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77 years after leaving college for an internment camp, Medal of Honor recipient gets a degree

As a college student during WWII, Japanese-American James Okubo was forced to drop out of Western Washington University and enter an internment camp. He joined the Army in 1943 and was awarded a Silver Star, later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, for his heroics overseas.

COURTESY OF ANN OKUBO

By KIE RELYEA | The Bellingham Herald | Published: June 15, 2019

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — James Okubo was born in Anacortes. He grew up in Bellingham, where he graduated from Bellingham High School. He studied at what was then the Western Washington College of Education. He wanted to be a dentist.

He’d never been to Japan and he didn’t speak Japanese.

“How much more American can you get?” said Carole Teshima, a Western Washington University employee.

And, yet, Okubo and his family were among the 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were labeled as enemy aliens by the U.S. government, forced out of their West Coast homes and imprisoned in internment camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

In June 1942, they were among the 33 Bellingham residents who had to leave their homes for the camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

Okubo never graduated from Western.

“It just breaks your heart,” said Teshima, an administrative services manager in the Woodring College of Education who has researched that period of Bellingham’s history and the city’s small Japanese American community.

Seventy-seven years after Okubo was ordered to leave, he will get the degree he was denied. At 8:45 a.m. on Saturday, June 15, WWU will award an honorary bachelor’s degree to Okubo.

His children will accept the degree on their father’s behalf. Okubo died in a car crash during a family ski trip in 1967. He was 46.

“He would have been very surprised but very honored. He was a very humble man and it would have meant a lot to him to be recognized by WWU,” daughter Anne Okubo said to The Bellingham Herald.

“I am sure he would never imagine that WWU would honor him,” the Millbrae, Calif., resident added. “I think it will be especially meaningful because Bellingham was where he spent his youth, and he had fond memories of Bellingham.”

Teshima and Mark Okinaka, a senior academic budget and finance analyst at WWU, submitted Okubo’s name for the honorary degree.

They did so after learning that he appeared to be the only full-time Japanese American student at Western to be imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II.

“These Americans were victims of the institutional racism and wartime hysteria that prevailed in the era. Awarding this degree will acknowledge the injustice that prevented Okubo from completing his education at Western Washington College of Education,” they wrote in their application.

Okinaka added: “We are an institution of learning and when you take a student out and incarcerate them because of their race, I believe that people should know that, that it has happened in the past and it has happened here.”

A popular student, a war hero

Okubo’s parents, Kenzo and Fuyu, ran the Sunrise Cafe on West Holly Street.

If the cafe existed today, it would be in half of the building that is now the Waterfront Tavern, according to Jeff Jewell, a researcher and photo archivist at Whatcom Museum.

“Back in Kenzo Okubo’s day, the other half of the building was the Marine Tavern,” Jewell said to The Bellingham Herald.

At Western, James Okubo was a popular student and a member of the ski club.

Skiing was one of the memories he shared with his family about living in Bellingham.

“He and his siblings and cousins used to ski Mt. Baker. There was a picture of him skiing,” Anne Okubo said. “But back then, there we no ski lifts so they had to climb the mountain. It probably took 10 times longer to climb up than to ski down.

“Also, I knew about the family restaurant and that he worked in Alaska at the cannery during the summer. He had fond memories of Bellingham,” she said.

James Okubo attended Western from winter 1939 to spring 1942, until he was forced to leave.

The bus that took the Bellingham residents to Burlington as part of the first leg of their journey to Tule Lake was parked in front of his father’s house at 1406 H St., according to a caption that ran with a photo in the June 4, 1942, edition of The Bellingham Herald.

Kenzo Okubo put a for sale sign on his home.

Although he was imprisoned, James Okubo — “from behind barbed wires,” Okinaka said — volunteered to fight in World War II.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 22, 1943, according to information from Western Washington University. Okubo served as a medic with the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a squad made up entirely of nisei, or children of Japanese immigrants who were born and educated in the U.S.

With that group of men — in one of the most decorated military units in U.S. history — Okubo performed “extraordinary heroism” on Oct. 28, Oct. 29 and Nov. 4, 1944, in a forest in eastern France, near the German border.

Okubo dodged grenades and heavy fire. He crawled 150 yards to carry the wounded to safety. In all, he treated and saved more than 25 men. He ran though machine gun fire to rescue another soldier from a burning tank.

He was nominated for a Medal of Honor but he received a Silver Star, according to WWU, possibly because it was believed then that it was the highest honor a medic could be given.

That was rectified in 2000, when President Clinton posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Okubo after the military records of Asian American World War II veterans were re-examined to make sure they were fully recognized for their bravery.

His wife, Nobuyo “Nobi” Okubo, attended the ceremony at the White House.

Honesty about the past

After the war ended, James Okubo became a dentist and a faculty member at the University of Detroit Dental School. He settled in the Detroit area. None of the 33 Bellingham residents of Japanese ancestry returned to the city.

The honorary bachelor’s degree that he will receive posthumously on Saturday is made possible by a state law that allows universities to confer honorary degrees on students who didn’t get a chance to graduate because they were ordered into interment camps.

“His personal story after Western is extraordinary,” said Paul Dunn, who serves as chief of staff in the WWU president’s office.

Even if Okubo had done nothing else but become a dentist in Detroit, Dunn said, he would still deserve the degree.

“It’s about recognizing the tremendous injustice that was done to Japanese Americans,” Dunn said. “It’s absolutely being honest and forthright about our past.”

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©2019 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)
Visit The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) at www.bellinghamherald.com
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