Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Japanese-American internment camps in World War Two

Gregory Rutecki
Cleveland, Ohio, United States


Cartoon of fruit and vegetable stand owner speaking to man in apron, saying "Naw—we don't hafta worry about th' owner comin' back. He wuz killed in Italy." The signs above the establishment begin with a crossed out "Hitoshi Mitsuki" and read "Fruits and Vegetables / Under New Management" and "Let's Keep America for Americans / Joe Fromage Proprietor". Cartoon of bar owner pointing to "No Japs Allowed" sign while speaking to a soldier on crutches. Caption reads "Can't ya read signs?" The bar is also named the "Victory Bar" (underneath it reads "Welcome to the West Coast") and signs supporting the sale of bonds and "America for Americans" can be seen.
Bill Mauldin’s cartoons regarding the NISEI 15


“What constitutes an American? Not color…race…An American…(is) one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.”1

 “Any person who considers himself…a member of Western Society inherits the Western past from Athens and Jerusalem to Runneymede and Valley Forge, as well as to Watts and Chicago of August 1968…The past sits back and smiles.”2

At the outbreak of World War II, some 110,000 first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans (Issei and Nisei respectively) were herded into internment camps, ostensibly to prevent subversive activities on behalf of Imperial Japan. Reflecting the beliefs of the time was Western U.S. Commanding General John DeWitt’s view that “(The) Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States’ soil…have become ‘Americanized’ the racial strains are undiluted …along the Pacific coast over 112,000 potential enemies…are at large today.”3 Yet countering these prevailing views are the remarkable war stories of heroic Nisei sacrifices, especially of the 442nd Army Regimental Combat Team.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team: the Nisei
“Twenty-one Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses…560 Silver Stars…4000 Bronze Stars, almost 10,000 Purple Hearts…a total of 18,143 decorations… the most decorated military unit in the history of the U.S. Army.”3

Nisei infantrymen showed uncommon valor in battles such as the Vosges Mountains Campaign in October 1944. A battalion of non-Asian American soldiers had advanced so deeply into enemy territory that the Germans enveloped them.4 Their nom de guerre was the “Lost Battalion.”4 After the 2nd and 3rd Battalions failed to rescue them, the Nisei 442nd was ordered to rescue their comrades “at all costs.” They responded with frontal assaults and bayonet charges.4 “After the battle…General John Dahlquist …who had ordered the rescue called an assembly to honor (them)…seeing only a few hundred men …normally numbered over 4000…asked …’Where are the rest of the men’? Colonel Miller replied ‘that’s all that’s left.’ “4, 5

The valor of the Nisei did not go unnoticed, especially as the non-Japanese American soldiers knew their families were interned in camps that they would refer to as “concentration camps.1

“No combat unit…could exceed them in loyalty…they were willing to take extra chances…in hopes…a grateful nation would…give their families…in concentration camps…a few
breaks…(We) wonder(ed) how we would feel if we were wearing the uniform of a country that mistreated our families.”1


The plight of the Issei and Nisei during the war
“The environment of internment camps was terrible, adverse environmental conditions contributed to health problems. (Those) located on Arkansas swamp land…had severe drainage problems…rain flooded…the boardwalks which were some 8 inches off the ground…(They were) submerged.”6

The disease and death rates at camps depended on where these camps were located. “Death within the first year of life was the third-largest source of mortality…(In the) 1946 final report regarding internment, there were 98 stillborn and 133 neonatal deaths”recorded.5 At the Gila River Internment Camp (in the San Joaquin Valley), “The barracks were so poorly constructed …the dust would come up through the cracks…they’d inhale it…they’d come down with what sounded like flu…they’d get…erythema nodosum…cocci (coccidiomycosis)…meningitis…arthritis…there was nothing you could do.”6

Nisei physicians and their supporters
“Distinctions of race, nationality, color, and creed are unknown within the portals of the Temple of Aesculapius.”
William Osler7

The internment of the Nisei had devastating effects on their medical education. George Kambara, a Nisei physician, was sent from his ENT residency at Stanford to Tule Lake (Newell, California) for internment.8 In the camps Nisei physicians-in-training would provide medical care without being supervised. Dr. Kambara’s practice was expanded to include ophthalmology as well as otolaryngology, even though he had no prior training in diseases of the eyes and yet had to treat cataracts, trachoma, corneal ulcers, and glaucoma.8 Dr. Jerome Bettman, a Stanford ophthalmologist, reached out to him, “…it might be a good idea if I could run up to your encampment…to help out with the operating…Line up all your cataracts…I could do the first few and you would do the rest…”8 He took two cadaver heads on the trip to teach Dr. Kambara surgical anatomy. He said about the specimens, “I was worried about the smell and didn’t trust the porters with them, so I kept them in my bed with me and we rolled around together all night.”8

When Dr. Kambara was relieved of responsibilities at Tule Lake, he was ordered to relocate eastward and not allowed to return to Stanford. Nisei post-war medical careers were in dire need of non-Japanese American physician champions who would brave a negative animus. A Missouri state representative was typical in an unfortunate attitude, though countered appropriately by Representative Armstrong:

“…J.A. Gray…supported an amendment preventing non-Missouri physicians from working in the state. ‘This doctor may be skillful, by the eternal gods, a Jap is a Jap’…Representative O.K. Armstrong stood in defense…’Why penalize this man who was born as much as an American as I, except that he has the blood of a different race in his veins…This measure is aimed only at this one raceBut we might be starting something here we can’t stop.’” 9

Stanford Medical School Dean Dr. Loren Chandler wrote supportive letters and recommendations for his Japanese American students and residents. Dr.Michael Marmor observed , “It is hard to imagine a medical school dean today writing so many personal letters…especially at a time when public opinion ran in another direction.”8 Dr. Kambara remained a gentleman under all circumstances. He applied to residencies after relocating to Memphis, Tennessee. While driving in Memphis, he passed posters, “No Japs allowed.”8 He, however, would never conform to the racial prejudice of the south. While in Memphis,

“I was told not to address the Negroes by Mr. or Mrs., but only use their first names, even clergymen and distinguished appearing well-dressed blacks, or call them ‘boy or girl’…I was brought up to respect our elders and address them properly… I just couldn’t get myself to call them ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.”8

He was not comfortable with segregation. An African American patient needed a large magnet to have a metal foreign body removed from her eye. The magnet was in the “whites only” operating room and too heavy to move. Dr. Kambara covered the patient’s face with towels and wheeled her to the “whites only” suite.8 D.r Kambara’s residency application process was tedious. Ten of twelve of his applications were rejected. Even before World War II, West Coast Medical Schools would accept no more than two Asian students per class, regardless of qualifications.9 The University of Wisconsin accepted him and he became an ophthalmologist.8

Inheriting the Western past?
“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt said, “The principle on which this country was founded…is that Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”10 Afterward, Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, advised him, “The…Japanese Americans…are…loyal American citizens …(there is) no more reason to (keep them) in camp.”1 F.D.R. responded, “…the more I think of…suddenly ending the orders excluding Jap Americans from the west coast the more I think it would be a mistake.”1 F.D.R. did not release them. Another Nisei irony followed. While their families were still interned, Nisei were the first to liberate Dachau.11

For some minorities in the United States, a stigma has stubbornly persisted for centuries. Native Americans represented 2% of all troops in Vietnam, but comprised only 1% of the U.S. population.12 Yet while they were risking “life and limb,” physicians in the United States were subjecting Native American women to involuntary sterilization.13

Throughout history, Harold Ickes, Henry Stimson—as well as a nucleus of physicians such as Drs. Jerome Bettman and Loren Chandler—have openly acted against prejudice. One must ask today whether the same prejudicial specter that haunted the Nisei has resurfaced targeting other cultures. Recently, the return of medical trainees from the Middle East to the U.S.A. was hindered by the Federal Government through a narrowly focused Travel Ban. Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the terrorism prosecution against Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing observed, “…when I began working on national security cases, the Muslims I first encountered were not terrorists. To the contrary, they were pro-American patriots who helped us infiltrate terror cells, disrupt mass-murder plots, and gather the evidence needed to convict jihadists …we have an obligation to our principles not to convict by association—not to confound our Islamist enemies with our Muslim allies and fellow citizens.”13

Those in the healthcare profession must emulate Osler, Ickes, Armstrong, Bettmann, Kambara, and Chandler’s examples of toleration and acceptance, thereby grasping not only the essence of Americanism, but also Medicine’s universally inclusive commitment to all aspects of healing. Aesculapius’ temple and the humanity we serve expects nothing less.



  1. Asahina, R. Just Americans: How the Japanese Won a War at Home and Abroad. New York: Gotham Books, 2006, v, 13, 77.
  2. Tuchman B. Practicing History: Selected Essays. Random House Publishing Group, 1981. Page 267.
  3. Tuccini R. “‘Go for Broke’: The Role of Japanese-Americans during World War II.” In: “The Good War and Japanese America,” American Studies Journal. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://www.asjournal.org/59-2015/the-good-war-and-japanese-america.
  4. Parker JL. “Nisei Soldiers in World War II: The Campaign in the Vosges Mountains.” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Ks. 66027-6900, June 3, 1994.
  5. Tsukiyama TT. “Nisei Military Experience during World War II.” In: Remembering the Pacific War. Ed. Geoffrey M. White Center for Pacific Islands Studies, 1991, 168.
  6. Jensen GM. “System Failure: Health-Care Deficiencies in the World War II Japanese American Detention Centers.” Bull. of the Hist. Med. 1999; 73:602-628.
  7. Mangione S. “When the tail wags the dog: Clinical Skills in the age of technology.” Clev. Cl. J. Med. 2017;84:278-280.
  8. Marmor MF. “The Training of George K. Kambara, MD.” Arch. Ophthalmol. 1999; 117:1227-1235.
  9. Hirahara N. & Jensen GM. Silent Scars of Healing Hands. Japanese American Medical Association, Japanese American National Museum, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2004, 90, v., 1.
  10. Accessed October 10, 2017 at http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1336690.
  11. Ikeda, Dale. “The Japanese American Story of Internment and Redress.” Accessed October 24, 2015 at fresnocountybar.org/…/ikeda-japanese_internment-redres.doc.
  12. Holt T. Strong Hearts Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Viet Nam War. University of Texas Press, Austin Texas, 1996. Chapter 4.
  13. Rutecki GW. “Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Late Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies?” Ethics and Medicine 2011;27(1):33-42.
  14. McCarthy A.C. “Islam—Facts or Dreams?” Imprimis 2016;45(2):4.
  15. Mauldin B. Back Home. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1947, 167, 169.



GREGORY RUTECKI, MD, received his medical degree cum laude from the University of Illinois, Chicago (1974). He completed internal medicine training at the Ohio State University Medical Center (1977) and a fellowship in nephrology at the University of Minnesota (1980). After 12 years of private nephrology practice, he re-entered academic medicine at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (awarded “Master Teacher” designation) and became the E. Stephen Kurtides Chair of Medical Education at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare and Professor of Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. He now practices Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.


Fall 2017  |  Sections  |  War & Veterans

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.