In May 1942, Fresno-born George Aki was ordained as a minister for the Congregational churches in a communal dining hall at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno.
The new Rev. Aki spent the next four months living in the horse stables at Tanforan before being taken on a sealed train to Topaz, Utah.
In January 1943, George and his wife, Misaki, were transferred to the Jerome Internment Center in Arkansas so George could be with his family.
George volunteered as a chaplain for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Many in the Jerome camp were inflamed by his decision, labeling him a traitor for enlisting in the army of a nation that took away the rights of some its citizens on the basis of race.
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George said, “I could not blame them but was still glad that I could uphold my ordination pledge ... to go where my church goes. And those Army volunteers would be my church.”
In March 1944, George was assigned to the 442nd replacement units being trained at Camp Shelby, Miss. He was transferred to Fort McClellan, Ala., which was preparing to receive Japanese American units for training.
George recalls that “the nearby town of Anniston shut their doors to all Niseis. When the men finished their training and were set to go overseas, their wives and sweethearts from the relocation camps wanted to visit them, but the Anniston hotels would not accept any Japanese Americans!”
George got permission to see what he could do. He went to each of the hotels and spoke with the managers. Every manager refused to accept Niseis.
“At the end of the day, I was exhausted and failed in my mission completely. On my way back to Ft. McClellan, I saw one more hotel and wondered if I should even try but I did.”
The manager said, “Chaplain, I am from the north. See that spindle loaded with notes? They are reservations for people waiting for rooms. You just call me and give me the name of your Japanese American visitor, and I promise you that I will put that name on top of the spindle.”
George was sent to Italy as war was ending in Europe. Part of his assignment was to locate the graves of U.S. soldiers hastily buried during combat. After locating a body, George and his assistant, Raymond, searched for the dog tag that identified the dead soldier. As he gave the dead dignified burials, George would ask himself “what moved them to fight for the country that stripped them of their birthright and cast them and their families into American-made concentration camps?”
Arlene Chandler recalls George’s trial sermon at San Luis Obispo’s Congregational Church in 1968. The all-white congregation made George anxious.
“George was very short, maybe five-feet, two-inches or five-feet, three-inches.” George “carried a foot stool prominently in front of him. And when he got to the pulpit he put it down and climbed up so he could see over the pulpit.”
“Everybody just cracked up with laughter. At that moment there was an almost unanimous decision by the congregation that they wanted him.
They loved his self-esteem and sense of humor!”
Jerry Wilkinson says that George became her “standard for a pastor, a shepherd and a gentleman for his flock in San Luis Obispo.”
Share the dream
The annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Program barbecue is set for noon to 4 p.m. today at the Elks Lodge, 222 Elks Lane, in San Luis Obispo.
For a $10 donation, the meal includes a home-style chicken dinner with potato salad and beans. Coffee, tea and punch are included, and homemade desserts are available.
Proceeds help fund the program, which the Rev. George Aki helped found in 1968.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.