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From internment camp to boot camp
Local Japanese-American veteran recalls WWII experiences
Sherman Kishi
Sherman Kishi, a World War II veteran from Livingston, shows the crowd at Covenant Villages Veterans Day celebration a poster calling for all Japanese-Americans to report to a nearby relocation camp. The posters plastered poles in Livingston following Pearl Harbor. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Sherman Kishi remembers May 13, 1942 like it was yesterday — not because it was his 17th birthday, but because it marked the day he and his family had to report to a relocation camp at the Merced Assembly Center.

Kishi, a Japanese-American from Livingston, was one of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans evacuated into “War Relocation Camps” across the country following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Right after Pearl Harbor happened, there was a tremendous amount of publicity that went on…many organizations became anti-Japanese and considered us not to be their friend,” said Kishi.

On the day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Kishi and his friends were playing a game of tennis. A car with two men inside pulled up, he said, and began yelling derogatory names at the group.

“We were just high school kids,” said Kishi, who was confused at the time, but upon arriving home understood the gravity of what had happened.

Soon, signs reading “No Japanese here” were placed all over Livingston, which at the time was home to 30 or 40 Japanese people, said Kishi. It was only a matter of time before an even more foreboding message was plastered around town.

“There were signs posted on telephone poles,” said Kishi. “They read ‘All aliens and non aliens of Japanese ancestry must report to an assembly center on May 13, 1942.”

Kishi and his family were forced to leave their home and farm in Livingston and were detained at the Merced Assembly Center, along with nearly 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from all over the Central Valley.

“Most of us had never seen so many other Japanese people in our lives,” said Kishi with a laugh.

From Merced, Kishi and his family were transferred to the Granada War Relocation Center in Colorado. At the camp, Kishi spent his time playing baseball with others and enjoyed watching talent shows that were offered. He and his family slept on mattresses made of straw.

“It was not a very pleasant place, but we met a lot of people that became good friends over the years,” said Kishi.

Despite the hardships placed upon himself and his family by his own country, Kishi volunteered to serve in the U.S. military in World War II as a translator and interpreter. He was initially sent to the Philippines, and after the war ended, he assisted in the U.S. occupation efforts in Tokyo.

Kishi said there was no hesitation to enlist in the military, despite his family’s time in the relocation camp.

“I was just a normal, loyal American citizen and wanted to go fight for my country,’” said Kishi. “We may not look like it, but we are true Americans.”

Kishi compared the discrimination faced by Japanese-Americans in the 1940s to the backlash that Muslim-Americans face in the U.S. today.

“We look different from the rest of the country,” he said. “Sometimes they can’t accept us as full Americans but our country is a country of immigrants — we are all immigrants unless there is someone here who has Native American blood in them.”

Today, the WWII veteran spends his time playing tennis and keeping himself as active as he can. In 2011, Kishi was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States, along with the 100th Infantry battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service of the United States Army. The 442nd was an all-Japanese-American unit, and the families of many of its soldiers were subject to internment during the war.

Serving his country meant everything to him, said Kishi.

“I was satisfying a desire to do something for our country,” he said. “My father told me, ‘This is your country, so go ahead.”