HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As she celebrated her 90th birthday earlier this year, Sarah Okada Sato received a long overdue present: her McKinley High School diploma. Sato – whose schooling was interrupted when Japanese airstrikes launched the U.S. into World War II – became the first former internee to be awarded the Hawaii State Department of Education's honorary Kupono Diploma.
"The interruption of their public education was just one of many hardships endured by our former students and their families as a result of wartime practices," said Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. "It's a true honor to present them with the Kupono Diploma."
In 2007, the Hawaii State Legislature passed Act 101, allowing World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and other individuals whose schooling was interrupted due to military service or wartime practices to be granted the Kupono Diploma. Kupono means honest, upright decent, and reliable.
To date, 26 former Hawaii public school students have received the diploma, including one posthumously. Sato, who also attended Queen Kaahumanu Elementary and Washington Middle, is the only internee to have received it.
While at McKinley High, Sato recalls how her favorite teacher, Mrs. Ruth King, challenged her social studies class to analyze the forces that led Britain and Germany to be at war.
"She really made us study," remembers Sato, who lived next to Kalakaua Avenue and walked some 10 blocks to the campus. "This was before World War II, and my dad was saying he hoped we would not get into the war."
It would not be long, however, for her father's fears to materialize when blasts from military airstrikes shook Sato and her family while they gathered for a picnic on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, catapulting the United States into World War II.
Sato's life was turned upside down – classes were cancelled; windows of all homes were blacked out; and she was briefly separated from her father, interrogated, and eventually sent to two mainland internment camps.
"We were being attacked," Sato, now a Seattle resident, recalls hearing people scream when the raid began. "For a couple of months, until the bomb shelters were built in the schools, we did not have to attend. We had to carry gas masks everywhere we went."
In October 1942, Sato's father, then a Matson Navigation stevedore, was pulled from his job by the FBI and detained at a Sand Island internment camp.
"We found out the only way the family could be together was for all of us to go into the internment camp," said Sato.
Soon after, she joined her father, mother and three younger siblings in a long journey across the Pacific in a troop ship to California, followed by an extensive train ride that stopped in Little Rock and then to the Jerome Relocation Center, a Japanese and American internment camp in Arkansas, in January of 1943. Sato graduated from Denson High School while interned at Jerome Relocation Center.
It was there Sato and her father refused to answer "yes" or "no" in a U.S. government loyalty questionnaire in response to her family's forced incarceration. Question 27 asked if they were willing to serve in combat duty or in other ways, while Question 28 asked if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and forswear any allegiance to the emperor of Japan.
"I did not answer 'No-No.' I asked, 'Give me a reason for (our) internment' in response to Question 27, and for Question 28 I said, 'I will answer 28 after getting an answer to 27'," Sato recalled. "My dad wrote the same thing, and for that, we got sent to Tule Lake (Relocation Center)," a high-security California facility holding prisoners who answered "No-No" as well as those who gave qualified answers but were classified as "disloyal" by the government.
As the war came to a close, Sato's siblings returned to Honolulu to live with an aunt, who became their guardian, while Sato and her parents moved to battle-scarred Japan to care for her grandfather (who unfortunately had died one month before they arrived). Sato met her future husband Ken – who is from Maui – on a blind date. They wed in Hawaii in September 1951 and moved to Seattle later that year.
They have since raised a family in Seattle, where Sato was recently mailed her McKinley High diploma, a document she hopes will help younger generations understand her family's sacrifices and preserve history.
"It will be something good for the grandchildren," she said.