Fresno State seeks honor for Japanese-American internees

Dozens of Japanese-American students forced to abandon Fresno State for World War II internment camps may soon receive honorary degrees.

The California State University Board of Trustees, prompted partly by state legislation, will consider the degree program this week at a meeting in Long Beach.

But officials already are looking for candidates, including nearly 80 students once enrolled at Fresno State.

CSU likely will join a long-running movement in education to honor a lost generation of Japanese-American students. High schools across the state have awarded diplomas, and the University of California announced an honorary degree program in July.

UC officials describe it as one way to address an historical tragedy that forced about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the military to round up Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and imprison them in camps that included barbed wire and armed guards.

The move came in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Locally, two assembly centers — one at the fairground, the other in Pinedale — were set up to hold Japanese-Americans before they were sent to internment camps.

UC and CSU officials say many college students of that era may have never returned to earn degrees.

Bill Secrest Jr., local history librarian at the Fresno County public library, is heading the Fresno State research effort that began earlier this month. Official university records no longer exist, he said, but student directories have yielded 78 names.

Over the decades, students have relocated, changed names through marriage and died. He said it will take a few months to comb through census records, newspaper obituaries and other sources.

"We are just now starting to work on this data to find the students who might still be around," Secrest said.