At 87, Roy Ko’s 66-year-old memory of being uprooted from his college studies and placed in a World War II internment camp isn’t as vivid as it once was.
But on Sunday the University of Washington will grant him the degree he never got to finish there in hopes future generations won’t forget his travails.
Ko, of Richland, was among 450 Japanese American students attending the school when the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II led the government to force thousands of West Coast citizens of Japanese ancestry out of their homes and into internment camps.
And he’s one of 60 of those students who are expected to attend Sunday’s ceremony during which all will be awarded honorary degrees. Representatives for 80 to 90 other students who were removed from campus also are expected to participate. The 2 p.m. ceremony will be webcast live at UWTV.org.
It’s been a long time coming. UW librarian Theresa Mudrock, who has helped collect biographical information on the students, said it’s believed that more than half of the 450 students have died over the years that have passed. No information of any kind has been found on as many as 80 of those students.
“It’s a little late,” said Ko’s daughter Karen Ko of Seattle, who heard about the event and made arrangements for her father to participate. “I know a lot of people are dead and that’s really hard.”
“I think it’s important to help educate future generations,” she said. “It helps to remind some people and open some eyes to what happened.”
Ko was born in Bellingham to parents who migrated to the U.S. as young adults and later opened a restaurant. He remembers growing up in a Seattle home with a big yard, going to summer camp and developing an interest in chemistry in high school like lots of kids.
He enrolled at UW and blended in.
“I didn’t feel any different or out of place or anything,” Ko recalled Thursday. “Just one of the guys.”
But everything changed his sophomore year with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ko and his Japanese American classmates — most of them U.S. born like him — were forced off campus and into camps within months.
He recalls the events being particularly traumatic for his parents, who had to give up their business and “practically sell everything at a loss.” But it was different for him.
“To me it was an adventure. To my parents it was a tragedy,” Ko said.
“Looking from an adult point of view it was a gross injustice,” he said.
Ko spent a couple of months at a camp set up at the fairgrounds in Puyallup — Camp Harmony as it came to be known — and then was shipped to a large camp at Minidoka, Idaho. Many of his UW classmates came with him.
Ko recalls days playing softball and other games and getting into mischief. He got out after six months or so to continue his studies elsewhere.
“I’m having a great time but I’m not getting anywhere,” Ko recalled thinking. “I wanted to complete my education.”
The government allowed students out of the camps so long as they gained acceptance to colleges and universities not on the West Coast. Ko was accepted by the University of Texas in Austin, where he finished his bachelor’s degree, and he later earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota.
He was hired to work as a chemist at Hanford in 1946 or 1947 and retired in 1988.
Ko welcomes the chance to be awarded an honorary degree from UW, no matter how much time has passed.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “A lot of the kids never did finish. I was lucky.”
His daughter said the relocation of her father’s generation has weighed heavily on its children and that “in a lot of ways I’m a little angrier.”
“I think there’s also a lot of denial about the effects and the impacts on people,” Karen Ko said. “It’s taken them a long time to reconcile this whole business.”