Quaker missionary to Japan and outspoken friend to imprisoned West Coast Japanese during World War II, Herbert V. Nicholson (1892–1983) was one of the most high-profile non-Japanese advocates for their cause. Nicholson learned to speak Japanese fluently during his years of missionary work in Japan, where he implemented practical programs to ease the lives of rural farming families. During World War II, in addition to offering spiritual succor and ferrying belongings and people between concentration camps, detention centers and medical facilities, Nicholson defended prisoners in speeches at churches and community organizations, traveled to U.S. military bases to comfort Nisei soldiers, and to the halls of power in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the release of their families from prison camps.
Before the War
Born in 1892 in Rochester, New York, to Quaker parents, Nicholson was educated at Quaker schools, including Haverford College in Pennsylvania. On his 23rd birthday he announced he wanted to become a missionary in Japan. In 1915 he began working as secretary to a Quaker missionary in Tokyo, Gilbert Bowles, where he met Congregational missionary Madeline Waterhouse, whom he married in 1920. In 1922, feeling the call of rural duty, the couple relocated to Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture where farmers were less responsive to proselytizing than to practical aid. Nicholson started a savings account program for them, launched a goat farm, involved himself in the temperance movement, built a home for the aged, and ministered to lepers. In the late 1930s, Japan's aggressive military incursions in China and the resulting political tensions between Japan and America hampered the Nicholsons' ability to work and live in Japan. They returned to America in 1940 and settled in Pasadena, California. When Nicholson was approached to fill in for an ailing Methodist minister at the all-Japanese American West Los Angeles Methodist Church in 1940 for $40 a month, he agreed, preaching in both English and Japanese while Madeline served as Sunday School superintendent.
As the first Issei men were rounded up and taken to federal detention centers immediately after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Nicholson began his long drives up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Seattle, to comfort families whose fathers, sons and husbands had been abruptly arrested by the FBI and taken away. At army prisoner of war camps, where many of the arrested men were held, Nicholson served as an interpreter and helped inmates prepare for their hearings.
After FDR signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the forced removal of Japanese Americans from designated military exclusion zones, Nicholson begin aiding families facing the wrenching task of preparing to be sent to concentration camps. He helped a group of 500 fishing families who had been given 48 hours to evacuate Terminal Island, worked for a time with the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), offered assistance in packing and other logistical matters, and helped settle business affairs after the U.S. Treasury Department froze the bank accounts of many Issei, resulting in the loss of $27.5 million worth of businesses and property. Friends, organizers and profiteers all descended on the forced evacuees, Nicholson wrote later, noting "Trouble seems to bring out the best and worst in people."
Nicholson helped convert the West Los Angeles Methodist Church chapel into a warehouse for large quantities of stored goods, since the prisoners were allowed to take to the prison camps only what they could carry; he was among the Quakers offering comfort, coffee and donuts to large groups as they departed from assembly centers to more far-flung concentration camps. Given permission to enter and leave Manzanar as he pleased by camp director Roy Nash, Nicholson, driving a Dodge pick-up truck loaned to him by an inmate, began a series of extraordinary trips from camp to camp. He delivered hymn books, benches and pulpits, inmates' requested belongs, donated gifts and other items, eventually putting 50,000 miles on the truck. He delivered families' pets to them, the ashes of a beloved son, and once dug up and delivered a Japanese prisoner's buried treasure, hidden outside a newly occupied West Los Angeles house. Nicholson drove most frequently to Manzanar, Poston and Gila concentration camps, but also made trips to Topaz, Minidoka, Heart Mountain and Amache, while Madeline made regular support visits to Hillcrest Sanitarium in La Crescenta, California which had been commandeered by the WRA to serve as a detention center for Japanese suffering from tuberculosis.
All of the Nicholsons' wartime work was done for little or no pay. While traveling to the Lordsburg, New Mexico, and other POW camps where arrested Japanese men were detained, Nicholson later wrote, "I saved hotel bills by sitting on a train all night." When Nash, seeing their value as liaisons to Manzanar prisoners, offered Nicholson and his wife any job they wished, they declined; they were opposed to the prison camps and wanted to remain free to fight them.
When selective service opened to Nisei in 1943, Nicholson met with WRA director Dillon Myer and traveled to Washington to meet Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy to urge the freeing of the prisoners if their sons were to fight in the U.S. Army. Told that public opinion was the primary factor for the concentration camps' continuation, Nicholson organized a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 150,000 letters reaching McCloy within four months.
In January 1945, when prisoners had begun leaving the prison camps, Nicholson helped haul furniture back to Southern California, place Manzanar returnees in jobs as gardeners, and establish the Evergreen Hostel for returning prisoners in Boyle Heights.
Feeling that his postwar work lay in aiding the people of war-torn Japan, Nicholson volunteered to raise money to bring goats from America to help meet the desperate need for milk. In October 1947 he delivered 200 goats to a devastated Okinawa, then raised money for another shipment of goats bound for Yokohama. Nicholson's efforts helped provide 5,000 goats to Japan, and earned him the Japanese nickname Yagi no Ojisan ("Uncle Goat"). In 1950, the Nicholson and his wife realized their dream of returning to Japan to live, to establish a branch of the Worldwide Evangelism Crusade in the Gokanosho region of Kumamoto Prefecture. The couple returned to Pasadena in 1961, where they continued their evangelical work in the Japanese community. In 1972 Nicholson wrote a short book on his life experiences, Treasures in Earthen Vessels. It was published in Japanese in 1974 as Yagi no Ojisan.
Nicholson died in 1983.
For More Information
Nicholson, Herbert V., and Margaret Wilke. Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson. Fresno, CA: Bookmates International, 1982.
Siegel, Shizue. In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment. San Mateo, CA: AACP, Inc., 2006.
Weglyn, Michi, and Betty E. Mitson, eds. Valiant Odyssey: Herbert Nicholson In and Out of America's Concentration Camps. Upland, CA: Brunk's Printing, 1978.
- ↑ Shizue Siegel, In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment (San Mateo, CA: AACP, Inc., 2006), 48.
- ↑ Herbert V. Nicholson and Margaret Wilke, Comfort All Who Mourn: The Life Story of Herbert and Madeline Nicholson (Fresno, CA: Bookmates International, 1982), 83.
- ↑ Nicholson and White, Comfort All Who Mourn, 92.
- ↑ Michi Weglyn and Betty E. Mitson, eds., Valiant Odyssey: Herbert Nicholson In and Out of America's Concentration Camps. (Upland, CA: Brunk's Printing, 1978), 21.
- ↑ Nicholson and White, Comfort All Who Mourn, 88-89.
- ↑ Ibid., 118.
- ↑ Weglyn and Mitson, Valiant Odyssey, 40.