Western to Award Honorary Degree to Former Student and Decorated Veteran Incarcerated with Japanese Americans during World War II

  • Two photos black and white photos, one showing Japanese Americans boarding a bus in 1942, another a portrait of a young man
    Left, Japanese Americans boarded a bus parked in front of James Okubo's family home, beginning their forced removal in 1942. Right, a portrait of James Okubo

Western Washington University will award a posthumous honorary bachelor’s degree at spring commencement Saturday, June 15 to James K. Okubo, a Medal of Honor recipient and former Western Washington College of Education student who was unable to finish his degree because his family was incarcerated during World War II along with about 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry.

The degree will be presented at commencement Saturday, June 15, at 8:45 a.m. Tickets are required to attend the ceremony, which will also be livestreamed at www.ustream.tv/channel/wwu-live-events1

After leaving Western in 1942, Okubo enlisted in the U.S. Army and was a medic with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. He was awarded a Silver Star for saving the lives of fellow soldiers under heavy fire in France in 1944, and received a Medal of Honor in 2000.

Okubo passed away in 1967. His children, William and Anne, and other members of their family are expected to attend the ceremony to accept the degree on behalf of their father.

James Okubo was born in Anacortes, grew up in Bellingham and graduated from Bellingham High School. His parents Kenzo and Fuyu Okubo, ran the Sunrise Café on Holly Street. He came to Western Washington College of Education with dreams of becoming a dentist; he was a popular student and a member of the ski club. But in spring 1942, Okubo and his family were forced to leave their well-established lives and join other Bellingham residents of Japanese descent – citizens and non-citizens alike -- for incarceration at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.

In May of 1943, Okubo enlisted in the Army, and was assigned as a medic in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, all-Nisei squad of second-generation Japanese Americans who would become legendary. During a daring rescue of a U.S. Army battalion trapped behind enemy lines in eastern France during World War II in October 1944, Okubo dodged grenades and heavy fire to crawl 150 yards to carry wounded men to safety, and personally treated 17 fellow soldiers. Days later, he ran through machine gun fire to rescue a comrade from a burning tank, saving his life. In 1945, Okubo’s superiors nominated him for a Medal of Honor, but he received the Silver Star, perhaps because of a mistaken belief it was the highest honor available to a medic.

After the war, Okubo settled in the Detroit area, became a dentist and a faculty member at the University of Detroit Dental School. He died in a car crash at age 46 on a family ski trip in 1967.

In the late 1990s, the military records of Asian American World War II veterans came under closer scrutiny amid concerns they had not received full recognition for their valor. Okubo was posthumously granted the Medal of Honor by President Clinton in 2000 for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his live above and beyond the call of duty.” His wife, Nobuyo “Nobi” Okubo, attended the ceremony at the White House. Since then, Okubo has been honored in other ways: Wounded soldiers now live in the Okubo Barracks at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and military families receive care at the Okubo Family Medical and Dental Complex at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

WWU staff members Carole Teshima, an administrative services manager in Woodring College of Education, and Mark Okinaka, a senior academic budget and finance analyst, first submitted Okubo’s name for receiving the honorary degree after learning that Okubo appears to be the only full-time student forced to leave Western during World War II due to the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Teshima has also researched the histories of established local residents who were sent to the prison camps – and found no evidence anyone ever returned to Whatcom County.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 11:45am

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