Times Past

Dan Krieger: Poly ceremony reunites two men of courage

‘If you deprive Japanese-Americans of citizenship on the basis that we are at war with Japan then you must deprive American-born Germans of their citizenship, even back to the third and fourth generation. And if that is logical, where do we stop? ....”

Bob Kennedy’s letter to the Telegram-Tribune raised many eyebrows locally when it was first published Aug. 22, 1944.

America’s war with Japan had nearly a full year to run. The casualties from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the “island hopping” across the Pacific had been horrendous. The battles of Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were yet to come.

Here was a young instructor at Cal Poly defending the constitutional rights of Japanese-Americans. It was not the popular thing to do.

Bob had arrived at Cal Poly at the beginning of the war. He had witnessed the forced evacuation of Issei and Nisei farmers along the West Coast. He saw 31 Nisei students removed from Cal Poly in the late winter of 1942.

In 1944, letters began appearing objecting to the return of the Nisei at the end of the war. It was too much for Bob. He drafted a response. Cal Poly’s director, Julian McPhee, authorized its publication.

“When the war’s over and Cpl. Nelson Agaki and Pvt. Jiro Kai and a few other Japanese-American citizens who were students of mine before the war return as part of a victorious army, I don’t want to have to look down at the floor and say, ‘Yes, boys, while you were fighting for democracy and for the rights and privileges guaranteed you by the Constitution, I sat quietly by and let a few misguided patriots engineer the passage of a bill that deprives you of the privilege of returning to your home.

“‘I’m sorry, boys, but I was afraid I might be criticized as ‘un-American’ and a “Jap-lover” if I let my name be used in an attempt to protect your rights as American citizens.’ ”

Nelson Takeo Akagi studied electrical engineering. He and his family moved to Idaho, which was outside the West Coast Evacuation Zone. They worked in the potato fields through the war.

In 1943, at age 19, Nelson joined Cal Poly Mustang sportswriter Jiro Kai, enlisting in the 442nd Infantry. The all-Nisei unit fought in Italy and France and became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Nelson was serving with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion when the unit played a role in liberating the Dachau concentration camp.

He saw what appeared to be cordwood, actually stacked corpses, on a railroad flatbed car.

On June 7, 2010, Nelson traveled from his home in Salt Lake City to attend a ceremony at Cal Poly. President Warren Baker conferred honorary bachelor degrees on students of Japanese ancestry who had to leave Cal Poly because of Relocation Order 9066.

Bob and Mary Kennedy sat in the first row. He and Nelson were reunited for the first time in 68 years.

Until Nelson received President Baker’s invitation and read a reprint of Bob’s letter, he was unaware of it.

Following the conferral of degrees, there were a few minutes of great poignancy as Nelson seemingly knelt in front of Bob’s seat. They talked quietly. Two men of great courage and vision embraced, honoring each other.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly.