Dr. Katsumi Neeno
Japanese Internment Camp Prisoner During WWII
U.S. Army Veteran
Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen
I remember that day very well. No one told us anything and we had no choice. We were told that we were only allowed one suitcase each and they put us on a bus. All of our furniture was put into a Japanese American Methodist Church. It was burned down by vandals while we were in prison. ~ Katsumi Neeno, M.D.
Dr. Katsumi Neeno
Though Dr. Katsumi Neeno's story has been told many times, through various media outlets and in lectures, each time it is told again, it is different. With each story published, the audience reach might be varied and wider. It is important that we tell the stories of this Greatest Generation, especially the stories of our World War II veterans.
It is also imperative that we continue to educate others on the ugliness of racism in our country. The difficult truth is that it has happened and still happens today. To pretend it didn't or doesn't exist, to remove it from the textbooks and classroom discussions and to simply ignore it, is akin to condoning the racism. It also leaves a dangerous void in our understanding of those who are different, leaving open the door to repeating discrimination and atrocities against various groups of people in our own history.
The truth is uncomfortable and maybe unpalatable. But we cannot be so emotionally weak. Facing and reconciling with our darkest chapters of history is unpleasant. But isn't that a small inconvenient way to feel compared to the oppression, injustice and suffering of entire races of people in America?
So, I set out on a mission to meet up with the respected Dr. Neeno of Janesville, to capture his moving, personal story and share it with our readers.
Dr. Katsumi Neeno sharing his story at
Hedberg Public Library - Photo courtesy of JATV
On another hot and humid August day, Katsumi, Joan and their daughter Carol graciously welcomed me into their lovely home, nestled on a gentlly rolling hill, under the shade of a beautiful woods near the Rock River.
Thoughout the interview, I was glad Dr. Neeno did not gloss over Asian American history and blatant discrimination toward his family, the Japanese Americans and other foreign immigrants. Over the years, he has not been shy about sharing his story and has spent countless hours telling it and retelling it to help educate our community and the younger generations.
I was equally glad to see that twinkle in his eyes and gentle grin when he cracked a few jokes, keeping us all giggling. His wonderful sense of humor still shines at age 96, setting anyone in his company at ease. In his presence, one can easily understand why he was such a popular, favorite pediatrician and is still so beloved by our community.
My mother was from a very wealthy family in Tokyo. In the early 1900s, she graduated from a private, women’s college, which would have been quite an accomplishment, no matter where in the world. My dad was in a family of five boys. His oldest brother graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1905. Later on, that brother served on the Supreme Court in Japan.
The first Asians in California, however, were not the Japanese, but the Chinese. When there was a strike in the 1840s, the Chinese were recruited as a sort of cheap labor. They stayed through 1850 to help finish the Transcontinental Railroad line. After that, they were considered unwanted because they were seen as competing with American laborers. At that time, a bill of discrimination was passed.
Across the ocean, the Japanese government didn’t allow anyone to leave the country until 1880. The first group left for Hawaii to work on the pineapple plantations. Then they transferred to the United States. By 1900, there were approximately 25,000 Japanese in the America. They, of course, ran into rampant discrimination.
A framed article from the Janesville Gazette
My dad married my mother before he came to the United States. They arrived around 1905 and settled in the Los Angeles area. I lived there until 6th grade.
All the trains were closed to Asians and U.S. citizenship was denied. This had been going on since the Civil War. My parents weren’t white and the authorities said, “You’re not white and you’re not a free Black so, go away!” My parents couldn’t get citizenship until 1952!
Without citizenship, they didn’t have the power to vote. My dad couldn’t join any trade, which were already were closed to the Chinese and the Japanese Americans.
I was born in 1925, so I’m a true Great Depression kid. My mother was an excellent seamstress and tailor, so she kept the family going. I still recall when I was about 5 years old, we were living in Los Angeles and my dad was working as a night watchman at a dry-cleaning place. There was nothing to watch, but he had to take all the dirty clothes and turn the pockets inside out.
Anti-Japanese propoganda during WW II
He also worked on farms. But, even with that, without the right to be a citizen, he was denied the right to buy land. So, he just worked for a time on the farms, but never could own one.
Somehow, he bought a restaurant in a little town. It was a Chinese food restaurant. So, here was a Japanese guy, who couldn’t speak any Spanish, trying to sell Chinese food to Mexicans!
We were poor, but when you ARE poor, you never seem to worry about it. We were dirt poor, but so was everyone else, so no big deal. We played around with the neighborhood kids.
I attended Brawlay Union High School in Brawlay, CA, about 70 miles due south of Palm Springs.
My sister and I were at the top of our class in high school, so we never felt poor in any sense of the word.
Katsumi Neeno (left) with his brother and sister
America Enters the War
We were already aware of the war raging in Europe and listened to news of Hitler and his Nazi regime advancing. Then, one December Sunday, while we were in Sunday School in Brawlay, the shocking news broke of Pearl Harbor. The impact didn’t hit us until a bit later.
The following is a brief history of Order 9066:
On December 7th,1941, Pearl Harbor was suddenly and tragically bombed by Japanese military planes. Long-standing racism against Japanese Americans, motivated in part by jealousy over their commercial success, erupted throughout America after Pearl Harbor.
By February 19th, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, initiating the forced removal, to expel or detain any resident “enemy aliens” from parts of the West that were deemed “military areas”. These areas were basically around ports, cities, industrial and agricultural regions.
Though this order also included Italian and German Americans, the largest numbers detained were Japanese.
The order allowed for the evacuation of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent along the Pacific coast. They were incarcerated into “relocation camps”.
Over 60 percent of these people were already U.S. citizens and many, like the Neenos, had lived in this country for decades and had children born in America. They were as American as any other.
Laws Against the Japanese
All the while, the Germans were going crazy. In one month, they sank over 100 allied transports! So, what did America do with the German Americans?
Well, they didn’t do anything. Wisconsin, for example, was settled by mostly German immigrants. My wife, a Janesville girl, remembers German church services and newspapers that were written in German.
Japanese Internment Map: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
But, on the west coast, it was a different story. We weren’t Caucasian. We were Japanese. The head of the Western Defense Command was John L. DeWitt. He was very instrumental in the Executive Order 9066. He was in frequent communication with Washington, suggesting unsubstantiated threats of homeland attack.
DeWitt immediately put an 8 pm curfew policy on us. Then we had a 5-mile radius limit from our home. We lived in town. If we needed to go farther, we had to get FBI clearance. DeWitt was determined to imprison the Japanese. This is a direct quote to show you what kind of a mind he had,
“A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. I don’t want any of them. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty.”
~ General John L. DeWitt
On the other hand, in Hawaii, at the point of attack on Pearl Harbor, there were about 150,000 Japanese Americans living there. 1,875 Hawaiian residents of Japanese ancestry were transferred to the mainland's camps. Due in great part to Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons' efforts, proclaiming that the conduct of Hawaii’s Japanese population was “highly satisfactory.”, the other 98% of Japanese on Hawaii were spared internment. So, most people of Japanese descent on the island were left alone.
“The Day They Took Us”
Plastered all over the state of California were signs saying, “All Japanese Must Leave” on a certain date. In May, the GIs came, bayonets ready, and forced us onto buses to go to prison. They called it an “evacuation” but in my mind, an evacuation implies helping people to escape being victims of something like a flood. It was exactly the opposite.
It didn’t matter if you were born in America, if you were Japanese and married to a Caucasian or if you were the children of a mixed marriage and only part Japanese. All were sent to prison!
I remember that day very well. No one told us anything and we had no choice. We were told that we were only allowed one suitcase each and they put us on a bus.
All of our furniture was put into a Japanese American Methodist Church. It was burned down by vandals while we were in prison. That kept us from returning to Brawlay.
Arriving at Camp
The prison camps were scattered in the most God-forsaken places. There were ten of them. The one in Arkansas had to be closed down because they put it on swamp land and everyone got malaria.
We were put in Poston Internment Camp on the border of California and Arizona. The camp, for some reason, was divided into three. Our camp was the largest, which was Camp 1. The Poston camps housed over 18,000 Japanese and Japanese American detainees.
The heat didn’t bother us because we were used to living in southern California, but to others from LA or elsewhere it was unbearable and some suffered heat stroke!
If you had more than five people, you were allowed extra space. We had to sleep on straw.
For food, we had a big mess hall. I imagine the whole country was under rations, but the food there was lousy! They brought in truckloads of squid. Being raised in America, squid wasn’t really part of my daily diet! Breakfast consisted of cheap “apple butter”, actually applesauce stained red, with dried bread. For lunch, we had apple butter with dried bread and a little something.
For the sake of sanity, I blacked out so much of this. But believe me, it wasn’t great.
Working on the Camp
When we first arrived at camp, my mother found work as a sewing and tailoring teacher and my dad became a cook in the mess hall. I took a job washing dishes.
Internment Camp in Hunt, Idaho - high school students raking between classroom buildings. Photo courtesy of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
If you were an unskilled worker, you got $12 a month (in today’s economy, that would be about 200 dollars a month, or $1.25 per hour today). If you were skilled, like my mother and father, it was $16 a month. If you were educated, like a doctor, you’d get $19 a month. Many of the well educated had the option to go east of the Mississippi, to get out of the camps. But, bless their hearts, they chose to stay with us.
So, I worked in the kitchen. Well, how do you dry a gazillion pieces of silverware after meal time? You take them, put them in a mattress cover and shake them like heck. They’d dry in no time! Don’t try this at home.
Schooling During Internment
By August, the government realized that many of us still needed schooling. I still had my senior year of high school left. The problem was that there were no schools or facilities around. They took one of the barracks that had an empty unit and made that a “school”.
Back in California, the California Teachers Federation did not allow Japanese to become teachers. UCAL Berkley, still one of the best universities in the world, had free tuition. So, after high school, the Japanese kids would go there, then graduate, but find no jobs! We used to say that California had the best educated grocery clerks in the country!
In the camp, my English teacher was a Chinese major. I’m sure he taught us more Chinese than English. My trigonometry teacher was an engineer. He knew his engineering, but pedagogy is a science. Our chem teacher was a junior in college at Berkley and he taught us well.
When I came to the University of Wisconsin, I found that I could keep up with my classmates. I give all the credit to my parents. The Japanese value education a great deal, emphasize good conduct and respect for authority.
Leaving the Camp
I graduated high school in the camp in June of 1943. By November of ’43, the Army started to allow people to leave the camp if they passed the FBI questioning.
One of the 30 questions tripped people up, causing considerable consternation. It was, “Do you forswear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan?” You almost need to be a linguist to know that to "forswear" something means to “renounce or reject”.
Well, many people answered, “No”, and I believe they just didn’t understand the question. So, if you gave two “no” answers, you weren’t allowed to leave. When it came to my turn, I decided to say “Yes” to every question so I could go!
The camp was closed in 1945. At least my parents had children to help them, but many were on their own after this imprisonment.
Serving in the Military
For some reason, I never held a grudge against the U.S. Government and I joined the U.S. Army, serving from 1946 – 1948. Ironically, I served in occupied Japan for a couple of years.
Katsumi Neeno in his U.S. Army uniform - 1946
Education in Wisconsin
I didn’t choose Wisconsin, but was assigned to UW Wisconsin upon applying for medical school. The ACLU had researched the schools that were allowing Japanese students and UW Madison was one of them.
I called the university office and said that I had no money for room and board. They gave me the name of Dr. Arnold Jackson, one of the leading surgeons in the whole world! I got his number, called him and he actually answered the phone. That wouldn’t happen today. We talked and he said, “Okay, let’s go home.”
For four years, while I studied pre-med, I was their house boy. They treated me wonderfully! I ate dinner with the family. They had a sleep-in maid, who served the whole family, including me. She would retreat to the kitchen to eat by herself. I received no discrimination from them at all.
At the time, there were about 100 Japanese American students at UW Wisconsin. The acceptance to medical school was solely based on your academic achievement. I was accepted to Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After finishing medical school, they wanted students to serve 2 years in the U.S. Army. Fortunately, I had already served for two years from 1946 through ’48, so I didn’t have to go through that.
On Meeting Joan
After medical school, I came back to Madison for an internship, to work in Methodist Hospital, what is now Meriter Hospital. As an intern, I was working on going into my specialty.
Katsumi's Parents at his Pre-Med graduation from UW Madison
I owe Dr. Arnold Jackson, in a way, for helping out with meeting Joan. There is no one cockier and more know-it-all than a med student right out of school!
Well, unfortunately, I ran into Joan Seeman from Janesville, who had been a head nurse on the surgical and pediatric floor. She knew exactly how to handle one of these med-students. I say “unfortunate” because we argued a lot (laughter)! But that was only professionally. Socially, we got along wonderfully!
We were married in 1955. We just celebrated our 66th wedding anniversary in June!
If I had to give advice to anyone who wants to be happily married for that long, there are two words. Not three words, like “I love you.” That won’t do. It’s two words: “Yes, dear.”
Coming to Janesville
I found that Dick (John Richard) Schroder was the only, and the first, Board Certified Pediatrician in Janesville. I went to see him and asked, “Can I join you?” He said, “By all means!” Dr. Schroder was a good pediatrician, a good man.
We settled in Janesville in 1957. I would see patients and make house calls. Many times, I wouldn’t get home until 9 o’clock at night.
Again, the acceptance was 100%. If someone were to ask about my heritage, I’d say, “Yes, I’m Japanese.” And that would be a segue to give them my background. But all through pre-med, medical school, even in 42 years of practice, I don’t recall anyone asking me if I was Japanese. I felt total acceptance here, by the nicest people in the world.
On the 13th of August, 1999, I retired. I tell all my doctor colleagues, “Don’t retire. In the office, you’re the boss.” The minute I retired, my wife got a “house boy” and I’ve been one ever since (laughter)!
We had 5 children. Four of them were natural births and one was adopted.
After having Richard, my wife Joan had gone through some miscarriages. We were told we couldn’t have any more children because of an Rh incompatibility issue. So, we decided to become foster parents, taking in Jeannie as an infant.
Joan and Katsumi's wedding day in 1955
After a year, I wrote to the state to ask them if we could become permanent foster parents, but they weren’t letting people do that at that time and ignored my request. However, when Jeannie was 18 months of age, they wrote to me telling me that her biological parents’ rights were suspended. That created an opening for us to adopt!
Later, Joan became pregnant with Bruce and had strict bed rest orders. Following Bruce, we had Carol and Amy. Joan stayed home with the children because, at that time, the wives of doctors were discouraged from working in the same hospitals.
Currently, Bruce is in Alaska, Jean is in Indiana, Amy is in Madison and Rick and Carol are here in Janesville. Carol lives with us and takes care of us. Richard and his wife, also Joan, own and operate the downtown restaurant, Lark, as well as Lark Market and Sandwich Bar, all on South Main Street.
Neeno Family Photo: Top row: Bruce and Richard
Bottom row: Carol, Amy, Katsumi, Joan and Jean
We have 10 grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren, soon to be six, as twins are on the way!
If I had to give advice on parenting, I’d say that people need to be firm with their children and raise their children with good values. I still believe in the old-fashioned notion of children having both a mother and a father for them at home.
Overdue Apology and Reparations
When President Carter was in the White House, he signed a bill setting up a commission to examine whether or not the Japanese internment was called for. Finally, in 1982, after extensive interviews and testimonies from victims, the commission called the incarceration a "grave injustice", which was motivated by "racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership." The findings also led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, under Ronald Regan. For compensation, they gave us $20,000 tax free.
In 1990, out of the blue, I received an apology letter from President Bush. It’s in a nice frame.
Changes in Janesville
Probably the most significant professional change I have witnessed was that there was no emergency room here in Janesville when I came to practice in the mid-1950s. If I had to sew up a kid, I would go to Mercy and have them open up a room and that was it.
It hasn’t affected our lives too much, because we are retired at home. But, I was on top of it, reading the papers and catching all the news about it. We would wear our masks and didn’t go out much in public. Thanks to Carol being on the ball and getting things taken care of for us, we were vaccinated early on.
If you’re not sure of this virus, you should still listen to the experts on this disease, like Dr. Fauci, and wear a mask and get the vaccine. I think everyone should be vaccinated.
President Ronald Regan signs the 1988 Civil Liberties Act
It seems that it’s more out of ignorance and this attitude that the government is ‘treading on rights’ that people have chosen to not receive the shot. People are spreading misinformation. Speaking strictly scientifically, not politically, we need to do this! When it has been scientifically proven to be effective, everyone should be taking the vaccine.
I would also say it’s pretty ignorant to put blame on Asians for this virus.
Advice on Reaching Goals
Medicine is still very hard to get into. It’s very demanding while in school. But, it’s very rewarding to make it into medical school.
Just practice and train and work hard at your career. Stay focused. There were many days I didn’t get home until late at night. If a child was sick, sometimes I stayed late to reassure the parents. But, no matter how late it was, I’d get up again early the next day to go back to work.
Sometimes you have to go beyond just the work. I used to do the Salvation Army Summer Camp. The kids would come in for their yearly exams at the Salvation Army building. Helping the community is important.
I was dedicated. Those were the days!
Hands raised of those who had Dr. Neeno as a pediatrician.
Hedberg Public Library Presentation - Photo courtesy of JATV Media Services
Remembering the Lessons
It feels like a futile attempt to make a younger person understand the racism and discrimination that we endured. They don’t have the faintest idea. But it goes to show how we must eternally stay vigilant about discrimination occurring in our country.
You know, in spite of everything I will say this. I had the chance to go to Japan for two years during the occupation, and I still think this is the greatest country in the world.
Retired Janesville Pediatrician, Dr. Katsumi Neeno, shares his experience as a Japanese American sent to an internment camp during World War II. Recorded at Hedberg Public Library on June 13, 2017 by JATV Media Services