The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: The varied responses of American Anabaptists to the mass confinement of Japanese Americans during WWII


bioline_Greg Robinson

Editor’s Note: This column was co-written by Zacharie Leclair.

In his 1981 master’s thesis, “The Response of the Historic Peace Churches to the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II,” scholar Charles R. Lord makes a daring comparison between the experience of Japanese Americans confined in government camps during World War II on account of race and ancestry, and that of conscientious objectors from peace churches who were confined in Civilian Public Service camps due to their religious beliefs.

Remarkably, one individual, George Kiyoshi Yamada, bridged the two groups. In 1941, as a young student of journalism in San Francisco, he registered as a conscientious objector and was assigned to CPS camp 21 at Cascade Locks, Ore. While he no doubt expected to be subjected to anti-Japanese prejudice there, Yamada soon won the friendship of the other camp members.

The following year, when Mark Schrock, the CPS camp’s director, was ordered to send Yamada to a War Relocation Authority camp, 54 CPS men signed a petition in support of Yamada. The letter’s text lamented the infringement on the constitutional rights of those who objected to conscription due to reasons of conscience, but also highlighted the fact that the refusal to grant a sincere individual such as Yamada the status of CO, and to permit him to remain in the CPS camp, was made solely on account of race.

The protest letter, endorsed by camp director Schrock, was sent on to federal authorities. They relented and Yamada was duly transferred to an inland CPS camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., outside of the excluded zone, and subsequently to another in Germfask, Mich.

What is notable is that, among the signers of the Cascade Locks petition, half were Mennonites. The petition represented one of the very few statements of opposition to government policy toward Japanese Americans that stemmed from Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren circles during World War II.

It might seem astonishing that the Mennonites were so silent, at least in comparison to the Quakers and other communitarian Protestant sects. Lord lists various reasons to explain this. First, Mennonite congregations were concentrated in the Eastern United States. Many Mennonites undoubtedly considered the “Japanese question,” concentrated on the West Coast, as distant from them and their concerns (although this certainly does not account for the inaction of Mennonite Brethren in California). Also, the Mennonites, many of whom were of German ancestry and lived in small towns, might have feared a return of the anti-German vigilantism that they had experienced during World War I if they appeared “unpatriotic” — they were already vulnerable as a result of their refusal to serve in the armed forces. Finally, Mennonite congregations might have assumed that the Mennonite Central Committee, a branch of the Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren Churches that had been devoted to international service since its formation in 1920, would organize a group response. However, the Committee, which was less drawn to domestic advocacy in that period, failed to act.

Still, there were Mennonites who spoke up in various ways for Japanese Americans. In a June of 1942 magazine supplement to the Gospel Herald, the official publication of the Mennonites, writer Edward Yoder deplored “the organized and systematic campaign” being whipped up in the country to inculcate hate toward the Axis enemy. As a result of such propaganda, people “(W)ill freely hate Japanese-Americans, German-speaking Americans, Jews, Negroes, and all who happen to differ from themselves in race, color, opinions, and manner of life.”

There were also Mennonites who worked to aid those in the camps, although without directly challenging official policy. According to the May 25, 1943 issue of The Mennonite, a children’s group, the Juniors, in an Eastern District church made gifts to send to children in the camps. Bluffton College (now Bluffton University) in Ohio was one of the first universities to accept Nisei students under the auspices of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. In the fall of 1942, Robert Kumata and Richard Okada, a pair of transfer students, enrolled at Bluffton. A third Nisei student, Shigeru Matsunaga, joined them in 1943.

Perhaps the most courageous Mennonite to reach out to the Nikkei was Florence Auernheimer. After being fired from her job as a kindergarten teacher in Reedley, Calif. in 1942 because she refused to encourage her pupils to buy war bonds, she took a job at the Camino (California) CPS camp as a dietitian. One year later, she was hired as a schoolteacher at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. After one Nisei girl died of pneumonia amid the fierce winter cold, Auernheimer threatened to quit if the government did not finish the inmates’ barrack rooms. She was able to push the government to provide better heating. She remained at Tule Lake until the end of the war.

Astonishingly, among all the “Peace Churches” that stemmed from European Anabaptism, the most vigorous response to Executive Order 9066 came from one of its smallest fringe groups, the Church of the Brethren. During spring of 1942, Ralph and Mary Blocher Smeltzer, a young couple of Brethren schoolteachers in their mid-twenties, took action on behalf of Japanese Americans. First, as Japanese Americans were dispatched to the assembly centers, the Smeltzers made and served them free breakfasts.
After the Manzanar, Calif. camp opened, the Smeltzers moved operations there, and taught there for six months. While in camp, they insisted on living side by side with the inmates, rather than being lodged in staff housing.

In order to assist in resettlement of Japanese Americans confined in camp, in 1943 the Smeltzers joined forces with M.R. Zigler, the head of Brethren Service, to organize The Chicago Brethren Hostel for Japanese American resettlers. The hostel began operations in a temporary space at the Bethany Theological Seminary, then ultimately moved into a three-story building. It operated for a year, during which time it sheltered 1,085 resettlers. After it closed, church members operated the Brethren Ministry to resettlers, under the leadership of Dean L. Frantz. In addition to aiding resettlers in finding jobs and housing, the Ministry served as a counseling service and fought anti-Asian discrimination.

In 1944, the Smeltzers moved to New York to open a new hostel in Brooklyn. There they had to face Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s public opposition to the project, as well as threats of violence from local residents. They refused to back down, and the hostel operated for more than a year.

The Church of the Brethren’s initiative led by the Smeltzers was a crucial display of courage and critical response toward injustice, but it was also a rather isolated example. The Smeltzers desperately tried to mobilize their counterparts from the Peace Churches to join them, but with little result. In 1945, editor J. Winfield Fretz of The Mennonite bitterly lamented the church’s inaction. “But what has happened to the social conscience of the Mennonite Church?…If she has spoken out against the great unethical and unjust social practices of our day, I have yet to discover it. Japanese American citizens by the hundred thousands were ruthlessly torn from their homes and families and hoarded into desert concentration camps by the United States Army.”

No doubt, as Richard Lord explained, the reasons for this silence are many-sided. Whatever the reason, refusing to bear arms was one thing Mennonites already knew; advocating on behalf of vulnerable people was another they yet had to learn. The near-complete policy of inaction by most peace church members during the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans remains a useful subject of reflection and self-criticism for people still used to thinking of themselves as conscientious objectors.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at
Zacharie Leclair, who holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the Université du Québec À Montréal, lectures at Montreal universities and works for the Mennonite Central Committee.

The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *