Bill Nishimura proudly displays a wooden chest he built while incarcerated at Tule Lake during a 2018 interview at his home in Torrance. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Toru “Bill” Nishimura, a former Tule Lake civil rights fighter, passed away on Oct. 19 at the age of 101.

Nishimura was born in Compton, when the area was still farmland. He was the middle child of Tomio and Sada Ito Nishimura, both from Yamaguchi-ken.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Nishimura family was farming on the Kurata Ranch and his first concerns were for his parents, who were, by law, not allowed to become U.S. citizens.

On Feb. 19, 1942, the same day that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the FBI ransacked the Nishimura home and took away Nishimura’s father. After several weeks, the family was informed that the father was imprisoned at Tuna Canyon, formerly the Tujunga Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

From Tuna Canyon, the father was sent to the Lordsburg Department of Justice camp in New Mexico and then to the Santa Fe DOJ camp.

To avoid going into camp, Nishimura and his mother relocated out of the West Coast Military Zone and moved to a relative’s farm in Ivanhoe in Central California. Nishimura’s sister, who was already married at the time, remained in Southern California.

However, within a few months, Central California also became a military zone and Nishimura and his mother were shipped to the Colorado River War Relocation Authority camp (Poston, Camp 3) in Arizona.

Nishimura recalled how they were forced to go into camp just as the vegetables were ready to be harvested and the thought of non-Japanese Americans profiting from all their hard work angered him.

When the controversial loyalty questionnaire was passed out in camp in early 1943, Nishimura answered “no” to Question 27 (if Nisei men were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered) and to Question 28 (if individuals would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and forswear any form of allegiance to the emperor of Japan), he gave a qualified answer of “Yes, on condition we are allowed to go back to California to our normal life again, otherwise not.”

The government interrogated Nishimura over his answers and even reunited him with his father in an attempt to have Nishimura change his answers to Questions 27 and 28 to “yes,” but that only upset him even more since he felt manipulated. As a result, Nishimura and his father were transferred to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. His mother and sister remained at Poston.

By this time, Nishimura was fed up with how the government was treating him. At Tule Lake, Nishimura joined the Sokuji Kikoku Hokoku Hoshidan, which advocated for Japanese Americans to “return” to Japan and serve that country. He eventually renounced his U.S. citizenship.

Bill Nishimura carries the Tule Lake banner during the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2010. He was an invaluable resource on the history of Tule Lake, though he didn’t return to the site until 2000. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

When the government started cracking down on the Hoshidan, Nishimura, his father and other Hoshidan members were shipped to the Santa Fe DOJ camp. At Santa Fe, Nishimura’s father fell ill and was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Since his father was too sick to make the journey to Japan, Nishimura and the father were transferred to the Crystal City DOJ camp in Texas. Nishimura would not be released from camp until June 1947.

Even after Nishimura was released, he was under surveillance. He had told the government that he was returning to Central California but he took a stopover in Los Angeles to see a friend. He was having so much fun that he missed his train and didn’t get to Central California until the following day. When he arrived at his destination, his friend, who came to pick Nishimura up, told him that the FBI had questioned him about Nishimura’s whereabouts.

Nishimura regained his U.S. citizenship through the help of civil rights attorney Wayne Collins, Tetsujiro “Tex” Nakamura and the Tule Lake Defense Fund.

In February 1952, Nishimura married Michiko Kamikawa, and the couple had two girls, Lynne Nishimura Ozawa and Donna Nishimura, both of whom predeceased Nishimura.

Nishimura did not return to Tule Lake until the 2000 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. At that time, his sole purpose was to climb Castle Rock, the camp’s most prominent landmark, as a free person. To his surprise, the younger generation attending the pilgrimage insisted that Nishimura talk about his wartime experiences.

Nishimura would go on to become a valuable resource on Tule Lake history.

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