‘Mori’ Tanimoto, Tule Lake Block 42 resister, dies

Mamoru “Mori” Tanimoto, one of about 35 men from Block 42 of the Tule Lake concentration camp who had been arrested for refusing to register for the controversial loyalty questionnaire, passed away Nov. 3, 2015. He was 95.

During the past decade, both Mori and younger brother, Jim, became fixtures at the biennial Tule Lake pilgrimage.

Barbara Takei, a Tule Lake Committee board member who is working on a book on the camp with Roger Daniels, a pioneering scholar on Nikkei history, credited Mori for resurrecting the Block 42 history.

“Once an almost unknown story, Block 42’s resistance became a familiar part of the Tule Lake pilgrimage experience thanks to Mori’s willingness, as a survivor, to share his memories,” wrote Takei via e-mail. “The Camp Tulelake site, once in danger of demolition, was added to the Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, ensuring this site and the Block 42 story of civil rights dissent will be preserved in our nation’s historical narrative.”

In March, Tanimoto made one of his last public appearances at a San Francisco program co-sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Eji Suyama Project and the National Japanese American Historical Society.

Tanimoto was one of seven siblings born to Hikoichi “Tony” and Riwa Tanimoto, and the family had been farming peaches in Gridley, Calif., before World War II.

When the U.S. government forcibly placed people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast into American concentration camps, the Tanimoto family took a huge financial loss since they were forced to leave just before the peach crop was ready to be harvested.

Tanimoto left for Tule Lake on his 22nd birthday, July 9, 1942. At Tule Lake, he notified his draft board about his change of address. To his surprise, he received a letter, saying he was now classified 4-C, not acceptable for service because of ancestry.

In 1943, the government issued a poorly-worded “loyalty questionnaire,” and three Tanimoto brothers — Masashi “Mike,” Mori and Jim — independently came to the conclusion not to register for the loyalty questionnaire on grounds they felt their constitutional rights had been violated.

Meanwhile, the Tule Lake administration announced through the camp newspaper that anyone who interfered with the registration process would be fined up to $10,000 and imprisoned for up to 20 years under the Espionage Act.

The Tule Lake administration, then, made an example of the Block 42 men, who were refusing to answer the loyalty questionnaire, by publicly arresting them on Feb. 21.

One group, which included Mori and Jim, were sent to the Klamath Falls, Ore. jail, while another group that included Masashi was shipped to the Alturas, Calif. jail. The men were held for about seven days without charge or a trial.

From jail, Mori and Jim were among the group transferred to the Civilian Conservation Corp camp called Camp Tulelake, located about 10 miles from the Tule Lake camp in California.

Masashi and a few others, who were considered leaders, were shipped to the Moab Citizen Isolation Center in Utah.

The Block 42 men were held at Camp Tulelake for about a month. One night, around midnight, soldiers came charging into the men’s barrack and roused them from their sleep.

The men were ordered to line up outside in the dark, whereupon a blinding flood light was pointed at them.

Tanimoto recalled seeing soldiers standing on either side of the flood light with rifles in their hands. He thought he was facing a firing squad.

Although that evening ended with no deaths, Tanimoto thought the soldiers had staged the event to scare them into answering the loyalty questionnaire because shortly after this, informal hearings were held.

After the informal hearings, the Block 42 men were returned to Tule Lake. Mori never answered the “loyalty questionnaire.”

When Tule Lake was converted into a segregation center, the Tanimoto family decided to remain.

Decades later, Tanimoto would learn through declassified documents that the Tule Lake administration had no legal authority to arrest the Block 42 men, nor was refusing to answer the loyalty questionnaire a violation of the Selective Service Act and it did not carry a $10,000 fine and/or 20 years in jail.

Once the Tanimoto family was released from camp, they returned to their peach orchard in Gridley, Calif.

During the 1960s, three Tanimoto brothers — Mori, Jim and George — took a gamble and started experimenting with growing a then-little known fruit in the U.S. called the kiwi from seedlings. As a result, the Tanimoto brothers pioneered the kiwi business in the U.S. and Japan.

According to Tanimoto’s daughters, Mori was also a dedicated fan of the San Francisco Giants and Sacramento Kings. He loved fishing and was an avid bowler.

He was a Gridley Lions Club member where he was Lion of the Year twice as well as president. He was also a member of Sons In Retirement.

He is survived by his daughters Naomi Lopes (Steve), Sharon Kuroda (Gary), and Pennie Bissell (Dennis), sister Eva Kojima, brother Jim Tanimoto, seven grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife June, granddaughter Jenna Kuroda, parents Hikoichi and Riwa Tanimoto, sister Shizuko Matsumoto, and brothers, Mike, Jack and George.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Nov. 28, at 1 p.m., at the Marysville Buddhist Church, with reception to follow. Inurnment will be held at a later date.

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