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Students hear from WWII internment survivor

February 8, 2019

Mika Hiuga, the last living Nisei who is willing to tell the story of her internment during World War II, retired from her volunteer work with the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Oregon, last month.

Over 3,000 college students have heard Hiuga’s story over the 20 years she has been with the Four Rivers Cultural Center. Among these was a class taught by Sean Blackwell, a sociology professor at The College of Idaho. The class, called the Prison Experience, introduces students to the U.S. prison-industrial complex. In this class, students tour a variety of correctional institutions across the Treasure Valley including the Old Idaho Penitentiary, Idaho’s Maximum Security Institution, and South Boise Women’s Correctional Center.

Born in 1923 in Hood River, Oregon, Hiuga lived a normal life as a young Nisei, a person who is born in the United States to parents who came from Japan. Growing up, Hiuga enjoyed school and playing tennis. Hiuga was 17 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to gather all Japanese-Americans, regardless of their citizenship status, and place them in internment camps. Hiuga would live in three different camps over the next three years.

Hiuga said the day she had to leave her home, “it didn’t bother me too much but it was kind of hard on our parents.” Hiuga, like many others, believed the government was doing what they had to in order to keep the country safe. Her parents, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. Leaving their home was difficult, but at the same time, not having to work so hard to provide for their family was a relief. Hiuga’s father owned an apple orchard in Hood River. When they were forced out of their home, a neighbor offered to take care of the orchard while they were away.

Since living conditions inside the camp were cramped, each person was only allowed to carry two bags or suitcases worth of items. Most of what they took consisted of necessities like sheets, shoes, and coats. Mattresses in the camps were sacks handed to each person to fill up with hay. Within the camp, there was little privacy. The partitions separating the rooms were nothing more than thin walls that didn’t fully separate families. Many tried to stay quiet within each section as to not disturb other families.

Hiuga worked as a waitress during her internment and collected 12 dollars a month for items such as soap and toothpaste. Her brothers were less fortunate. They were drafted into the U.S. military to fight in World War II against the country their parents were from. When they returned home, they were awarded medals for their actions during battle. The 442nd Infantry Regiment, of which they were part, was made up almost entirely of second-generation Japanese-American immigrants. It is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.

Hiuga reflected on one of the more dismal parts of the camp, which was the breaking up of the family circle. “When you’re at home, you eat together and talk about what you’re going to do or what you did. In camp, kids who were the same age would get together, go in the mess hall, and eat together.” Family members would eat separately depending on age. This, in combination with attempting to stay quiet inside the barracks, made checking in with each other difficult.

According to Hiuga, before the war, people never made a big deal about race, but upon their return as one of the first families back in town, they found their community was hostile. When she needed her tractor fixed, the repairman requested that she drop it off and pick it up at night so that no one would see her frequenting the business.

Looking back over her life, Hiuga is thankful that she was released from the camps and able to tell her story to so many people. Although it was a difficult time in her life, she still considers herself lucky for the opportunities she has had throughout her life afterward. She believes everyone needs to hear these stories, and it surprises her when people aren’t aware this ever happened. Hiuga said, “I don’t mind talking to anybody. I want them to know what happened to us. It should have never happened.”

After her talk, Blackwell’s class toured the Four Rivers Cultural Center to learn more about the history of Japanese-American internment camps. During the tour, students were able to walk inside replicas of the barracks many lived in during this period. This provided them with a unique opportunity to visualize everything Hiuga had just told them about. It also helped build upon the overall lessons of the class by showing students the conditions people have to live in when forcefully interned or in prison. During her talk, Hiuga didn’t shy away from making jokes to keep the mood light on her last day. Hiuga still lives independently at home and enjoys telling her story to all who will listen.

The College of Idaho has a 128-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit 

Story submitted by Noah Barsanti, C of I Marketing and Communications Intern