When the Star Trek actor George Takei was 5 years old, soldiers came to his family’s house in Los Angeles and ordered them to leave. It was 1942, a few months after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, the American military base on Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt had declared war. He also issued an order allowing the military to remove anybody from the West Coast it deemed a threat, resulting in many Japanese-Americans being sent to prison camps.
Takei’s father had been born in Japan, as had his mother’s parents, and so the family was taken to a camp at the Santa Anita Racetrack, where they were forced to live in a horse stable. From there they went to Camp Rohwer, a facility in Arkansas. They were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who would be unfairly detained during the war, most of whom were U.S. citizens. Conditions were brutal—“ It was a mosquito-infested swamp,” recalls Takei, now 82—but they also found a community there, one his father worked tirelessly to improve. “Ours is a people’s democracy,” he told Takei, “and it depends on people who cherish those principles.”
Takei has dedicated his life to upholding those principles, telling the story of his internment in the Broadway musical Allegiance and now in a new graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy. “My father’s generation didn’t talk about it,” Takei says. “Now there are younger generations who know very little. I’m shining a spotlight so that America remembers. We learn more from the chapters where we faltered.” This excerpt begins when his family arrives at Camp Rohwer and sets about trying to create a new life. —Alex Hoyt