for the winning No. 16 car at the 1946 Indianapolis 500, stands to the right of milk-drinking driver George Robson.PHOTO BY INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Seventy years since the end of the internments, there are few living veterans of the prewar hot-rod scene. One record-setting racer still here to tell his tales is Alex Xydias, now 94, founder of the influential So-Cal Speed Shop. He recalls the racers’ deep sense of community. Among his competitor-friends was Mino Kamimura, a young gardener in Hollywood whose weekday yardwork was offset by weekends of speed trials, where he made 100-mph runs in his mower-hauling ’32 Ford powered by a Model A engine with the four-port Riley head.

The unthinkable reality set in when Xydias, also an eyewitness reporter of the racing developments, drove to Kamimura’s house as Mino’s family packed for the trip to internment. Even today, the pain is still evident in his voice: “It was so tragic.” Such were the times in the early days of the war, Xydias said, when the fear of spying and an invasion was rampant. “We were all so jumpy.”

For the most part, memories were taken to the grave, typical of the war generation and especially the Japanese culture, where an unwarranted sense of shame was sometimes seen. FDR’s executive order was rescinded in 1976. In 1988, the U.S. Civil Liberties Act provided apologies and some measure of financial settlement for the injustices, and later laws provided for preservation of some internment camp sites as memorials. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to 20 members of the 442nd.

The treatment of Japanese-Americans remains a national disgrace 75 years later, but perhaps the greater shame would be in ignoring the perennial — and very current — relevance of those actions. It’s hard to imagine what in 1942 might have been more authentically American than a hot-rodder working over a Ford Flathead, a kid sketching sports cars or a mechanic turning the wrenches in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pits, yet a distrust based on heritage and national origin nearly squandered those important contributions.

The Japanese influence, by way of immigrants and the natural-born Nisei, on the American auto scene is by now indelible. The tradition established by hot-rodders is expressed, roughly, in the JDM sport compact movement. Honda claimed its first Indy 500 win in 2004. Toyota nailed its first NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2015.

Yet it may have been just this past August that the impact of all those individuals finally came full circle, when Kyle Miyata Larson won his first Cup race, the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Larson earned his way into the series with a winning record, and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program provided an opportunity to step up.

Larson was eligible for the diversity program because his mother is Japanese-American. His maternal grandparents, Manjo and Betty Miyata, spent the war years as prisoners at Tule Lake.

Kyle Larson win Pure Michigan 400 2016

Kyle Larson celebrates his victory at the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Pure Michigan 400.PHOTO BY LAT PHOTO