In a country angered by the attack on Pearl Harbor, one man created a haven at Union College for Japanese-American students.
Up until this moment, success had followed Erwin Cossentine wherever he went. In Australia he had boosted both enrollment and income at Avondale College in a way that no one expected. He then moved to a small junior college in Southern California with 90 students, and 12 years later La Sierra had 450 students and six new buildings. He had grown to be a hero to the La Sierra family, but now he was at risk of letting them down. In particular, he worried about letting down the five Japanese-American students he had recruited from Hawaii.
On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 had demanded the removal of “resident enemy aliens” from parts of the West Coast. Cossentine knew that sooner or later, his Japanese students would be shipped to internment camps. He wanted to find them a place to land before the military began to round them up. He dictated a letter to the president of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. “We have five girls who are here from Hawaii. These girls are all very fine people. We’ve never had better . . . I am wondering if it is necessary to evacuate them from here, if you would be interested in taking them as a group?”
The response from Union was less than enthusiastic. The matter was kicked down the road for discussion at the General Conference spring meetings.
Appeals to Union also came from Pacific Union College, where L.L. Caviness, the chair of the Modern Languages Department, had a burden for the Japanese-Americans on that campus. “Please let me know what you can do for these students in an emergency,” he wrote to the president of Union. Caviness got the same response as Cossentine: wait.
But Caviness wasn’t content to wait. He also reached out to Emmanuel Missionary College (EMC, now Andrews University), where he struck a sympathetic cord with the dean. Andrew Nelson was a former missionary to Japan, and he moved quickly to accept the Japanese PUC students for the coming school year. But his love for Japan was not shared by the Berrien County Board of Supervisors. They refused admittance of any Japanese students in the area. Now Nelson also turned his face to Nebraska and wrote a letter begging Union to take on the students he had prematurely accepted. He opened his letter with the greeting “Dear President Cossentine: Congratulations upon your election to the presidency of ‘OLD UNION.’”
Cossentine had moved on to a new school, but a shadow lingered from his last days at La Sierra. On a Monday morning in May, he had led a worship service on the lawn in front of Gladwyn Hall with the entire student body, according to an article in Scope magazine by Richard Pershing. A bus pulled up, and the five Japanese-Hawaiian students got onboard while their friends gathered around with tears in their eyes. They traveled to a processing center and then to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming. Cossentine had failed to protect them from the internment camps.
But now that he had taken the helm at Union, Cossentine went to work to get his La Sierra students out of the barracks of the internment camps and into one of his dormitories. It wasn’t easy. He had to get the approval of five government agencies and the blessing of the city elders of Lincoln. He even had to overcome opposition from some of his own staff. He wrote to Caviness that “through a lot of missionary effort on my part,” the skeptics had come around. In the end, the Union board voted to allow a “few” Japanese-American students.
All summer long Cossentine wrestled with the bureaucracy. He got approvals from the Army, the Navy, the Department of Education, the War Relocation Authority, and the F.B.I.
He took a train trip to Wyoming, where he described finding Japanese-American citizens living in “tar paper shacks and the wind was blowing dust like nothing you ever see today.”
All of his work would come to nothing if he got the same refusal from the local authorities as had happened in Michigan. Cossentine appealed to Lincoln’s mayor, R. O. Johnson, for approval to add Japanese students to Union’s rosters. “We are taking only those that I know quite well, and we feel that we are taking no risk in accepting them,” he said. “I believe these young people are just as loyal Americans as any of us, and only because of an accident of birth they find themselves in this dilemma.”
Ten days passed without any final okay from Mayor Johnson. Cossentine attributed the delay to “a certain amount of local feeling,” which he knew EMC Dean Andrew Nelson understood. “[P]eople do not know the Japanese as you and I know them,” he said to Nelson. “Consequently there is unfounded narrowness and prejudice that exists in the acceptance of these young people. I am doing everything I can for them.”
We know about the correspondence between these men because of research done by Hilary Dickerson, a history professor at Walla Walla University. Dickerson can trace the building frustration as Cossentine dealt with one bureaucratic roadblock after another. In one case he was required to get approval from a local F.B.I. office after he had already gotten approval from F.B.I. headquarters. “You can see Cossentine blow his top,” she says.
In the end, Cossentine rescued a total of 23 students out of the internment camps. All five of the girls who were taken away from La Sierra on that sad Monday morning were enrolled in “Old Union.”
It was not a wholly unselfish act. Union got good students and workers for the farm and for campus construction projects. The students themselves would become influential in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Robert Nomi would pastor in Mountain View, California, and in Honolulu. Charles Yamashiro would become one of the founding physicians of Castle Memorial Hospital in Hawaii.
All of them honored Cossentine for his efforts in getting them out of the camps. Whenever his travels took him to the Hawaiian Islands, he was greeted by his former students, who put leis around his neck and brought him gifts.
In a 1983 interview, Richard Pershing asked Cossentine if he thought the injustice of Executive Order 9066 could happen again. “We do some strange things in war time,” replied Cossentine. But he went on to add, “At that time I just couldn’t pay too much attention … I was just concerned about the young people.”
By Kim Peckham, director of strategic marketing at Union College
Special thanks to:
Bliss Kuntz, director of the Ella Johnson Crandall Library
Hilary Dickerson, professor of history at Walla Walla University
Michael W. Olivarez, Loma Linda University Library Department of Archives and Special Collections.