Speaker Urges USC Upstate Students to Learn from History

October 25, 2022 at 11:48 am

From left: Speaker Sam Mihara, Esther Godfrey, professor of English at USC Upstate, and Chancellor Bennie L. Harris, Ph.D, pose for a photograph during Mihara’s recent visit to campus.

A former rocket scientist who worked on space tech for The Boeing Co. recently shared his personal account of the U.S. government’s incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II with a group of freshmen at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Sam Mihara, 90, a native of San Francisco whose family emigrated from Japan in the 1920s, served as the guest speaker for the university’s Preface event on Wednesday, Oct. 19, in the Olin B. Sansbury, Jr. Campus Life Center Ballroom.

In 1942, Mihara said he was just like any other precocious 9-year-old American boy. He recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day. His family ate hamburgers and celebrated Christmas and Easter. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, things changed dramatically, he said.

“In the Pledge of Allegiance, there is an important phrase, ‘With Liberty and Justice for all,’” Mihara said. “When an armed guard comes to your house and removes you, and takes you to a prison… You’ve lost two of the most important guarantees under the Constitution.”

Mihara recounted the day he was given a tag with his prisoner number on it. He and the other five members of his family were then subjected to a body search and loaded onto a train with hundreds of other Japanese Americans being forced to leave their communities, homes, businesses, and possessions behind.

The train took them to a horse track in Pomona, Calif., which had been converted into a prison, Mihara said. There they slept in stables before another train arrived and carried them to their terminus—a prison camp at the foot of Wyoming’s Heart Mountain.

Mihara provided details about the three years of isolation, hardship, and suffering that his family and others endured at the camp. He spoke about his grandfather, Tsunegoro Mihara, who had come to the U.S. in search of a better life for his family but died in the camp from malnutrition and insufficient medical care.

After the war, Mihara’s family returned to San Francisco. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and his graduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. At Boeing, he was an executive on space programs.

Since his retirement, Mihara has shared his story with audiences around the world.

“It means a lot to me personally because I enjoy educating people,” Mihara said. “I let them know, don’t let this happen to you because next time it might. Be sure to know what happened in history. It was wrong and it should never have happened. It gives me great satisfaction to teach that. It’s what keeps me going.”

Mihara is a member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a museum created in 2011 at the prison camp site in Wyoming. In 2018, he received the Paul A. Gagnon Prize from the National Council for History Education.

“At USC Upstate, our value proposition is ‘Education for all that inspires a thriving and just society,’” said USC Upstate Chancellor Bennie L. Harris, Ph.D. “If you are to inspire a just society, it is important to know about and remember injustice from the past and use that knowledge to create better solutions in the future.”

Mihara’s visit was part of the university’s reading and writing program Preface, which introduces freshmen to the joy of reading critically and using academic disciplines and methods to approach complex issues.

This year, students are reading George Takei’s book “They Called Us Enemy.” USC Upstate faculty have developed interdisciplinary, co-curricular activities to coincide with the reading.

“The steering committee wanted to seize upon this opportunity to bring a survivor of the prison camps to campus,” said Esther Godfrey, Ph.D., professor of English at USC Upstate. “We recognize that the chance to meet survivors from the camps will not be available forever, and we wanted to make this memorable learning experience available to Upstate students and the university community. Having Mr. Mihara on campus helps to bring history to life for students and to make connections to other social issues in contemporary society.”

Additional photography: https://bit.ly/3D7XEHP.