Born in Oakland, CA in 1919 to Japanese immigrants, Fred Korematsu attended public scools, excelled in athletics, and worked in his family’s nursery in San Leandro – by all accounts living a normal American life.
In high school, Korematsu was enjoying the early December view across the bay with his then-girlfriend when he heard news that would change his life forever – the Japanese Imperial Air Force had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Hoping to enlist in the US military at his earliest opportunity, Korematsu was greeted with racism and hostility. Refusing to let unfair treatment of Japanese-Americans affect his life further, Fred continued his work as a shipbuilder in support of the country he loved.
However, the US government required all Americans of Japanese descent to report to internment camps. Korematsu’s refusal to acknowledge the assertion that he was a second-class citizen resulted in incarceration for violating military orders. With other law-abiding Japanese-Americans, he survived in makeshift prisons (his was a horse stall) unprotected from the weather. Eventually, Korematsu was transferred to a Utah internment camp guarded like a prison.
Korematsu challenged and appealed every ruling on his case, protesting the internment and beginning a legal case that finally went to the Supreme Court. However, the Court denied Korematsu legal victory. After release in 1944, he started a family and enjoyed an engineering career, but his criminal record weighed heavily in the back of his mind.
Because he knew the treatment he and other Japanese Americans experienced was unconstitutional, in 1988, Korematsu built a case challenging the legality of his arrest. The court found that internment was carried out because of racial prejudice, not military necessity, and ten ears later, Korematsu was honored by President Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. During the ceremony, President Clinton stated that “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls…to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”
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