By Norimasa Tahara / Yomiuri Shimbun Los Angeles Bureau ChiefLOS ANGELES — A news story about Japanese-Americans drew a lot of attention in June in an area around Omaha, the largest city in the U.S. midwestern state of Nebraska — vacant houses discovered in a forest on the outskirts of the city were found to have housed Japanese-Americans who were saved from internment camps during World War II.
Their rescuer was E. J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, the largest child welfare organization in the United States. How was he able to do this? I visited Boys Town to find out.
Omaha, the birthplace and home of investor Warren Buffett, is a peaceful city known for its Omaha beef, some of the best in the United States. Boys Town is located in the western suburbs of Omaha, and developed around the orphanage founded by Flanagan in 1917. It became incorporated as a Nebraska municipality in 1936, and is known as a sanctuary for children in the United States.
Thomas Lynch, a 57-year-old historian who holds an important post in Boys Town, said Flanagan brought Japanese-Americans to Boys Town to care for the children. There was a shortage of caretakers at Boys Town during the war, as many people had joined the armed forces.
Flanagan is said to have turned his attention to Japanese-Americans in the internment camps and sought workers — after getting permission from the U.S. government — from among the detainees, hiring those who were interested.
I was disappointed, because I had high hopes that the priest had hated discrimination and was protesting against the government. But as if Lynch knew how I felt, he told me that Flanagan executed a carefully thought-out campaign to rescue them, in the guise of cooperating with the government.
Flanagan — an immigrant from Ireland who had suffered discrimination — strongly opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans. If he had publicly demonstrated this stance, however, he would have been treated as unpatriotic. Therefore, he devised a plan for Boys Town to have Japanese-Americans under its charge.
The U.S. government issued an executive order that gave the military the authority to remove residents from specified areas during the war and forcibly house Japanese-Americans in internment camps on the West Coast.
Understanding the government’s intention to monitor Japanese-Americans, Flanagan promised the government he would manage their clothing, food and housing at Boys Town, which was classified as “outside specified areas.” In other words, the priest served as a supervisor.
Did a lot of Japanese-Americans apply to work at Boys Town? Lynch said the priest hired families and people with particular skills such as carpenters and drivers. He tried not to incur the displeasure of the government, and methodically rescued Japanese-Americans.
More than 200 Japanese-Americans went to Boys Town, and some of them settled there after the war ended. Terry Burdett, 66, a daughter of late carpenter Michael Oshima, cried when she found out for the first time why her father went there, saying she was grateful to Flanagan.
About 70 years have passed since Flanagan’s death. An executive order signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on immigration control has been likened to the executive order that forced Japanese-Americans into the internment camps, and could promote discrimination against Muslims. Various people have supported Muslims by calling on the courts, which are examining the validity of the executive order, for a reasonable judgment.
This year marks the centennial of the foundation of Boys Town. “The work will continue, you see, whether I am there or not” — these are words Flanagan left behind.
His legacy must be carried on in the United States, particularly by those who were raised in Boys Town.