California Forum

Unsung WWII hero deserves the Medal of Freedom

Mitsuye Endo seated at her desk in the administrative office at the Central Utah relocation camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Endo spent two additional years in the internment camps, deprived of her freedom. Because Endo sacrificed her own liberty to keep her court case alive, the Supreme Court found itself squarely presented with a challenge to the camps in 1944.
Mitsuye Endo seated at her desk in the administrative office at the Central Utah relocation camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Endo spent two additional years in the internment camps, deprived of her freedom. Because Endo sacrificed her own liberty to keep her court case alive, the Supreme Court found itself squarely presented with a challenge to the camps in 1944. Courtesy of National Archives ca. 1942

Unbeknownst to most Americans, this year marks an important anniversary in our nation’s history: 70 years ago, the federal government closed the last of its World War II “Relocation Centers” established to intern persons of Japanese ancestry after their removal from their homes on the West Coast.

At least 70,000 of the more than 100,000 people interned were U.S. citizens whose loyalty was questioned solely on account of their ethnic heritage. Despite the passage of seven decades, it is imperative that we never forget this dark episode in our nation’s history in order to ensure that it is never repeated. As part of that effort, it is time to honor one of the episode’s great unsung heroes: Mitsuye Endo of Sacramento.

As for so many other Americans, Endo’s life changed dramatically with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In short order, a combination of public hysteria and political failures resulted in President Franklin Roosevelt issuing the now infamous Executive Order 9066.

The order gave the secretary of War the authority to designate military zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded” and provide for the regulation of terms on under which persons could enter, remain in, or be forced to leave such areas. Under the auspices of 9066, the military imposed curfews, designated large swaths of the western United States as military areas of exclusion, and ultimately created “relocation centers” across the West – all aimed at controlling the movements of Japanese Americans and ultimately interning them against their will.

Even at the time, many prominent government officials expressed great skepticism over the need for such measures. For example, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover – no stranger to robust policing and surveillance – reportedly told Attorney General Francis Biddle that the push for such policies was “based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data.”

There were also enormous constitutional problems with the policies. For one, they were born of insidious racial and ethnic discrimination. In addition, the internment plainly violated the Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which established strict limitations on when citizens may be detained outside the criminal process. Notably, several prominent lawyers in the Roosevelt administration recognized that any internment of citizens would violate the Suspension Clause.

Endo was among the four courageous Japanese Americans who challenged the constitutionality of the military’s policies all the way to the Supreme Court. The others – Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu – have all been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (two posthumously) for their sacrifices. As many have argued and the California Assembly resolved last year, Endo deserves the same recognition.

Indeed, although after the war she apparently never talked about what she had done, her personal sacrifices may have done more than anything else to prompt the end of this regrettable chapter in our history.

When the United States declared war on Japan following Pearl Harbor, Endo, a natural-born U.S. citizen, lived in Sacramento and worked for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. In the months after the bombing, the state agency fired her, and military authorities ordered her and her family to evacuate the area in which they lived.

The military next required that they report to an assembly center, from which they were sent to be interned at the Tule Lake relocation camp. The government later transferred Endo to another camp in Topaz, Utah. Meanwhile, Endo’s brother – like many other Japanese Americans – served in the U.S. Army.

In a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Endo challenged the internment policy as unconstitutional, correctly arguing that the government had no general authority to detain citizens without criminal charges. Notably, her case posed the first and only direct challenge to the internment camps to reach the Supreme Court.

Prior cases had been treated by the court solely as challenges to the curfew, evacuation and registration orders. In an attempt to end her suit, the government offered her release on the condition that she relocate to an area outside the evacuation zones. She refused.

Endo knew that if she accepted, her habeas corpus petition would become moot and could not be heard by the courts. In such cases, jurisdiction depends on the government having control over the petitioner. Thus, her release would have eliminated jurisdiction.

Her refusal resulted in Endo spending two additional years in the internment camps, deprived of her freedom and forced to live in spartan conditions under armed guard. Endo’s choice could not have been easy.

Indeed, it should be viewed as nothing short of heroic. Because she sacrificed her own liberty to keep her case alive, the Supreme Court found itself squarely presented with a challenge to the camps in 1944.

As things unfolded, her case played a significant role in persuading the government to change its policies. The court unanimously sided with Endo – albeit in what was ultimately a narrow ruling – and internal court documents suggest that Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone held up the decision to give Roosevelt time to act ahead of the court and suspend Executive Order 9066.

Once the military announced that it would begin lifting the evacuation orders and closing the camps, the court handed down the decision Ex parte Endo the very next day, holding that the controlling military orders did not permit the government to detain concededly loyal citizens. The closing of the camps commenced within weeks of the decision, with the last – Tule Lake – closing in 1946.

The 70th anniversary of the closing of the last camp is a fitting occasion to recognize Mitsuye Endo’s enormous personal sacrifice to accomplish that end. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to persons who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

Endo’s choice to sacrifice her personal freedom in order to pursue her case on behalf of all those interned at the camps demonstrates those qualities worthy of such recognition. She challenged our country to live up to the promises made in our Constitution, which should ring just as true in times of war as in peace.

Although Endo died in 2006, her extraordinary legacy deserves proper recognition today. After 70 years, she has waited long enough.

Amanda L. Tyler is a professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. She is author of the forthcoming book “Habeas Corpus Goes to War: Tracing the Story of the United States Constitution’s Habeas Privilege from the Tower of London to Guantánamo Bay.” atyler@berkeley.edu

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