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A Nebraska banker who said ‘no’ to seizing Japanese Americans' assets in World War II

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It was a dark chapter in American history during World War II when nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to abandon their lives because of their ancestry. The very first community to be exiled was Bainbridge Island where a memorial now stands. Q13 News reporter Grace Lim has the story of a woman who was a child when she was relocated to an internment camp.

You may never have heard of Claude W. Wright.

He was one of the Americans in western Nebraska who stood for the principles of the country when many others turned their backs.

He stood for American values when the leaders of the country refused to honor the very words of the oaths they had committed to uphold.

A variety of techniques beyond imprisonment were used by the federal government to control Japanese Americans in the United States during the 1940s. According to the National Park Service, “the bank accounts of all enemy aliens and all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks were frozen.”

This federal agency noted that these actions “paralyzed the Japanese American community by depriving” people of their financial assets.

In western Nebraska, it appears the Federal Bureau of Investigation  “requested” at least one financial institution to close bank accounts of area Japanese Americans and call loans — demand payments immediately for loans outstanding — held by local Japanese Americans.

At least one banker in Mitchell refused to bend to the will of the federal government. Instead of closing bank accounts held by local Japanese Americans and call their loans, he said no.

“Claude R. Wright was able to confirm that an agent with the FBI visited the First National Bank in Mitchell on a Monday in early 1942,” said Sandra Reddish, a public historian in Nebraska who interviewed Wright in 2004.

“He didn’t know the specific date, but he recalled it was on a Monday. The meeting was with his father, Claude W. Wright, who ran the bank.

“At the time of the meeting, Claude R. Wright was a 21 year-old young man. The FBI agent wanted the bank to close the bank accounts held by local Japanese Americans as well as to call the loans held by them. Claude R. Wright confirmed that his father defended the Japanese Americans as good people and that his father refused to close any bank accounts or call any loans held by local Japanese Americans.”

Reddish indicated that Nancy Sato, a local Japanese American, in a separate interview confirmed that the FBI attempted to have First National Bank in Mitchell close the bank accounts and call the loans of Japanese Americans in the area.

“While she did not live in the area in the early 1940s, her husband, Roger Sato, did live in the area. He was the son of Henry Sato, a prominent farmer in the Mitchell area,” Reddish said. “Mr. Sato farmed in the region for decades, including in the 1940s. Mrs. Sato would have been aware of the banking relationships during that time period through her husband and his family.”

While there is no independent confirmation that leaders of the other banks in the area responded in the same way as Wright, there are at least two possibilities. Other area banks were never asked to close bank accounts held by Japanese Americans and call loans held by Japanese Americans. Or other local banks were told to do so and their leaders responded in a manner similar to Wright's.

What is known is that there was no major interruption in banking operations among banks in the Valley and the Japanese Americans living in the area.

Had actions been taken against Japanese Americans — actions similar to those taken by banks in communities in California, for example — it would have been obvious. As far as area bankers today are aware, as far as area historians are aware, and as far as Japanese Americans who lived in the area in the 1940s — and continue to live in the area today — there were no major efforts by financial institutions to close bank accounts or to take property secured by loans held by Japanese Americans during the 1940s.

“We were able to survive in those years,” said Neil “Nick” Sakurada, a retired farmer of Japanese American heritage. “I don’t recall any changes where any of the local Japanese American families lost their farms or had their bank accounts closed.”

He and his family worked with another local bank.

Sakurada was born on the farm that was once at the site of today’s Landers Soccer Complex in Scottsbluff. His mother and father were both born in Japan. They settled in Colorado in 1906, and the family moved to Scottsbluff in 1920. Sakurada was born in 1930.

He and his family lived in Scottsbluff through 1942, when they moved to a larger farm in Lyman. Over the years, Sakurada and his family operated several farms in western Nebraska, growing sugar beets, potatoes and other crops. Sakurada retired from farming in 1996.

Had area bankers froze bank accounts and called loans in the 1940s, the Japanese American farmers would have been unable to continue operations.

“We depended on area banks for funding our farming operations,” Sakurada said. “There was nowhere else to go for the funding needed to operate the farms in the area.”

He explained that the typical farmer would obtain a loan early each year.

“You’d plan out your costs for the season in the beginning of each year,” he said. “A bank would then loan you sufficient funding to help pay for the seeds, labor, fuel and other related farming costs for the upcoming season. You’d then pay back the loan at the end of the season as you sold your crop.”

Sakurada indicated that farmers would typically harvest beans in September/October annually, sugar beets in October/November, and corn in November each year.

In addition to loans for crops, Sakurada said, some farmers would obtain loans for livestock.

“Much as with sugar beets and other crops, once you sold livestock at the end of the season, you’d pay back the livestock loan,” he said

Area bankers today spoke highly of their relationships with Americans of Japanese heritage in western Nebraska.

The willingness of area bankers to handle funds and make loans to Japanese Americans — regardless of the views of the leaders of our country — allowed western Nebraska to survive very difficult times.



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