Three of the Shitara sisters, known in the contemporary press as “the Nisei Sisters,” were prisoners at the Amache concentration camp who helped two Germans escape from a nearby prisoner-of-war camp. During their trial, the third treason trial of World War II, the sisters’ race, class, and sex all worked against them as the nation watched.
The Nisei Sisters
In the annals of Asian American history, the trial of the three Nisei (meaning “second-generation Japanese American”) sisters has been all but forgotten, perhaps understandably so. Their story is a complex one, disrupting the dominant narrative of the betrayal of the Japanese Americans and their incarceration in concentration camps. As law professor Eric Muller noted, that version implies “a story of uncomplicated loyalty and monolithic innocence,” and the actions of the three Nisei sisters certainly challenge that narrative. Presumably, non-Japanese Americans prefer the dominant narrative because it affirms the guilt they feel about the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, and Japanese Americans prefer it because it focuses attention on the sacrifice they made to demonstrate their loyalty to the country that had betrayed them. To protect that interpretation and the reputation of the Japanese American community, the treason trial of the three Nisei sisters has been left out of the retelling of the internment experience. But without their story, that tragic chapter of American history remains incomplete.
Tsuruku (Toots) Wallace, Shivze (Flo) Otani, and Misao (Billie) Tanigoshi hardly fit the popular contemporary image of Asian Americans leading lives of social and economic success. Toots, Flo, and Billie, as they were called throughout the treason trial, were born into the Shitara family that earned its living through farming in Inglewood, California. The Shitara sisters had attained a modest education and led commensurate working-class lives. Toots, the oldest, was thirty-four at the time of the incident and was considered the leader of the trio. She graduated from Inglewood High School and worked as a waitress at Mio’s Café on Terminal Island, Los Angeles. Flo, who was thirty-one, attained only a grammar-school education and worked as a packer at the French Sardine Company. Billie, who was thirty, managed to complete two years of high school and worked as a waitress at the Inside Grill in Los Angeles.
Though the Shitara sisters had done nothing subversive, in the spring of 1942 the federal government nevertheless forced them and 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry to leave the West Coast, incarcerating them in inland concentration camps. The sisters were sent to Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, in southeastern Colorado, one of the most desolate and inhospitable places in the state. Less than a year later, they were released from Amache to harvest onions on the 600-acre Winger farm near Trinidad. There, they worked alongside captured German soldiers from a nearby prisoner-of-war camp.
While working on the farm, the Shitara sisters met Corporal Heinrich Haider, who convinced Toots to help him escape from Trinidad. Equipped with civilian clothes, road maps, train schedules, a flashlight, and money that the sisters had left for them behind a bush on the Winger farm, Haider and fellow POW Corporal Hermann August Loescher cut through a wire fence using pliers and escaped on the evening of October 16, 1943. Along the highway near Trinidad, they rendezvoused with the sisters, who drove them south until they had trouble with the car’s water pump. Haider and Loescher got out at Wagon Mound, New Mexico, making their way to the town of Watrous on foot. After the evening’s adventure, the sisters returned to the Winger farm undetected on the morning of October 17, 1943.
Meanwhile, at Watrous, Haider and Loescher went to the nearby train station to ask about arrivals and departures, arousing the suspicions of a station agent who called the police. Chief Nolan Utz of the Las Vegas, New Mexico, police department and state police arrested the pair at a local “watering hole,” where they were drinking beer and talking to a group of Mexican women. The soldiers told Utz that they had boarded a train and ridden to Springer, New Mexico, then walked to Watrous, omitting the role of the Shitara sisters. This would have been the end of the episode were it not for the discovery of some photographs on Haider taken by Flo. The photos depicted Toots with Haider and Billie with another German POW named Backus, in what were considered compromising positions. Soldiers with photographs of themselves embracing women normally would not have attracted much attention or comment, but the fact that these pictures were of German men with Japanese women was another matter.
On October 24 The Denver Post published the incriminating pictures as part of an article titled “German Prisoners Spooned with Jap Girls in Trinidad.” Accompanied by a caption that began with the phrase “Allies in Arms,” two of the photos showed a German POW with his arm around a Japanese woman. The third was the most problematic, since it showed a couple “wrapped in each other’s arms, engaging in a kissing fest.” The Associated Press subsequently circulated the photos, giving rise to stories about “Japanazi Romances” that proved embarrassing to the authorities. These titillating photos aroused public interest as well as indignation. After all, they suggested sex between enemies of America and miscegenation of the races, as well as seduction and adultery. The FBI sent an agent to interrogate the two German POWs. After learning of the sisters’ complicity in the escape attempt, the government decided to indict them on federal charges: the high crime of treason and the lesser crime of conspiracy to commit treason.
From the beginning of the trial, there was confusion over the national identity of the accused. US District Judge J. Foster Symes referred to the sisters as Japanese Americans only once during the entire proceedings, though presumably he knew the difference between Japanese and Japanese Americans. After issuing their sentences, Symes thought it necessary to say that the “Japanese sisters are American sisters and had received an impartial trial.” This was the first time that Japanese Americans had been put on trial for treason; in two earlier treason trials, two German-born naturalized Americans were found guilty of helping German saboteurs who had entered the country. They were sentenced to life in prison and fined $10,000.
The prosecution and defense brought impassioned arguments to a courtroom packed with about 300 spectators. If found guilty of the high crime of treason, the Shitara sisters could be sentenced to five years to life or even executed. The less serious charge of conspiracy to commit treason could bring them a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of $5,000. Per Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, “no person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” In this case the prosecution had to produce two witnesses who could testify in court that the sisters were providing aid and comfort to enemies of the United States. The sisters pleaded poverty and were unable to afford attorneys, so the court appointed Kenneth W. Robinson, considered one of Denver’s outstanding criminal lawyers of the time, to be their chief legal counsel. The treason trial turned in no small measure on the interpretation of the Shitara sisters’ characters. The pre-sentence report on the trial, dated August 18, 1944, noted that the sisters had a generally poor reputation in Los Angeles. During the trial the prosecutors sought to use that reputation to their advantage, pointing out that they were known to consort with “bad people.” In the parlance of the day, they were “women of questionable virtue” who drank too much and talked in a “rough” manner.
Indeed, the sisters led lives that were markedly different from many Nisei women. Perhaps in an effort to assimilate into mainstream society, some of them married men outside of the Japanese American community. Toots’ second husband was a white man named Virgil Cleo Wallace. Flo, however, married Harry Otani, the only pure Japanese man among the sisters’ husbands. Billie married William Tanigoshi, who was half Japanese and half white. Their other sister, Lily, married a black lieutenant in the US Army, and another sister, Kazumi, married a Korean American.
The pre-sentence report’s assessment of the sisters’ character overshadows the fact that various investigations of the Shitara family found no evidence of subversive activity. During the fearful days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people of Japanese ancestry in America were all suspected of disloyalty until proven otherwise. At the instigation of neighbors who found the comings and goings of Japanese people suspicious, the FBI investigated Toots, only to discover that her home was used for a Japanese-language school. Later, the FBI noted that Toots associated with Japanese naval and merchant marine officers as well as American sailors. This was hardly surprising, considering that she worked in a harbor café owned by a man with pro-Japanese sentiments.
Gender, Race, and Miscegenation
Much to the surprise of everyone and to the chagrin of the sisters, the witnesses for the prosecution were the German POWs themselves. Haider confounded the prosecution when he told a dramatic story that implied the sisters were motivated to help him by patriotic love of America rather than romantic love for the two prisoners. Haider told the jury that he had been a member of the Austrian underground and hated the Nazis. For his anti-Nazi sentiments, he had been imprisoned two years in a Bavarian concentration camp. Later, he was conscripted into the German Army and captured. Haider added that he feared for his life in the POW camp in Trinidad, because a particular Nazi first sergeant wanted to kill him for his anti-Nazi sentiments. Finally, Haider claimed that all he wanted was to return to Germany so that he could join the Austrian Legion or the Czechoslovakian Legion to fight against Hitler. He finished by stating that in spite of Toots’s efforts to discourage him from escaping and the risk of being shot, he pressured her into helping him. Haider’s seemingly preposterous tale did cast doubt on the case against the sisters, since the prosecution had to prove that in assisting the POWs to escape, the sisters had endangered the country’s security.
Loescher told a different and far simpler story. As reported in the Rocky Mountain News, Loescher testified:
May I say this: I guess my comrade told you that Germany had violated Austria. As for myself, I was wounded and I could not fight again. I have no interest in renewing the fight again. I just wanted my freedom.
With his freedom, Loescher had planned to make his way to Mexico and later to South America. He stated that he did not know the sisters previously and went along for the ride. In court he even had some trouble identifying the sisters since he had only seen them at night.
On behalf of the sisters, Robinson presented a two-pronged argument. First, Robinson tried to demonstrate that the prosecution had failed to prove that the Nisei sisters had intended to injure the United States or help the Third Reich, and that such intent was essential in order to find his clients guilty. Second, he argued that his clients’ actual intents were “romantic.” To win acquittal, he was prepared to make racist and sexist arguments, seeking to show that the pictures proved that the sisters were only comfortable with white men instead of Japanese men or women, and that they were passive and weak-willed women, easily manipulated by men—even though they had successfully broken POWs out of a prison camp.
Robinson was successful. After deliberating for ten hours, the twelve male jurors found the sisters guilty of only conspiracy to commit treason. Evidently, the jury had decided that when the sisters helped Haider and Loescher, they did it without the intent of injuring America or helping Germany. Then, the jurors decided that the sisters were guilty of the lesser offense of conspiracy to commit treason, even though Judge Symes had earlier instructed them that the matter of intent goes to the crime of conspiracy the same as to the crime of treason. With the verdict in hand, Symes sentenced Toots to two years’ imprisonment and Flo and Billie to twenty months’ imprisonment, along with a fine of $1,000 each.
Adapted from William Wei, “Sex, Race, and the Fate of Three Nisei Sisters,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 27 no. 4 (2007).