It was only a football game, and as college games go it was hardly worth remembering. But to one proud spectator, it was a whole lot more than that.
"The biggest kick of all was the lesson in democracy that was being enacted out there," read a letter, written by "UConn 35" to Courant sports editor Bill Lee.
On Oct. 21, 1944, UConn defeated City College of New York 21-0, and the Huskies' backfield that day in Storrs featured two players — American citizens — who, less than a year before, had been forced to leave their homes and live in cramped internment camps, enclosed by barbed wire, in the West.
UConn was one of 143 schools east of the Mississippi River that agreed to enroll "Nisei," as second-generation Japanese-Americans were then known, and from the various stories, columns and editorials that appeared in The Courant, it appears the state and its university set an example of tolerance during the darkest days of World War II.
"My two-year stay at UConn was the most memorable experience in my life," Kay Kiyokawa said when he returned to Storrs for a reunion and an oral history project in 2003. "Students were very friendly, and the facilities were outstanding."
Internees had to undergo an investigation of their "loyalty" and fill out a questionnaire before any chance of being released for work or school in the East. In February 1943, R.L. Leak, the superintendent of Middletown State Hospital, accepted the application of a young woman from one of the internment camps, and this first was noteworthy enough to make the papers.
The door was open. By springtime, UConn had enrolled 10 students, most of them studying agriculture. Two, Kiyokawa and Bill Hayakawa, were playing for the baseball team. Hayakawa also played basketball, and Kiyokawa football.
Years later, Kiyokawa recalled a road baseball game in Maine at which fans taunted him with chants of "To-jo … To-jo … To-jo," the name of the general who had led Japan into war with the United States in 1941. Kiyokawa doubled. He heard the chants again next time up and he tripled. Third time up, Kiyokawa, who was 4 feet 11 and 135 pounds, heard chants of "slug-ger … slug-ger … slug-ger."
He worked in the creamery at UConn, and during vacations he loaded bags of coal at a yard near the campus. A lengthy feature in The Courant in May 1944 said the group was among the most popular students on campus.
"Why should there be anything unusual about it?" UConn president R.N. Jorgensen told The Courant. "All the students we have here are American citizens. These boys are American citizens. They came here to study, and they take part in campus life and activities. They go on into the Army as their turn comes and their classifications permit."
Kiyokawa was born in Oregon and grew up on his family's farm and orchard in Hood River. He grew to love baseball and was pitching for Oregon State when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order No. 9066 in February 1942, under which more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage were sent to camps, Kiyokawa to Tule Lake, Calif.
Eventually, 19 Japanese-American students found a haven at UConn, including Kiyoto "Ken" Nakaoka, who had been playing football at UCLA. UConn was unable to field a team in 1943, but for the fall of '44, coach J.O. Christian had both Nakaoka and Kiyokawa in his backfield and the Huskies won seven of eight games.
Lee devoted nearly all of his column on Oct. 26, 1944, to the letter written by "UConn 35," whom he described as a well-known UConn alum who wished to remain anonymous.
"In the starting backfield was fullback Nakaoka, a Japanese boy," the letter continued. "The boy's origin didn't mean a thing to the players or spectators, for he got the biggest hand of the day, from both sides of the field, when he had to leave the game with a knee injury. And the darling of the UConn team is Kay Kiyokawa, probably the world's smallest football player. Standing only four feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 135 pounds. … The placing of Japanese students in such important roles only three years after Pearl Harbor is a loud tribute to American democracy."
Many of the students were eventually inducted into the army. Nakaoka received a commission as second lieutenant. Kiyokawa was deemed too short for military service, but he drilled with the ROTC, The Courant reported, "even though they didn't have a uniform to fit him." By then, the spectacular service of Nisei soldiers fighting in Europe was making headlines.
But so was the bitterness that persisted, especially in the West. In Hood River, Kiyokawa's hometown, the American Legion deleted the names of Japanese-American servicemen from its honor roll and, with internment about to end, took out a quarter-page ad in the local newspaper, asking 25 to 30 families not to return after the war and promising to help them "get a square deal" to sell their farms. According to a wire story that ran in The Courant in December 1944, the ad stated: "If you do return we pledge to the best of our ability to uphold the law and countenance no violence."
As the war was finally ending, railway machinists in San Francisco threatened to strike if a Japanese-American was hired, and The Courant railed against them in an editorial:
"The destruction of race prejudice is fundamental to a world at peace," The Courant opined on Sept. 2, 1945. "There is no better place to start than right here at home."
Nakaoka returned home to Torrance, Calif., after the war and in 1972 was elected mayor of Gardena, where a community center is now named after him.
"My father always spoke very fondly about his time in Connecticut," said Grant Nakaoka, who runs the real estate business Ken Nakaoka began in Torrance in the 1950s. "He was only there about a year, but he had very good memories."
Kiyokawa, who studied horticulture at UConn, did return to the family farm in Hood River and for many years sent apples to the school's baseball coaches. In 2012, at age 90, he attended a baseball game between his two teams — UConn and Oregon State — in Corvallis, Ore. UConn won.