HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Highway 35, a 41-mile scenic roadway from the Columbia River to Mt. Hood, has been dedicated as the Oregon Nisei Veterans World War II Memorial Highway.
The name change was authorized when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1509 at a ceremony on Aug. 5. The bill was passed unanimously earlier this year by the Oregon Senate and House.
It was noted that of the more than 33,000 Nisei who served in the U.S. military during and immediately after the war, 433 were from Oregon and 58 of them were from Hood River County.
One of the people who campaigned for the signs is Linda Tamura of Hood River, whose father and uncle fought in World War II. She told KGW8 that the Nisei soldiers “were incarcerated and (yet) they served our country.”
In addition to the highway signs, “we would also like to have an information sign that talks a little bit of Nisei veterans,” Tamura said.
The Portland Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League worked with the Oregon Department of Transportation on the locations of the memorial signs. Funds for the signs and educational material about the historical importance of the Nisei Veterans of World War II must be privately raised.
In addition to JACL, the Memorial Highway Advisory Group consists of American Legion Hood River Post 22, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Oregon Nisei Veterans, and The History Museum of Hood River County, with support from The Bend Heroes Foundation.
The unveiling of the highway signs was celebrated on Aug. 13 at Wy’East Middle School’s performing arts center in Odell, with local Nisei veterans and other seniors in the community attending.
The dedication on the memorial reads, in part: “During World War II (1941-1946), 433 Oregon Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) faithfully and courageously served our country — even as their families were forcibly incarcerated in camps on our own American soil.
“The 442nd ‘Go For Broke’ RCT was the most highly decorated Army unit of its size during WWII … The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion helped liberate prisoners from a German Dachau slave labor death camp.
“But after the war, they were not welcomed home. Names of 16 Nisei were blotted out from a local honor roll of 1,600 GIs. This highway today honors ALL Oregon Nisei veterans for their patriotism and sacrifices over seven decades ago. They fought two wars: for democracy in Europe and the South Pacific — and against prejudice at home.
We honor their patriotism and service — with ‘liberty and justice for all.’”
State Rep. Dacia Grayber said in a statement, “I had the extraordinary honor this weekend of attending the Oregon Nisei Veterans WWII Memorial Highway dedication. I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to champion this legislation and hope that it may be a small part in recognizing these extraordinary veterans and their families, and address the egregious and inhumane wrongs that were done to them …
“The Oregon Nisei Veterans World War II Memorial Highway is State Highway 35, between Hood River and Mt. Hood. Please think of these courageous and loyal veterans and their families, past, present, and future, as you travel this highway in the years to come.”
The History Museum of Hood River County, with support from the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, will develop an exhibit about the Japanese Americans in Hood River that explores themes of courage and compassion, resilience and grace.
One such storyline follows the return of Hood River-born Nisei veteran George Akiyama, who fought in the rescue of the Lost Battalion of Texas, considered one of the ten most important infantry battles in U.S. Army history, and in the breaching of the Gothic Line, which led to the end of the war in Europe.
Upon his return to Hood River Valley, Akiyama decided to get a haircut before reuniting with his family, but the barber refused to serve him. Air Force Capt. Sheldon Laurance personally witnessed the barbershop incident, trudged up a snow-covered hill to the Akiyama home to offer his apology, and wrote to The Oregonian denouncing “such unjustified prejudice and insults” to “some of the nation’s best fighting men.”
Laurance’s letter and Akiyama’s Army jacket are two of the many artifacts that will personalize and empower the exhibit.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon will be leading the development of interactive and engaging age-appropriate curricula against the backdrop of social justice and civil rights issues facing the nation today.
Middle and high school students will learn that the barber’s response to Akiyama’s request for a haircut was “I ought to slit your throat.” Students will share observations and thoughts: What did I feel when I heard what the barber said? Why do I think the barber reacted as he did? Why did the soldier respond as he did? Would I tell my friends about what I saw? Tell my parents? Take to social media?
What if I were Capt. Laurence? Would I have taken a video of the incident? Would I try to stop Akiyama from leaving the shop? What, if anything, would I say to the barber? If I decided to post the video, what would I hope to accomplish?
To donate to the highway project, go to: https://www.pdxjacl.org/niseivetshwy/donate/