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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: When the Price of an Interned Life is the Bullet That Ended It

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Dear Subscribers:

It's already an upside down world when a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice invokes Korematsu, a Japanese internment Supreme Court case,in helping to overturn the state's stay-at-home order or when anti-quarantine protesters are deemed the rebellious heirs of Rosa Parks. 

This is a moment when history becomes a matter of defiant remembrance.

When it comes to Japanese internment, some local sagas are better known than others. There's the tale of Historic Wintersburg, site of a former Japanese Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach whose minister and congregation got rounded up as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066. 

And then there's the Munemitsus, a Japanese American family that entrusted Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez to lease their Westminster asparagus farm while interned. The Mendez family, of course, became lead plaintiffs in a landmark school desegregation case in Orange County. Gonzalo had enough money to hire an attorney on account of the farm's profitability. 

But how many have heard the story of Shoichi James Okamoto, an internee from Garden Grove? 

Okamoto previously worked at a grocery store in Los Angeles before being held at the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp in northern California during the Second World War. His father died the year before at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. A Buddhist, family members and co-workers knew Okamoto to be a quiet and cooperative soul.

Without any troubles, Okamoto drove a construction truck past one of Tule Lake Segregation Center’s gates on May 24, 1944. Given an assignment to retrieve lumber at a worksite from his supervisor, the 30-year-old Japanese American carried all the paperwork and identification needed.

But when returning to the center just a few minutes later, a dispute arose inside the gate. Henry Shiohama, who rode with Okamoto in the truck that afternoon, recalled Bernard Goe, the private sentry on duty, as having had an irritable demeanor. Goe demanded to see Okamoto’s badge. “Well, here’s the pass,” he said. For whatever reason, Goe didn’t take kindly to the response and ordered him out of the truck while telling Shiohama, who didn’t have a license, to drive.

Shiohama tried to explain as much to the sentry.

"You Japs and your [War Relocation Authority] friends are trying to run the whole camp!" Goe reportedly said.

Apprehensive by the shifting mood, Okamoto left the truck door ajar when Goe cocked his gun before approaching him. The sentry ordered him to the back of the truck—just outside the entrance. Okamoto hesitated, probably fearful that he could be framed as an escapee if shot and killed. Without any provocation, Goe struck Okamoto’s shoulder with a rifle butt, took a few steps back and fired a shot.

Okamoto died of the through-and-through wound to his chest the following day.

Lieutenant Colonel Verne Austin arrested Goe and ordered an investigation. Goe stood before court-martial proceedings six weeks after the shooting. All of an hour of deliberations later, the sentry was acquitted of manslaughter.

His sole penalty?

A one-dollar fine as the fatal bullet that killed Okamoto was deemed an "unauthorized use of government property."

- Gabriel San Román

Like what you're reading so far? To keep the Tallest Mexican in OC's Slingshot! newsletters going Venmo: @Gabriel-SanRoman-2. Follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook! Don't forget to tell your friends to join the San Roman syndicate by subscribing! 

Mouse Muckraker

During the Disneyland Resort Living Wage campaign in 2018, Walt Disney World Resort executives had to worry about the threat of a good example. Since Florida is a so-called right-to-work state with a rogue Republican governor and a horrific unemployment system, the future reopening of theme park operations there carries with it the potential threat of a bad example for workers here in Anaheim. 

The Service Trades Council Union, which represents 43,000 workers, recently struck a deal with Disney to ensure the safety of its members to the best of its abilities when they do return. The details offer a preview of what the Mouse House might look like during a pandemic.

First, workers are ensured of enough paid time off to quarantine if they fall ill with Covid-19. The company will also be providing thermometers to those who request them while not penalizing anyone who calls in with symptoms. Guests won't be allowed on the premises if they fail a temperature check screening.

How these safeguards work (or don't) with asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus remains to be seen. 

Masks at the parks will be mandatory for workers and guests alike. That's important, especially amid a nonsensical culture war over them. And the Disney Parks blog comments section is already a battle ground for the anti-mask league 2.0 (Hey, if adults can show up in pajamas during Christmastime at Disneyland or sport mouse ears, they can wear a mask!). Other key points to the agreement include social distancing practices, touchless transactions and plastic barriers. 

This framework will be important as Disneyland Resort unions make their next move--and as the theme parks become depression-era playgrounds for the haves and a workhouse for the have nots. 

Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina

By the Bylines

Sweet! That's how I'd describe the response to my latest Times OC feature on two Arab American businesswomen who joined forces to create a special Ramadan dessert. Shahira Marei, owner of the Dirty Cookie, teamed with Knafeh Queens' Fatmah Muhammad to introduce the knafeh shot! The treat takes the Dirty Cookie's shot glass concept and rounds it out with the noodle dough delight and a choice of three decadent fillings. This Ramadan comes amid a pandemic, so the effort is especially welcomed. What's been particularly great about the story is the positive response to it on social media from the sisters of the Ummah.

Representation matters! 

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