By John Sammon —
It is fitting that Japanese American survivors of World War II concentration camps, all of them now elderly, should today memorialize their past suffering by affixing their signatures to two American flags, flags they were always loyal to.
…Despite the U.S. Government in 1942 taking away their lives and those of their families.
“My goal with this project is to honor their sacrifices and their memory, and educate future generations,” said Johnny Gogo, a Santa Clara Superior Court judge.
Gogo located and purchased two American flags, each with 48 stars, the number of states in the United States in 1942.
“People had these flags for sale on eBay,” Gogo said. “The seller didn’t have a history of each flag, but sold them at a fair price. I started to travel having former prisoners sign the flags.”
Gogo is gathering signatures in states including California, Hawaii, Utah and Arizona.
In 1942 the U.S. Government decided to arrest, exile and incarcerate 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese heritage, for no reason other than assumed disloyalty. The prisoners included children and the elderly. People lost their homes, their jobs, and were only allowed to take what they could carry in a suitcase.
They were locked up in 12 major barbed-wire-enclosed and guarded camps, most of them in desert areas of the southwest. Smaller camps run by the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) also housed prisoners.
Lives were ruined, particularly among the older prisoners. Some killed themselves. Others had their health suffer. Losing everything they had worked so hard for was more than they could take. They died in the camps.
The signers of the flags, today senior citizens, were small children or young people during their imprisonment. It may have been a little easier for them at the time to weather the experience than their elders. But they still remember the heartbreak of watching their parents and grandparents suffer.
Gogo said the flag-signing project will continue until Jan. 30, an annual state holiday held in honor of Fred Korematsu.
Korematsu as a youth in the 1930’s had worked in his family’s flower nursery in San Leandro. He attempted to join the U.S. Navy just before World War II, but was rejected, probably because he was of Japanese ancestry. He then trained as a welder to help the American defense effort. He lost a welding job at a shipyard because he was of Japanese heritage just before the war broke out.
When the U.S. Government ordered Japanese Americans to assemble to be transported to imprisonment, Korematsu refused. He went into hiding in Oakland, was arrested in San Leandro and jailed in San Francisco. However, Korematsu agreed to allow American Civil Liberties Union attorney and ACLU Director Ernest Besig to challenge his imprisonment and those of other Japanese Americans in a test court case.
Korematsu lost his case in a federal court.
He was first sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a former horse race track in San Bruno, then transported with family to the Central Utah War Relocation Center Camp in Topaz, Utah.
Korematsu appealed his court case.
In 1943 the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided by a 6-3 vote that while the imprisonment was suspect from a constitutional viewpoint, it was still legal because of war peril.
In the 1980’s a University of California (UC) San Diego professor Peter Irons researching a book on the incarcerations uncovered evidence that military authorities had lied to the Supreme Court justices in the Korematsu case. Government attorneys had deliberately made false arguments.
The FBI and military intelligence had found during the war that Japanese Americans posed no risk. The reports were suppressed in court.
In 1983 a U.S. District Court in San Francisco vacated Korematsu’s conviction, clearing his name. The Supreme Court judgement based on falsehoods remained on the books.
In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Korematsu, who had become a civil rights advocate and spokesman defending groups targeted by the government including immigrants from the Middle East.
Korematsu died in 2005. To honor his memory the “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and Constitution” was first observed as an annual state holiday on Jan. 30, 2011, on what would have been Korematsu’s 92nd birthday. It is the first holiday named for an Asian American.
Gogo said to date he has acquired 200 signatures on the two flags and will continue until they are filled with names. He journeys to communities where former prisoners have expressed interest in signing the flags.
Gogo and his family are from the Pacific Island of Guam. During World War II in 1941 the island was captured by the Japanese Army.
“My family was Chamorro, the native people of Guam,” Gogo said. “The Japanese made the natives of the island into slaves. My parents were small children at the time and I heard their stories.”
Gogo’s father Jesus enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1963 and Gogo was born at a military base in Germany.
“As the son of a soldier we lived all over the world, Germany, Guam, Japan, Kentucky, Alaska, Fort Ord (Monterey),” Gogo said. “My father became a member of the 101st Airborne Division (paratroops) and a (Special Forces) Green Beret.”
Gogo’s mother, her first name Remedios, he said sounds Spanish because Guam in the 19th century had once been a colony of Spain.
Gogo lived as a teenager in Germany and graduated high school in Sacramento. He said his interest in law grew after attending Sacramento and Riverside city colleges, then the University of California San Diego.
“I majored in political science and was taking legal history classes,” Gogo said. “I decided to go to law school at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego where I graduated in 1996. I went to Guam and became a local prosecutor for the Guam Attorney General’s Office.”
Gogo returned to California taking a job with the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office in 1999. He was appointed to the bench as a judge in 2019 where he oversaw criminal and domestic violence cases.
He said a key to being a judge is to practice restraint, patience and respect for all participants in a courtroom, trial attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses.
Gogo has worked with at-risk youth in the community and in low-income neighborhoods, as well as serving as a volunteer advisor for the Salvation Army Drug Rehabilitation Center.
“There are usually numerous issues in a (court) case and can involve drugs, anger management and mental health issues among them,” Gogo said. “You have to balance both sides (prosecution and defense), to be reasonable and fair, to help people gain justice.”
Gogo said over the past several years he has learned much more about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II, including from his friendship with Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Roberta Hayashi.
“Her parents were incarcerated in the camps,” Gogo said.
Gogo has reached out to other Japanese Americans including Fred Korematsu’s daughter Karen, today director of the Fred Korematsu Institute in San Francisco. He was determined to do something to promote the Korematsu holiday.
Gogo said a tipping point in coming up with the idea to do the flag signing came when he discovered and read the book, “The Eagles of Heart Mountain” (Astria Books 2021).
The book is about a football team formed in the concentration camp of Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and the experiences of one of the players, Keiichi Ikeda.
“I’ve always been a football fan and the book caught my attention,” Gogo said. “I saw that one of the football players from the camp was still alive.”
Ikeda signed a copy of the book for Gogo and a flag on May 28.
Gogo said once all the signatures are acquired the flags will be donated to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose, and possibly the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles. Officials at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. have also expressed an interest.
He said the flag project will be another step in calling attention to the sacrifice and contributions to American life made by Japanese Americans. One example is the 442nd Infantry Combat Team, composed of Japanese American men from the camps who volunteered to fight for the U.S. in World War II and defeat Nazi Germany. The 442nd became one of the most decorated units in American military history.
“The 442nd and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) were segregated (Japanese American) units,” Gogo said. “Japanese American citizens have contributed so much, and they fought for the same government that had incarcerated them.”
Camp inmates were asked to fill out a questionnaire declaring their loyalty to the U.S. Those who refused saying they didn’t need to they were already loyal, or those who didn’t fill out the form in a manner that sufficiently pleased their jailors, were sent to a camp for supposed trouble makers, Tule Lake Relocation Center in Northeastern California.
“These were examples of hypocrisy,” Gogo said.
Gogo said he hopes the flag project and other commemorations will help to counter a recent spike in violence directed against people who appear Asian and who have become the scapegoats of ignorant haters.
“We all strive for a more perfect union,” he said. “The prisoners of the camps took the pledge of allegiance inside the camps and outside of them, saying ‘With liberty and justice for all.’ We need to add meaning to that.”
Caption: Keiichi Ikeda signs the flag in Los Angeles on May 28. Bottom photo: Approximately 80 people came out to sign the flag on June 6, at the Nisei Veterans Hall in downtown Sacramento. All photos courtesy of Johnny Gogo