The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 plunged the United States into the Second World War, disrupting the lives of millions of American residents. Among them were thousands of people of Japanese descent. Historian Alicia Barber tells the story of one Nevada family’s experience in this segment of Time & Place.
At the time of the United States entry into World War II, Nevada’s Japan-born population was relatively small—only around 750—with the largest number working at the copper mines near Ely.
Masaichi Nishiguchi, who went by “Sam,” was a section foreman for the Western Pacific Railroad in Gerlach, about 120 miles north of Reno. He had immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1900 at 15 years old and found work in Utah laying track for the railroads. He and his wife, Yaeno, also a Japanese immigrant, had moved to Nevada with their eight children in 1933.
Executive Order No. 9066, issued in February of 1942, authorized the federal government to deem anyone of Japanese heritage living on the Pacific Coast a potential threat to national security. Nearly 120,000 people were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war. Nevada’s Japanese population was not universally detained, although, in most cases their bank accounts were frozen, and their movements were restricted.
Sam’s oldest son, Roy, had joined the U.S. Army early in 1941. He was stationed at Fort Ord, near San Francisco, in February, when one of his sisters called with news of his parents, as he recalled in 1992.
“The railroad kept my dad on the job from December 7 to the latter part of January, then kicked him out [and] took his job away because being a Japanese national, he’s a ‘security risk'," Nishiguchi said. "So they ordered him to leave the railroad property. Well, the whole town of Gerlach was on railroad property. So they didn’t know what to do.”
Railroads throughout the “defense area” of the American West had dismissed all workers born in Japan, as well as American-born Japanese, citing the risk of sabotage. Because Roy’s siblings were American, they were allowed to remain in town, but his parents were not. A few of Roy’s friends quickly found a trailer for them to live in.
“They took the trailer off railroad property, which meant that it was out in the desert, out in the brush, stuck out there in the boondocks. And that's what my mother and dad lived in for about three months, through the winter," Nishiguchi said. "No toilet facilities, no nothing.”
As soon as he could get permission, Roy made his way to Gerlach to check on them. “So I walked out there, and there was that trailer, out in nowhere, just large enough to hold a double bed, that was all," Nishiguchi said. "I knocked on the door, and I could hear my mother and dad talking. They were afraid, they were scared, so I could hear them whispering. So I called out, and I said, ‘It's Roy.’ So my dad opened the door then. I didn’t think it happened in America, but it sure did.”
After a few months, with the help of friends, Roy’s parents and siblings were able to move to Reno, where they could all live together. Seven years after the war ended, the U.S. adopted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which made Japanese nationals eligible for citizenship for the first time.
One of the first to apply in Washoe County was Sam Nishiguchi, who, along with his wife, Yaeno, became naturalized Americans in 1953.
Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.