The incredible story of George Saito

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s feature exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.

The final story we’d like to share with you from the Fighting for Democracy exhibition is the incredible story of George Saito and the struggles of his family. Born in Los Angeles in 1918, George and his four brothers and sisters lived the life of many young American boys and girls during that time. George became a Boy Scout and a football player, and at the end of the day their gardener father, Kiichi, would make them fresh peach ice cream and talk to them about their school work.

As George grew into a young man he purchased and ran a produce stand, Grunnett’s Market in Eagle Rock, California. In 1940 he saw his younger brother Shozo get drafted into the Army. Two years later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, George’s whole family was forced to pack up their belongings and was sent to an internment camp in Amache, Colorado. George lost his business and his home, when he and many other Japanese-Americans were forced to leave their homes for camps in places like Colorado, Arkansas and Arizona.

“Of what I’ve seen in my travels, on our mission, I am more than convinced that we’ve done the right thing in spite of what has happened in the past.”

Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt, authorized the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of them full American citizens like George and his brothers and sisters, and sent them to the internment camps. These Americans were detained solely because of their ancestry. It was from the Amache internment camp that George and his younger brother Calvin volunteered to fight for their country by enlisting in the Army and joining up with the segregated  442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both boys were sent overseas. George corresponded regularly with his father, it was in a letter following the news of young Calvin’s death that George wrote, “In spite of Cal’s supreme sacrifice, don’t let anyone tell you that he was foolish or made a mistake to ‘volunteer’. Of what I’ve seen in my travels, on our mission, I am more than convinced that we’ve done the right thing in spite of what has happened in the past. America is a damn fine country and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Three months later Kiichi Saito received a telegram that George had also been killed, this was February 1945. Having already lost two sons in the war, Kiichi requested that his third son, Shozo, be sent home. His request was denied.

Shozo did however return home at the end of the war, but he and many Japanese-American veterans and their families still faced suspicion and discrimination in America. The country had been hit hard and Americans were afraid of another attack and unsure of whether or not they could trust their neighbors. The road to equality for Japanese-Americans would be a long one, but in 1948 the Alien Land Laws barring first generation Japanese from owning land would be defeated, ending  over 30 years of discrimination. In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act passed allowing first generation Japanese immigrants to naturalize, and seven years later, Kiichi Saito, who lost two sons in the war, was allowed to become a citizen of the United States of America.

To learn more about George Saito, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We The People’? on view now at the National Constitution Center.

Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.

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