Sole Jerome Nisei draft resister dies

Joe Yamakido. photo by Sharon Taguma

Joe Yamakido. photo by Sharon Taguma
Joe Yamakido. photo by Sharon Taguma

Joe Atsumi Asa Yamakido (1922- 2014), the only World War II Japanese American draft resister from the Jerome concentration camp, passed away Feb. 21, surrounded by family.

Yamakido was the second son born to Akeji and Katsuno Yamanaka Yamakido, both from Hiroshima. He was delivered by a midwife in what was part of the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. His other siblings included Haruo Charles (deceased); Masaharu Johnny (deceased); Tadao Tad (deceased); Chidori Jean; Akiko Patricia.

Right before the outbreak of World War II, the family farmed in the Harbor City area of Southern California. The Yamakido boys learned judo under the tutelage of Toshitaka Yamauchi, a pioneer judo sensei in the United States who had studied under Jigoro Kano, the father of modern judo.

Yamakido’s athletic abilities were evident. At Torrance High School, he was one of only three Nisei to land a spot on the varsity football team.

Right before the outbreak of World War II, Yamakido was working as a truck driver. He was fired the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Upset over his firing, Yamakido attempted to hitchhike to Central California to work on the farms, but he was arrested for violating the curfew and thrown into a Hermosa Beach, Calif. jail, where he was forced to strip naked in front of five burly police officers.

“They made me strip completely naked, embarrassing as hell,” he recalled in an earlier interview. “It seemed like they wanted to beat the s— out of me. Then the chief of police walked in and he stopped it.”

The Hermosa Beach Chief of Police was of German ancestry and witnessed his own father undergo similar treatment during the First World War. Yamakido was released from jail with an apology from the chief of police.

Following President Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, the Yamakido family was sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center. There, he learned to weight lift with many of the Exclusive 20s gang members.

When a riot broke out at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, he was among those picked up and jailed by the FBI. Yamakido had merely been a bystander at the melee but the FBI falsely accused him of inciting the riot.

While Yamakido was jailed, the rest of his family was shipped to the Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas. After his release, he was sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp where he continued weight lifting and received pointers from fellow inmate Emerick Ishikawa, who would go on to win four consecutive weight lifting national championships after the war.

When the War Relocation Authority asked the inmates to help harvest sugar beets in Montana, he jumped at the opportunity to get away from the monotony of camp life and to contribute to the war effort in his small way. From Montana, Yamakido hitchhiked to Denver and secured a travel permit to Jerome to be reunited with his family.

By the time Yamakido arrived in Jerome, he was tired of being “kicked around” by the U.S. government. When the so-called “loyalty questionnaire” came out, Yamakido answered “yes-yes” but qualified his answer by saying that he would be willing to fight for the United States as long as he had the same rights as Caucasians.

“I was born here so I thought I should be born with the same rights as the whites,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to go to war to prove my loyalty to the U.S.”

While Yamakido was out of Jerome on another work furlough, he learned that the rest of his family, except Johhny, had decided to go to Japan and were transferred to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. He decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship as well, to be reunited with his family, but received a draft notice in the process. He ignored the two draft notices until the U.S. Marshall came to pick him up for draft evasion.

Yamakido’s court trial, like many of the other Nisei draft resisters’ trials, was a farce. His public defender never came to discuss the case with him, and three Caucasians, whom he had never seen before, were ready to testify against him. The food in the Arkansas jail was so bad that Yamakido lost 50 pounds while awaiting his trial.

He was eventually sentenced to three years at the Texarkana federal correctional institute in Texas, where the only other Nikkei inmates he saw were three resisters from Rohwer.

At Texarkana, Yamakido nearly lost his life after he got into an argument with a Caucasian inmate and ended up slapping him for calling him a “dirty Jap.” Later, while they were being let out of their cell to go to lunch, Yamakido got “jumped” by the Caucasian inmate and his friends. The situation escalated so fast that Yamakido had no idea how many came at him. Plus,  he was so much shorter than the Caucasians that he couldn’t look over their heads.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Yamakido. “The guards didn’t want to stop the fight. They were yelling, ‘Kill the Jap. Kill the Jap.’ And the guys bunched around me so I put myself against the wall so nobody could get behind me. If I’d fallen on the ground, they’d probably would’ve stomped on me and that would’ve been it.”

During the fight, Yamakido’s clothes were literally torn off him and he was left standing with nothing more than his underwear. But other than a few bruises, he came out physically unscathed.

Following this incident, Yamakido was thrown into the hole for five days with nothing to eat each day but three pieces of bread and one beet.

This incident was corroborated by a Rohwer draft resister, who said the other inmates stood guard outside their jail cell doors so none of the Rohwer inmates could help Yamakido. Yamakido’s judo expertise gained him respect among the inmates, and the Caucasian inmate he’d had the original argument with even apologized to Yamakido.

Another inmate who took a liking to him was a former governor of Louisiana, who was serving time for embezzlement. Through him, Yamakido learned how he could restore his constitutional rights despite his felony conviction. As a result, Yamakido volunteered for the military and served as a cook at the Presidio in California.

He was at the May 11, 2002 ceremony in San Francisco, where the National JACL apologized to the draft resisters for not recognizing their principled stand.

One response to “Sole Jerome Nisei draft resister dies”

  1. Kristin Gust Avatar
    Kristin Gust

    Thank you for this beautiful article about my grandfather.

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