Harry Yoshio Ueno, known to many in the redress movement as the “Manzanar Martyr,” has passed away at the age of 97. He was also a successful fruit grower in San Jose.
Ueno was born in Hawai‘i, educated as a child in Japan, and interned in the United States with his wife and children at Manzanar. When he first arrived there, his friends described him as quiet and unassuming, as someone who thought his family was safer behind barbed wire fences than in an environment where anyone “who looked like the enemy” was good for target practice. Life quickly changed for him as he volunteered in the mess hall. He discovered that camp guards and employees were stealing rationed sugar and meat and selling them on the black market.
When Ueno exposed the thefts and attempted to organize workers to deal with such matters, he was jailed as a troublemaker. At a rally in support of him, guards shot and killed two young internees.
Ueno was separated from his wife and family and sent to other camps; he spent a year in solitary confinement at Tule Lake. He was never charged with a crime or given a hearing.
“They put us in a 4-by-6-foot box on a pickup truck with a hole in the back end of the box which was only about 2 by 2 feet,” Ueno described to Art Hanson, a professor in Asian American studies at Cal State Fullerton. “Five or six people were in that box for 13 hours. There was only a hole in the tail end about 2 by 2. Hot! Humid! We really had a hard ride!”
“Harry threatened to report the sugar thefts to the FBI,” recounted Susan Kunitomi Embry, a former Manzanar internee who helps to organize annual visits to the internment camp. No camp employee was ever arrested or prosecuted.
“So many of us were cowering before the authorities,” related Aiko Herzig, another Manzanar internee and political activist. “He had the courage to stand up to the camp authorities.”
To some, Ueno is a controversial figure. Many internees questioned the Japanese American Citizens League’s support of the government’s internment camps, and Ueno was a vocal critic.
“I personally viewed him as a true hero,” commented John Tateishi, JACL executive director. “Based on my experience with Ueno and my father, I knew him as a man of tremendous integrity and courage. They were friends at Manzanar. Ueno made a very significant impact on the redress campaign and helped to pass the two bills that JACL supported.”
“He was good to other people, strangers, neighbors,” his son Ryo shared. “He was good at farming.” His cherries reportedly were once declared the best in the Santa Clara Valley.
“He wanted to make sure that something like this wouldn’t happen again,” stated Jodie Lindberg, one of his granddaughters. “At Moab, he felt isolated not having any contact with his family and not being able to write freely to them.”
Writer Chizuko Omori and her filmmaker sister, Emiko, put together Rabbit in the Moon, an Emmy Award-winning television documentary about life in the camps with Ueno as one of the featured internees.
“Ueno made us aware there was opposition in the camps,” Omori stated. “He made us feel that people did fight back and made us realize that one person can make a difference.”
Ueno died of pneumonia on Dec. 14 in Mountain View, Calif. He is survived by his two sons, Ryo and Ed (a third son, Yoichi, was killed in an automobile accident); three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral services for Ueno will be private, and a public memorial is pending. Donations can be sent to the Kimochi Home (for Senior Citizens), attention: Ms. Linda Ishii, 1531 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94109.