Harry Ueno, 97; Hero to Japanese Americans in Internment Camps

Times Staff Writer

Harry Ueno, who stood up to corrupt officials during the internment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar during World War II, has died. He was 97.

Ueno, a produce worker and cherry and strawberry farmer, died of pneumonia Dec. 14 in Mountain View, Calif.

The Hawaiian-born orchardist was considered a hero among the 110,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent who were interned following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Manzanar, 220 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the eastern Sierra, was the first of 10 such camps maintained throughout the war.

Ueno's story was told in the 1986 book "Manzanar Martyr," published by Cal State Fullerton's oral history program. His saga of confronting overseers also was detailed in the 1984 book "And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps" and the 1999 documentary "Rabbit in the Moon."

The quiet, hard-working Ueno was in his mid-30s, married and the father of three sons when he and his family were ordered to leave Los Angeles for Manzanar in early 1942. He left behind a well-paying job selling produce to such glamorous customers as Joan Crawford and David O. Selznick.

Despite its name, Spanish for "apple orchard," Manzanar had been left barren years earlier when Owens Valley water was diverted to Los Angeles. Ueno worked to make the place as attractive as possible, building an 80-foot ornamental pond near his mess hall, a model for others to be built by fellow internees. He also worked to make Manzanar more livable in other ways.

Assigned to work in the mess hall, Ueno became concerned that internees were getting short-changed in sugar, meat and milk rations.

"Food is very important to people who are cooped up," he told The Times in 1986, when he was in Los Angeles for a book signing for "Manzanar Martyr."

Camp officials, Ueno charged in 1942, were diverting food and equipment such as kitchen knives to sell in the wartime black market. He formed the Mess Hall Workers Union and became a popular figure among internees by promoting their cause in frequent grievance meetings with Manzanar officials.

While he was working to improve camp conditions, another group, the Japanese American Citizens League, was currying favor with officials by proclaiming allegiance to the U.S. and, many internees believed, spying on them for the FBI.

Although born a U.S. citizen, Ueno went to school in Japan from age 8 to 16, when he signed on with a merchant ship and made his way to Tacoma, Wash., and eventually Los Angeles.

The upbringing in Japan labeled him Kibei, a group dismissed by American-reared Nisei Japanese and considered by U.S. authorities the likeliest sympathizers with the Japanese war effort.

On Dec. 5, 1942, six hooded men in the Manzanar camp beat a Japanese American Citizens League member, and officials immediately seized Ueno, jailing him in the nearby town of Independence.

The majority of camp residents, however, did not believe Ueno had anything to do with the beating, and demanded his return to Manzanar.

"Everyone knew he wouldn't be involved in anything like that," North Hollywood resident and former Manzanar internee Ralph Lazo told The Times in 1986. "He was a very peaceful individual who believed in right and wrong."

On Dec. 6, Ueno was brought back to the Manzanar camp jail, and that night a crowd estimated at 2,000 to 4,000 people gathered outside, screaming for his release. In the resulting confrontation, known as the Manzanar Riot, the military police fired, striking 11 internees and killing two.

News media, including The Times, attributed the cause of the riot to internees celebrating the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an explanation that proved false.

"I just can't forget the night they shot the people. I just can't forget," Ueno said in 1991, when as an octogenarian he made a pilgrimage to Manzanar. "I have to pray for their well-being. I have to tell people so it won't happen again."

After the shooting, Ueno and seven other Manzanar residents deemed "troublemakers" were sent to jail in Bishop. For Ueno, the trip marked the beginning of a year in jails and isolation camps, although he never was charged with or convicted of any crime.

He spent time in camps at Moab, Utah, and Leupp, Ariz., until December 1943, when he was reunited with his wife and sons at a relocation camp in Tule Lake, Calif. They remained there until their release in early 1946, when Ueno was given $15 and a railroad ticket to San Jose.

Disillusioned during the four-year incarceration, Ueno renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1944 and considered moving to Japan after the war. But he remained in the U.S., deciding he could better support his family in the American economy, and regained citizenship in 1956.

Ueno likened his early postwar years to "being a tumbleweed ... no place to live." He took his family from San Jose to San Luis Obispo to Sunol in Alameda County, working as a sharecropper or field hand.

Finally, he was able to buy a 10-acre farm near Sunnyvale and begin growing fruit. Later the family returned to San Jose.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed a redress appropriations bill, providing $20,000 for each internment camp survivor or heirs, and formally apologized to the internees on behalf of the U.S. government.

Jodie Lindberg, one of Ueno's granddaughters, told the San Jose Mercury News that her grandfather was pleased by the apology but felt that no amount of money could make up for what he had lost.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction Internment reparations -- The obituary of Harry Ueno in Tuesday's California section stated that in 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed the World War II internment camp redress appropriations bill providing payments of $20,000 to each Japanese American camp internee or heir, and signed a written apology on behalf of the U.S. government. President Reagan signed the legislation authorizing the payments and issued the formal apology in 1988. The bill that Bush signed a year later provided funding for the payments.
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