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During WWII, Boys Town housed Japanese-Americans escaping forced internment. The homes are coming down, but the story endures

Japanese Americans

This article is written by Blake Ursch, World-Herald staff writer. It was published on Omaha.com  on June 26, 2017.

Until recently, a handful of small, white homes surrounded a tree-shaded cul-de-sac amid farmland west of Boys Town — a picture of the midcentury American Dream.

The scene, now visible to those driving near 144th Street and West Dodge Road, looks very different today. Trees are now stumps, heaped in the middle of the street. The homes have been reduced to piles of concrete, splintered wood and twisted metal. Some are leveled entirely, and others are smoldering ruins after controlled burns conducted last week by the Boys Town Fire Department.

The houses and surrounding buildings are giving way to a $1.2 billion entertainment, residential and retail district, currently being developed by Noddle Cos. Some pieces of the other structures will be incorporated into the new development. But the homes are to be cleared.

They were simple dwellings built for simple reasons. The homes were completed in the early 1940s, meant to house extra hands who would be needed to work the farm as Boys Town grew. In later years, they were home to children and caregivers on campus. After a time, they stood empty.

But hidden in their past is another story. Decades ago, shortly after they were finished, these homes would come to represent something important — security, comfort, welcome — for a group of people who had all three taken from them.

During World War II, some of these houses sheltered Japanese-Americans escaping forced internment on the West Coast. They came here at the urging of legendary Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan, who found them jobs on campus or helped them establish new lives in cities outside of Omaha.

In total, more than 200 relocated Japanese-Americans spent time at Boys Town during the war, said Tom Lynch, director of community programs at Boys Town. Some were just passing through, moving on to other opportunities. About 30 stayed on campus, living and working as barbers, bus drivers, farmhands, typists and gardeners.

After the war, some remained at Boys Town or settled elsewhere in Omaha. Their children and grandchildren still live here today.

"Boys Town was good to (my father) and our family, so we just stayed there," said Roger Oshima, 61. His father, Mike Oshima, came to Boys Town during the war and worked there in various roles — a carpenter, a locksmith, captain of the fire department — for more than 50 years.

But Mike Oshima had a life before he came here. He was a commercial fisherman in Long Beach, California.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. And Mike Oshima's life, along with those of about 120,000 other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, would change forever.

***

"Instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry," begins a flyer dated May 3, 1942. "Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33 ... all persons of Japanese Ancestry, both alien and non-alien will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon, P.W.T. Saturday, May 9, 1942."

The forced internment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. Those affected were moved to temporary assembly centers, and later to 10 War Relocation Camps in seven states, allowed to bring only what they could carry. Families were registered and given tags to identify themselves and their possessions.

Mike Oshima and his family were moved to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. In later years, he never talked much about his experience, his son said. When he did, he spoke of having his fishing vessels confiscated and of knowing he would most likely never return to his home in California. Before he left for Manzanar, he later said, he grabbed an ax, entered his home and destroyed the place.

In Los Angeles, James and Margaret Takahashi had begun to worry.

"After Pearl Harbor ... people were getting angrier. You kept hearing awful rumors. You heard that people were getting their houses burned down. And we were afraid that those things might happen to us," Margaret later wrote.

The family, including the couple's three children, would be forced to an overcrowded, makeshift detention center at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California. Eventually, they were moved to a camp in Amache, Colorado.

For many families, it was an agonizing, confusing experience.

"We didn't feel Japanese. We felt American. That was the way we were raised," Margaret Takahashi wrote.

Stories like these didn't sit well with the priest in Omaha.

"I see no disaster threatening us because of any particular race, creed or color," Flanagan said around this time. "But I do see danger for all in an ideology which discriminates against anyone politically or economically because he or she was born into the 'wrong' race, has skin of the 'wrong' color or worships at the 'wrong' altar."

And so, as the internment began, Flanagan began to work with a Catholic organization in Los Angeles, the Maryknoll Fathers, to bring people out of the internment camps to Boys Town. His motives were practical as much as they were altruistic: Many on his staff had left to join the war effort, and Flanagan needed new workers to oversee the 400 boys on campus.

He wrote letters to the War Relocation Authority, outlining his open positions. To secure their release, Flanagan had to prove that any Japanese-Americans at Boys Town would be legitimately employed, and therefore supervised.

"They were basically on parole," Lynch said.

On an order form issued by the relocation department for a farmhand, Flanagan lists housing available: "If man is married, there will be an eight-room completely modern house. Electricity and water bills will be paid for. His salary will be $100 per month."

The homes described, those currently being demolished, were brand-new, Lynch said. And they may have seemed like palaces to someone coming from Manzanar, where detainees slept in stiflingly hot barracks, or from Santa Anita, where there were 30 people to every one shower.

***

By the end of 1943, there were 10 Japanese-Americans living at Boys Town. More would come later.

Mike Oshima arrived in Omaha in 1944. The previous year, he had seen an advertisement for a laborer position and persuaded camp authorities to recommend him to Flanagan.

The Takahashis also arrived after James wrote to Flanagan. James, a professional gardener and landscaper, was made supervisor of the grounds. He wrote back to other Manzanar detainees and, with Flanagan's help, brought 20 others to Boys Town.

Not everyone supported Flanagan's efforts. One of the biggest critics was Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron.

Bowron thought one man in particular was too dangerous to be let out of the camps. That man, Patrick Okura, was a psychologist who had been a personnel examiner for the City of Los Angeles before being forced out of a job and into a filthy room at Santa Anita. Newspapers accused Okura of being a spy.

Flanagan wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Okura's case: "Either these people are guilty of subversive activities ... or they are not. If not — they are trying to be decent American citizens."

Okura eventually was allowed to go to Boys Town and helped more than 200 more detainees leave the internment camps.

Though many arrived at Flanagan's campus, only a few dozen stayed. Those that did were sheltered, somewhat, from the racial tensions that were flaring in other parts of the country. They celebrated weddings, like that of Ray and Barbara Uchiyamada in 1944. They tended victory gardens. The boys who exhibited prejudice against their new neighbors, Lynch said, were quickly reprimanded.

Off campus, Omaha generally was more tolerant of Japanese-Americans than other parts of the country at the time, said Kimi Takechi, 99, who moved here before the war, in 1937.

"They were very good to us," Takechi said of city residents. "There was very little bad feeling that we could feel."

Flanagan helped those passing through Boys Town find jobs elsewhere, often in the Midwest, Lynch said, which the government probably considered less vital to national security than the West Coast.

Some, like Katsu Okida, went on to serve in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of soldiers with Japanese ancestry.

Okida was killed in 1944. Flanagan wrote his family in Colorado, telling them that a special Mass would be said at Boys Town in his honor.

***

The West Coast reopened to Japanese-Americans in early 1945. The following year, President Harry Truman officially terminated the War Relocation Authority.

But by that time, many who were forced out were reluctant to return, having built lives in other places.

The Takahashis returned to California in 1947. Margaret didn't want to leave, she later wrote, but her husband "wanted to be his own boss."

"The evacuation did change our philosophy," she wrote. "It made you feel that you knew what it was to die, to go somewhere you couldn't take anything but what you had inside you. And so it strengthened you."

Okura worked as a psychologist at Boys Town for 17 years. He served as a psychologist for the State of Nebraska until 1970, when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area to take a job at the National Institutes of Health. He would become a civil rights leader, fighting for the rights of Japanese-Americans.

Before he left Nebraska, he founded the Omaha chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The group still serves as common ground for Omahans of Japanese ancestry, helping them connect and celebrate their cultural traditions.

Mike Oshima retired from Boys Town in 1998, after raising his family on the grounds. He served under three more executive directors after Flanagan's death in 1948.

"My dad was very loyal to Boys Town," said Oshima's daughter, Terry Burdett. "He appreciated the opportunities Father Flanagan gave him."

Today, there are few remnants of Omaha's link to the internment. Soon the last traces of the homes in the cul-de-sac will also be gone.

But those who know the story don't need them to remember.