When it comes to WWII incarceration, most people think about the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in camps across the U.S., not knowing it also happened on an island across the world. Join host Toy Suliman as she examines the mementos of army veteran, Jerry Jiro Katayama, and discovers an unrecognized side of incarceration history: U.S. military internment camps in Okinawa. In the first episode of what she hopes to turn into a limited series, follow Toy as she deciphers a mysterious photo album and draws together the stories of three different people during WWII.
This project was completed as part of the JASC Legacy Center’s 2022 Summer Internship program. You can view all six of the 2022 internship projects here.
Please be advised that the following podcast includes discussion of violence, sexual assault, murder, and death.
So, I’m looking through the archives trying to find anything that I can pertaining to Okinawan people—what Okinawan people experienced during World War II, what they experienced during the incarceration. But, after going through box after box, I am not finding anything. But then, I run into this miscellaneous black book. And I open it and it’s a photo album with a note taped to the inside of the front cover. And that note reads:
“For Jerry Katayama. Photo record of the Okinawa battle, the longest and most costly of the Pacific War.”
And I’m like, “Wow! I think I found it.”
My name is Toy and I’ve spent my summer in the archives searching for information about Okinawan people. What you just heard was how I found a photo album that documents Okinawa during World War II. Okinawa is an island in the South Pacific Ocean that was annexed by Japan in 1879. During World War II, it was the site of the infamous Battle of Okinawa, which took the lives of up to 150,000 civilians. The locals that remained spent the next 27 years under US rule. But what most people don’t know is that from 1945 to 1946, the US military imprisoned the entire population of Okinawa in 16 internment camps—pictures of which are in that black book.
In this episode, we will draw the incarceration of Okinawans in context with the incarceration of Japanese and Okinawan Americans in the United States, by following the stories of three people.
- Jerry Jiro Katayama, a Japanese American soldier who was deployed to Okinawa.
- George Higa, an Okinawan American who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain and husband to—
- Misao Higa, an Okinawan American who survived the Battle of Okinawa.
The photo album in question was a gift to Jerry from one of his friends who was stationed with him in Okinawa. But before we get into its contents, let’s dip into the oral history archives and hear Jerry introduce himself.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
Jerry Jiro Katayama. Born in Ogden, Utah. July 1st, 1915.
Jerry grew up and attended university in Utah. He was living in Salt Lake City in 1942 when Executive Order 9066 was issued, eliciting the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the west coast and into incarceration camps. Since they were already inland, Jerry and his family in Utah were able to stay home with certain travel restrictions. But the same can’t be said for his older brother.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
I think my brother was living in San Francisco because when the evacuation came he was incarcerated in Topaz. When my brother got married to Yuki, I took my folks down for the wedding. They attended the wedding in camp. Guard houses all around, barbed wire. It was not comfortable.
By visiting his brother in Topaz, Jerry saw the conditions of the incarceration camps firsthand. But where were George and Misao Higa at the beginning of the war? Let’s listen to their eldest son Bob tell the story.
My name is Bob Higa. Born in Chicago, which is where my dad, George, and my mom, Misao, lived and raised us. My dad was born in California. My mom was born in Hawaii but traveled to Okinawa to take care of her father. My dad’s parents passed away early in his life and then he went to live with relatives in California.
George would first be imprisoned at the Santa Anita horse track, then sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. His youngest son, Perry, remembers stories of how his father could temporarily escape the incarceration.
My name is Perry Tadashi Higa. What I do remember is my dad telling me, or us, that one way to get out of the prison is that you can go off and work in a factory. Or you can go off and work on a farm and pick potatoes, or strawberries, or whatever it was. Once you were done, then you were sent back to the camp.
Another, more permanent way to get out of the camps was to enlist in the military, which is exactly what Jerry’s older brother did in 1943. Jerry would follow in those footsteps soon after.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
I was inducted at Fort Douglas, a military installation in Salt Lake City. Soon after that, I volunteered for the Service. Meanwhile, my brother was with the 442nd down in Mississippi.
Both brothers served in army battalions composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans. The 442nd Infantry Regiment was a combat team sent on tours across Europe. The “Service” that Jerry volunteered for was the Military Intelligence Service, or MIS, a unit trained in the Japanese language, specializing in translation, interpretation, and interrogation.
This takes us to the first page in Jerry’s album of black and white photos. Pictured is an image of barracks lined up in a bleak, snowy field. I would have thought it was one of the incarceration camps if it weren’t for the caption written as follows:
“The beginning of our journey in the Military Intelligence Service at Camp Savage, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our home and school were in abandoned homeless barracks.”
Seeing this, I thought, “Why would such an important military force be housed in this place?” Well, the MIS was originally established in San Francisco, California. But after Executive Order 9066, Japanese American military personnel were also forced inland. Minnesota’s governor offered up this deserted public housing facility and it became the language school that Jerry trained in.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
Then I was sent to Camp Savage. I had a very intense course in Japanese. I couldn’t write or read it too well. I could speak it a little bit, so they made me an interrogator. I went out on the field for interrogating captured Japanese soldiers—prisoners, POWs. Of course in the early part of the war, we didn’t get too many POWs. But later on, most surrendered. That’s when we interrogated them and found out what they knew.
After finishing a campaign in the Philippines, Jerry was deployed to Okinawa. In the photo album, there is a page dedicated to the day his MIS unit touched down on the island. Pictured is an image from behind Jerry’s helmeted head, looking out on a beaten path. Next to it is a note reading:
“We landed on Okinawa soil on April 2nd, 1945. D-Day plus 1. Leading us in is Jerry Katayama.”
That was the first day after the US invasion of Okinawa began. As the battle ensued, local people often got caught in the crossfire. Misao was a schoolteacher in southern Okinawa struggling to survive alongside her sisters.
Schoolchildren were sent to caves in the mountains where there were supplies. Their mission was to hide. My mom and her sisters went to the cave and were turned away because there was no room. They hooked up with the retreating Okinawan Japanese infantry and survived by carrying wounded soldiers on their backs and trying to evade the US forces.
One of the sisters was killed by incoming artillery. And everybody in the cave that they were released from or turned away from was killed. They had soldiers with flamethrowers that wiped everybody out.
For Misao and her sisters, there was little option but to join the mobilization of Japanese soldiers in order to survive the indiscriminate fire of the US military. Those who weren’t killed were captured, and Jerry’s job was to interrogate those prisoners.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
We captured quite a few Japanese soldiers in Okinawa. And so, we were gathering information for preparation to invade Japan. The groups of us would go interrogate certain prisoners and find out where they came from. That’s where we had most of the prisoners. We were pretty busy in Okinawa.
The album contains a photo of ten MIS soldiers as they sit in the back of a truck. Underneath is a note reading:
“Whenever we’re ordered to move, we always go first class! After all, we’re the army’s secret weapon!”
One of the following pages is labeled “MIS men interrogating POWs”—Prisoners of War. In one photo, a large group of male prisoners sits on the dirt ground in rows. Some of them are in Japanese military uniform while others aren’t. Crouched amongst them with a clipboard in hand is one of the Japanese American MIS soldiers. His face is circled so as to firmly differentiate him from the prisoners. Three white US soldiers stand just outside the group monitoring the interrogation from above. And surrounding the scene is a multitude of tents and lines of barbed wire fence.
Just below that, is a very different photo. In it, there is a large cluster of Okinawan locals, mostly women and children, standing in line before a couple of Japanese American MIS soldiers. At the front of the image, a young Okinawan woman walks away from the collective while clutching a sack of her belongings. She glances to the side uneasily, maybe even fearfully, as the soldiers watch her intently.
Seeing all this, I wondered if these could be photos of the internment camps. But Jerry makes no explicit mention of camps or prisons in his recollection of Okinawa.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
Well, after we got through I don’t know what the heck happened to them. All we wanted was information—how many soldiers there were, what they were doing, and how the situation was with them.
And much like myself a couple of weeks ago, Misao’s sons didn’t even know these camps existed.
I had no idea that there were camps in Okinawa as well. I don’t know anything about that.
Although there are records and a field of scholars who can confirm these internment camps existed, it seems that in general, people don’t talk about them. Even Okinawan Americans like me don’t know about them. I decided to ask an expert, Ayuko Takeda, about why that is.
My name is Ayuko Takeda and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Irvine. Currently, I’m working on my dissertation about the US military’s civilian internment of local people in the Northern Mariana Islands and Okinawa during and after World War II. So, I mainly examine US military records but also personal accounts of the local people who were interned.
So, when I reached out to them, they were really surprised. And they said, “Do you really want to hear about the internment story instead of the Battle of Okinawa?” So, that also indicates not so many people are aware of the internment history or want to know more about the Battle of Okinawa. But at the same time, that marginalized experiences of the internment.
By conducting oral histories of the internment camps, Ayuko found there was a serious lack of attention to the topic. Even those who remember aren’t used to talking about it. And if others aren’t asking, it’s unlikely that they would want to relive those experiences. Even when it comes to more central topics, like the Battle of Okinawa and incarceration camps in the US, Bob found that being intentional with their time and asking the right questions was essential to understanding his parents’ history.
The second generation rarely speaks about it. And certainly, I don’t believe we would have gotten the story had we not sat down and just interviewed them.
That being said, it’s about time we look for more answers. From the battle in 1945 to the post-war period in 1946, how exactly did the US military administer the internment camps in Okinawa?
There were sixteen camps on the main island and the remote islands of Okinawa and those camps were administered differently. People living in the north were interned at an earlier stage from their home village. And they were ordered to relocate to camps the US military established and instead used those lands to construct airfields. In terms of the southern camps, the US military captured those wounded and injured civilians who were involved in the fierce battles between the US and Japanese forces. After the Battle of Okinawa, those interned people were sent from the southern camps to the northern camps.
Misao was amongst those captured by the US military after the battle ended.
I do know at the end of the war, my mom and her sister were hiding, as were many of the Okinawans up in the mountains. US forces would come by with microphones announcing that this is the end of the war, “Come out!” Of course, that was met with skepticism, but ultimately, they did.
The capture of those hiding in the mountains was called cave flushing. And after cave flushing came interrogation, both of which were carried out by the MIS soldiers.
Once they were captured by US forces, local people were interrogated by mainly Nisei soldiers. That means the second-generation Japanese Americans from the Military Intelligence Service. Interrogation was to make sure that those people were civilians, not Japanese soldiers. The US military interned civilians and soldiers in different camps. So, those Japanese soldiers disguised wearing Okinawan civilian clothes. But Nisei soldiers often entered civilian camps and picked up those Japanese soldiers. So, the interrogation continued even after the civilian camps.
The differentiation between soldier and civilian was complicated since many locals were mobilized by the retreating Japanese forces. Boys and men were recruited as combatants, while girls and women, like Misao, provided medical care. Gender played a big role in the civilian vs. soldier separation. However, the US military equally prioritized the ethnic distinction between Okinawan and Japanese people, as a means of building a positive narrative around their actions.
The US military tried to emphasize its liberation of colonized people from Japanese brutal rule. So in that sense, the US military had some kind of differentiation between Okinawan and Japanese men. But the US military generally interned women and girls without questioning so much about whether they should be in the Prisoners of War camps. But I should add, that there was a lot of sexual violence and sexual assault rampant through the internment period.
Along with sexual violence, Ayuko’s interviewees remembered a multitude of dangers that they faced while imprisoned, negating the narrative of US benevolence. According to recent estimates, at least 3,000 Okinawans died in the internment camps.
The US military records claim that civilian deaths were mainly caused by their previous wounds or diseases they had before they were interned. The military says it’s not their responsibility, basically, for the deaths of those people. But if we look at the conditions of camps, many people were actually killed because of the conditions. Even though the US military provided food rations or other supplies, that was not sufficient. They suffered starvation and unsanitary conditions at the camps.
The inhumane circumstances that the US military forced local Okinawans into, echoes experiences of the incarceration on America’s home front. What is particularly interesting is how the military carefully separated Japanese people from Okinawan people in Okinawa but did the absolute opposite in the US. Just like his American citizenship, George‘s Okinawan heritage was completely disregarded during the incarceration.
The US government should not be able to say that they care about Okinawan liberation, while in the same breath imprisoning Okinawan Americans in their own country. The same injustice lies in how the US military enlisted the service of Japanese Americans like Jerry, placing them in the most deadly situations imaginable, while their families were not even afforded basic human rights back home. Even today, it makes me furious. But in our families, such anger is hardly ever expressed openly.
Our heritage is one to keep everything within—don’t complain, be courteous, be respectful. So coming from that background, I don’t think it was in them or even in us to speak badly of the US military, even if they did a lot of things that weren’t right. Certainly, going into the internment camps wasn’t right. And that, you know, over a period of time, gnaws at me personally. I mean, they weren’t camps. Let’s call it what it is, it was a prison.
I couldn’t agree more. But that brings us to the conversation of what we should call the sites where Japanese and Okinawan people were imprisoned. On the American side of things, we’ve been moving away from the phrase “internment camp”.
I was speaking with the Japanese Aid Society. And in speaking with the woman, she corrected me on the use of “the internment camp.” That’s how I’ve always heard it. She corrected me and said, “It’s really, we refer to it as ‘the incarceration camp.’”
In this case, the important distinction is between the terms “internment camp” and “incarceration camp.” But with regards to the imprisonment of Okinawan locals, the more important distinction is between the terms “internment camp” and “refugee camp.”
Using the words “internment camps” is more controversial in the case of Japanese American camps. Because “the internment” has a connotation of denying the fact that the majority of incarcerated people were American citizens. But I think for the internment of Okinawans, they were not Americans.
So, the reason why I’m using the term “internment” is to emphasize that it wasn’t refugee camps. The term “internment camp” was interchangeably used with “refugee camps” in the US military records. That means the US military was aware that it was internment, not just to evacuate war refugees at camps. Those local Okinawan civilian people remembered their internment. They were treated as not the protected, but instead as prisoners. So, I think so far we can still use “internment camps” to describe the imprisonment of Okinawan people in Okinawa.
So calling these sites “internment camps,” has the effect of acknowledging their true carceral purpose. Being that this history is hardly recognized, simply uttering the phrase, “US military internment camps in Okinawa,” is a powerful statement.
Wielding this knowledge, I looked back into Jerry’s photo album. I looked at the truck full of MIS soldiers and wondered if they were heading into the mountains on a cave flushing mission or into the camps on an interrogation assignment. I looked at the imprisoned men and wondered if they were soldiers who disguised as local Okinawans or local Okinawans who got pegged as soldiers. I looked at the group of civilians and wondered if they were lined up for food rations, examination, or both. I looked at the woman with fear in her eyes and wondered if she made it out of there alright. I looked at all this, then said to myself with assurance, “These were internment camps.”
Now I know what you’re thinking! What happened to Jerry, George, and Misao after the battles and incarceration ended? To make a long story short, all three of them came to Chicago for the same reason. They had found work in a grocery store.
JERRY JIRO KATAYAMA:
So, I came to Chicago. At that time he had no manager of his store, so he offered me the job. I put my own money—my hard-earned money made in the army—into restocking the store. I lived in the back of the store there.
Jerry spent the rest of his life in Chicago and passed away in 2009 at the age of 93. He left a wealth of items, including that photo album, to the archives at the Japanese American Service Committee. George and Misao would end up meeting through the same community that connected me to their sons decades later.
My mom traveled to Chicago and stayed with my mom’s sister. She worked in the grocery store. Eventually, my dad worked in the grocery store. And I think somehow through the Okinawan community they would meet maybe at picnics.
George also remained in Chicago and passed away in 2020 at the age of 97. He is survived not only by his sons, Bob and Perry, but by his wife Misao, who will turn 97 in 2022.
Looking back, I never would have guessed that my mission to find information about Okinawan people would take me into Jerry’s miscellaneous black book. Let alone that it would lead to finding a part of incarceration history that I never knew existed. Still, there’s a lot more to learn from the archives, the scholars, and the Okinawan people connected to this history. In other words, this journey is far from over.
My name is Toy Suliman and this has been the Internment in Okinawa podcast. Source citations and credits for this episode can be accessed online at bit.ly/internmentinokinawa. This podcast was completed as a project for the JASC Legacy Center’s Summer Internship Program, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.
Big thanks to the following people who made it possible: Linda Asato, Amy Do, Bob Higa, Perry Higa, Emma Saito Lincoln, Stanley Oda, Ayuko Takeda, Gayle. K Yamada, Ty Yamamoto, the entire staff at JASC, and my fellow interns, Arielle, Brittany, Josh, Savvy, and Teddy. Finally, thanks to you for listening.
This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
This material received Federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally funded assisted projects. If you believe you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to:
Office of Equal Opportunity National Park Service 1849 C Street, NW Washington, DC 20240
“Battle of Okinawa.” HISTORY, 30 Mar. 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-okinawa.
Hirai, Justin. “MIS Language School Moves to Minnesota.” Nisei Veterans Legacy, https://www.nvlchawaii.org/mis-language-school-moves-minnesota.
“Jerry Jiro Katayama Papers.” JASC Legacy Center, https://jasclegacyctr.libraryhost.com/repositories/2/resources/279.
“Military Intelligence Service Resource Center.” Military Intelligence Service Association of Northern California, https://www.njahs.org/misnorcal/resources/resources_faq.htm#8c.
“Over 3,000 Okinawans Died in U.S. Camps at End of War.” The Japan Times, 7 Sept. 2015, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/09/07/national/history/over-3000-okinawans-died-in-u-s-camps-at-end-of-war/.
“Revealed: Why the U.S. Military Built Civilian Internment Camps during the Battle of Okinawa.” Ryukyu Shimpo, 8 May 2019, http://english.ryukyushimpo.jp/2019/05/19/30428/.
Takeda, Ayuko. “Memories of Internment: U.S. ‘Rehabilitation’ and Militarization of Okinawa (1945-).” UC Irvine School of Humanities, 7 Apr. 2022, https://www.humanities.uci.edu/events/memories-internment-us-rehabilitation-and-militarization-okinawa-1945-history-phd-candidate.
Tamaki, Denny. “Message from the Governor.” Okinawa Prefectural Government, https://dc-office.org/message.
Jiro “Jerry” Katayama Oral History Interview, Part 1 of 3, 2008. Go For Broke National Education Center,
Hanashi Oral History Collection, https://www.goforbroke.org/ohmsviewer/viewer.php?cachefile=JASC_01_Katayama.xml.
Jiro “Jerry” Katayama Oral History Interview, Part 2 of 3, 2008. Go For Broke National Education Center,
Hanashi Oral History Collection, https://www.goforbroke.org/ohmsviewer/viewer.php?cachefile=JASC_02_Katayama.xml.
Photo Album Created by Robert “Bob” Sugimoto. 2001. JASC Legacy Center, Box: 4, Folder: 8, Jerry Jiro
Katayama photograph collection,
Unanswered Questions by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By
Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/.
Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties. Directed by gayle yamada, Bridge Media, Inc., 2003,
This podcast was completed as a project for the JASC Legacy Center’s Summer Internship Program 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Big thanks to following people who made it possible:
EMMA SAITO LINCOLN, director of the JASC Legacy Center, who taught me all about archival research. Thank you for nurturing my ambitions while making sure I took time to take care of myself.
TY YAMAMOTO who instructed the JASC interns in video and audio production. Thank you for your approachable teaching style and building my confidence as an artist.
AMY DO, who advised me in podcast production. Thank you for your detailed instructions and words of encouragement.
STANLEY ODA, the JASC Community Fellow. Thank you for providing me with plenty of reading, good insight, and a car ride home.
My talented fellow JASC interns, ARIELLE, BRITTANY, JOSH, SAVVY, and TEDDY. Thank you all for your camaraderie and positivity as we underwent our projects together.
The JASC STAFF, who graciously hosted the internship program. Thank you all for always being helpful and sometimes indulging in our silly intern activities.
GAYLE K. YAMADA, a filmmaker who allowed me to use audio from her documentary, Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties. Thank you for teaching me about the MIS soldiers and supporting from afar.
AYUKO TAKEDA, a scholar of US militarization in Okinawa, who taught me about the internment camps. Thank you for preserving and articulating Okinawan history in a way that prioritizes justice.
LINDA ASATO, president of the Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai, who connected me with interviewees. Thank you for telling great stories, welcoming me into your community, and showing me a good time in Chicago.
Finally, BOB and PERRY HIGA, who shared the incredible life story of their parents, George and Misao. Thank you for your generosity and reminding me why Okinawan people deserve to be proud.