After Julie Webber read the June 2, 2018, column about my husband’s family’s three years at a relocation camp in Poston, Ariz. during World War II, she sent me an email about her father’s trip to another relocation camp during that same time period.
“I grew up knowing about this shameful period in our history because in 1943, my dad, his sister and five other friends traveled to Manzanar to participate in a judo competition with the internees. Their interim teacher wrote for, and was granted, permission to take them on this friendship delegation. There’s a whole interesting story behind that event and the xenophobia-driven aftermath.”
In a series of follow-up emails, Webber explained that her father, John Hamilton, was a student at John Marshall High and that his older sister, Janet, attended school in Pasadena.
Through a family friend, Jack Sergel, a black belt who taught judo at the Los Angeles Police Academy, the siblings and several others, including Jan’s friend, Frances, took up the sport. Their teacher was Seigoro Murakami.
Then came the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and the incarceration of those of Japanese ancestry. When Murakami was sent to Manzanar War Relocation Camp, Sergel took over the dojo.
“The young students were soon ready to earn their brown belts, but could not advance, as everyone who outranked them was locked up in internment camps,” Webber recalled.
And that’s why, in the spring of 1943, her dad, his sister, and several others made the lengthy trip to Manzanar, on the eastern slope of the Sierras in Northern California.
After the competition, a photo of the contestants was taken, excluding, however, Janet Hamilton and her friend Frances, even though they had also competed and earned their brown belts.
The young students faced enormous controversy when the story of their visit hit the local newspapers.
“I’ve seen clippings of articles with inflammatory titles and derogatory racist remarks,” Webber said. “One showed my aunt flipping an opponent on the mat and the title of the article read ‘Girls wrestle Jap men.’
“Jack was accused of ‘Emperor worship’ because of a photo taken of him and the students reverently bowing at the beginning of class to a portrait of their interned teacher.’’
Sergel’s loyalty as an American was questioned, Webber wrote.
“An LAPD review board said he not only had to quit teaching judo at the academy (because they had service weapons and didn’t need to ‘resort to tactics of the enemy’ as an alternative to lethal force), but also that he had to give up practicing judo in his private life or he’d be fired.”
In late 1944, Sergel quit the LAPD and went to work for actor James Cagney, who hired him as a judo instructor for an upcoming war propaganda film.
The movie’s climactic scene was a bout between Cagney and Sergel (playing the villainous Captain Oshima under the stage name John Halloran) crashing through the rice-paper walls of a burning ryokan.
“That film, ‘Blood on the Sun,’ was the start of Jack’s career as a character actor,’’ according to Webber.
John Hamilton graduated from Marshall early, and with permission from his father (an Army captain), enlisted in the Navy before his 18th birthday.
“When Dad’s class graduated in June 1943, he was on a battleship headed for the South Pacific,” Webber added.
The last living member of the group of friends who competed in Manzanar was Clyde Tichenor. In 2012, Julie and her husband, Steve, took him to what is now the Manzanar National Historic Site to participate in an oral history event. Tichenor, who recently passed away at age 92, was thrilled to return, she noted.
After the 1943 competition, Tichenor went on to earn his 5th degree black belt in judo and a 6th degree black belt in jiu jitsu.
“He had to quit competing when he turned 80 because no one wanted to throw him to the mat and risk injuring him,” Webber observed.
“Interestingly, he was a pacifist and would not enlist but ultimately was drafted. In those days, when drafted you could choose which branch of the military you wanted to serve in, so he chose the Navy, like my dad, and was stationed on Guam. He had learned to read and write Japanese, so one of the jobs he was given was as an interpreter. He could still read Japanese at the time of his interview in 2012.”
Webber’s memories of the stories her father told about his 1943 trip to Manzanar and about the people he met there remain vivid. It’s a story she’s proud to share.