GORDON HIRABAYASHI RECREATION SITEMarch 18th, 2012 by Tony Chan
Ten miles east of Tucson, Arizona, the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site in the Coronado National Forest is easily reachable by traveling up the Catalina Highway, also known as the Mount Lemmon Highway and the Hitchcock Highway. Going north toward Mount Lemmon, it’s a bit beyond the seven mile marker. Turn left on Prison Road and the Site is on the right side. A visible sign “Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site” tells you that you’ve arrived.
Five days after Gordon Hirabayashi died on January 2, 2012, I was in Tucson and decided to take a drive to the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. It was the crisp sharp morning air that first introduced me to the Site, then the small bridge that led to the Interpretative Kiosk. It was a vivacious sunny day that could only energize. I climbed the ruins of the concrete steps to the retaining wall where I found a bouquet of fresh white roses on one of the steps.
For those hearing of Dr. Hirabayashi’s passing and far from his Edmonton Alberta home, a laying of a wreath of flowers at this Site seemed especially respectful because of the significance of this prison where Hirabayashi served a 90 day sentence at the camp. That was in 1943 for violating the curfew and refusing to obey the exclusion order. He also spent a year in a federal prison on McNeil Island in Washington state for resisting the draft. Hirabayashi contended that a so-called “loyalty questionnaire” sent to Japanese Americans was racially discriminating and refused induction into the armed forces.
Sentencing Gordon Hirabayashi
Gordon Hirabayashi’s 90 day sentence was served at this minimum security Federal Honor Camp, established in 1937 to house prisoner labor whose primary purpose was to build 24 miles of road through the Coronado National Forest The incentive for this was to accommodate those Tucson citizens who wanted a road up the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains as an escape from the summer heat. The Catalina Highway was completed in 1951 and included road work from 2,800 feet at the base to more than 8,000 feet in Mount Lemmon.
Inmates at the Federal Honor Camp
Gordon Hirabayashi’s fellow inmates were a diverse lot. All had been convicted of a federal offence from violating immigration laws and tax invasion to bank robbery. Conscientious objectors like Jehovah Witnesses and Hopi Natives were also incarcerated. There were also other Japanese Americans like Hirabayashi protesting the forced removal and internment by the federal government. In fact, 45 Japanese American “resisters of conscience” were also sent to the Federal Honor Camp. Many came from other places like the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado and the Topaz (Central Utah) camp.
Trekking to Incarceration
In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi a senior at the University of Washington challenged the relocation order of E.O. 9066 and violated the curfew in Seattle. He turned himself into the F.B.I. He appealed his conviction on constitutional grounds. But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction. (see Hirabayashi vs. U.S. 320 U.S. 81 (1943).
Gordon Hirabayashi was convicted in 1942 and sentenced to 90 days in a Arizona prison with time already served. But the federal government had no money for his transportation. Hirabayashi told the court that he’d go by himself. After agreeing, it gave him a letter in the event he was questioned on his way to the Federal Honor Camp. Sleeping in ditches and staying where there were friends, he hitchhiked from Seattle with a stopover to visit his family in an Idaho internment camp. By the time he arrived at Las Vegas, he finally bought a bus ticket to make a final run to the Arizona prison.
He was two weeks late when he arrived at the prison. Surprisingly, he was told by prison authorities that there were no records of a prisoner named Gordon Hirabayashi. They encouraged him to go home. But he reasoned that if he didn’t serve the 90 days, there would be more future trouble. Hirabayashi remembered that “They told me to go out for a nice dinner and a movie while they looked for the papers. So I did. By the time I returned, they’d found the papers.”
A former archaeologist for the Coronado National Forest, Mary Farrell later said that, “The story of Hirabayashi having to hitchhike his way to prison is iconic, and a great illustration of the absurdity of the relocation. When this young man defies those orders because he considers them unconstitutional, he’s sentenced to prison near Tucson, Arizona. But he is apparently not really a threat to national security after all, because he’s set free to find his own way there, and he hitchhikes!”
“Millions of people drive up the Catalina Highway every year, and I’d guess the great majority of them are unaware of Gordon Hirabayashi and only vaguely aware of the Japanese American internment during World War II,” said Farrell. “We wanted them to see the name on the sign, juxtaposing a Japanese and an Anglo name, and become intrigued. We wanted to draw them along an inviting trail, which passes some of the rockwork that the prisoners built, to the interpretive kiosk, where they could learn about the Japanese American internment.”
Later Mary Farrell said that “We wanted to honor those who were imprisoned at the camp for their principled stand against internment. And we hoped to generate discussion about the Constitution and civil rights, and the role citizens can play in upholding the Constitution.”
After Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) served his prison term, he returned to the University of Washington. There he completed a MA and PhD in Sociology in six years. Then he left to teach at the American University of Beirut, American University of Cairo, and later at the University of Alberta in Edmonton Canada where he lived the rest of his years. To be taught by a civil rights and social justice warrior and a remarkable individual of principle and deep courage was an occasion that many Canadian students probably were unaware of.
While a PhD student at York University, I met Professor Hirabayashi on many occasions at Canadian academic conferences and later in Seattle when I was teaching at the University of Washington. His extraordinary fight for racial equality was an inspiration to me in 1979 as the founding editor of the Asian Canadian social justice magazine, The Asianadian and as the Nova Scotia delegate in the anti-W5 civil rights movement that resulted in the Chinese Canadian National Council. His memory continues to inspire.
Take a tour of the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site: