When Robert Wada returned to California from the Korean War, he faced another battle — this time against racism.
"When I first got back, I went to try to get an apartment in downtown Los Angeles," he said. "The lady manager said, 'I'm sorry, I can't rent it.' I said, 'Why?' and she said, 'Well, I just can't rent it to you. I'm sorry, it's not me. It's the owners.'
"I said to her, 'I just got back from Korea. If you have a son, the next time we have a war you'd better send him, because I'm not going to risk my life for people like you.' "
He said the discrimination continued, including years later when he tried to purchase a house.
Wada was among the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. After his release, he joined the Marines and served in the Korean War, following in the footsteps of his four older brothers, who also served in the U.S. military.
"Even though I was interned as a teenager, I really honestly feel that this is my country," said Wada, 86, a Buena Park resident and author of the memoir "From Internment, to Korea, to Solitude."
The prejudice that Wada and other Japanese American veterans experienced after war are now being spotlighted in a traveling exhibit called "What If Heroes Were Not Welcome Home?" It is on display at the Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum, on the grounds of the Cal State Fullerton Arboretum, until Feb. 12.
The exhibit was developed by Linda Tamura, author of "Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence: Coming Home to Hood River," in 2013 for the Oregon Historical Society.
It has since traveled to several sites on the West Coast.
The exhibit is based on the work she did for her book and contains photos, letters, historical documents and personal accounts.
For Tamura, the exhibit — and her book — is a way to shed light on what she sees as a rarely discussed piece of American history. In Hood River, Ore., for example, the names of 16 Japanese American soldiers were removed from the community's "honor roll," a plaque on a war memorial that listed the names of residents who served the country. (Fifteen would eventually be restored.) The town also proposed an amendment to prevent Japanese American soldiers from returning home.
"I wasn't aware of this when I grew up," said Tamura, who was raised in Hood River. "It wasn't in my history books, it wasn't something that my family talked about, and it wasn't something that my teachers talked about. It was really a secret."
While the exhibit focuses on the specific challenges Japanese American soldiers faced after returning to Hood River after World War II, Tamura said she wants to engage visitors in a broader conversation about rights and what it means to be American.
"I wanted to focus not just on what happened in the past, but also to make it as relevant as possible to the present," she said. "How would you feel, what would you think, what would you do if you learned that the United States was at war with your parents' homeland … if your community publicly discredited Americans?"
The exhibit also features people in the white community who stood with Japanese Americans, even when that support brought recriminations.
For Tamura, who will deliver a closing keynote address at 1 p.m. Feb. 12, this piece of American history is not only important in its own right but also offers key lessons.
"We're facing the same issues today, where just like Japanese Americans during World War II, Muslims may look like the enemy, but they also can be American citizens who are just as American as others," she said.
"More than anything now, I think we're called upon to weigh incidents we observe or read about and consider what we would do. What is our stand? What do we believe about the rights of others?"
Wada will be featured in a panel discussion affiliated with the exhibit at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"Here I had lost two close friends in the war, and this is what they died for? This is what I went over there and risked my life for?" Wada said, recalling the treatment he experienced back home in the U.S. because of his ethnicity. "... It really upset me."
IF YOU GO
What: "What If Heroes Were Not Welcome Home?"
Where: Cal State Fullerton Arboretum's Orange County Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum, 1900 Associated Road, Fullerton
When: Museum hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Cost: Admission to the arboretum is a $5 suggested donation
Information: (675) 278-3407