Reflecting Our Dark Past
By Jim Kronenberg
UGUSTUS M. TANAKA, MD (“Call me Gus”) practiced surgery for 40 years in Ontario, Oregon, where he lives with Teddy, his wife of nearly sixty years. He served as President of the Oregon Medical Association, and as Chair of the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners and The Foundation for Medical Excellence. Gus was born in Portland on August 3, 1923, to Benjamin Tanaka, a general practitioner of Hawaiian birth and the fourth Japanese graduate of the University of Oregon Medical School (1920), and his wife, Michiye. “My mother was afraid to go to the hospital, so my father had to find a midwife, of all things!” Following the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested alien followed by special Japanese language Japanese and Japanese-American community training at the University of Minnesota. leaders without regard to their citizenship. He was then shipped to Japan as a member “Three FBI agents came to our house… My of the post-war Army of Occupation. father was looked upon as a community Through the G. I. Bill, Gus enrolled in the leader. By midnight, he was gone.” State University of New York College of “I was only an 18-year-old kid back then. Medicine where he excelled academically. Because I spoke English better than He graduated in 1951 and took his surgical my mother, they asked me to produce internship and residency at the 3,500-bed any and all weapons. They confiscated Kings County Hospital in New York. all our cameras… all correspondence Career expectations were high when a from Japan, all newspapers, magazines, setback struck: “During my internship, I and publications in Japanese. They came down with tuberculosis requiring demanded that I produce the short wave hospitalization in the TB sanitarium. That radio transmitter that Dad must have had a very sobering effect on me. It took around the house somewhere and, when some of my drive to achieve.” I was unable to produce one, they gave During his convalescence, Gus met me a frightening lecture on the dire Teddy, the night supervisor of nurses consequences that would befall me if I did at the Memorial Hospital for Cancer in not cooperate fully.” Manhattan. Ironically, Teddy grew up in Gus, freshman at Reed College, was given Ontario and had left home shortly before considerable support by the school to the war to study nursing at St. Mary’s transfer to Haverford College, a pacifist Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Gus Quaker school in Pennsylvania, thereby and Teddy were married in New York City avoiding a lengthy internment with his on Valentine’s Day, 1953. mother and siblings in the Minidoka, When Gus returned to Ontario to Idaho, concentration camp. visit, he found his father in dire need While at Haverford, he was drafted into of help. After five years as a “prisoner the U. S. Army. He completed segregated of war” in a Santa Fe federal detention basic training at Fort Blanding, Florida, center, Dr. Ben Tanaka was shunned by 24 | Medicine in Oregon
the medical community—first in Portland, and then Ontario. His role as head of the prison hospital left him exhausted. Gus remembers his father “at 65, when most of his doctor colleagues were starting to retire, Dad was struggling to start a practice again,” in a run down home/office on the seedy side of Ontario. Recognizing the desperation of his father’s situation, Gus “…decided to become a small town country doctor back in rural Oregon… Thinking back on those tortuous events… I have no regrets and, in many ways, I achieved a different level of satisfaction and achievement from that which I had envisioned for myself in medical school.” With his son’s help, Ben’s practice was eventually a success, and Gus went on to his own distinguished career in surgery, also providing the compassionate community leadership for which he is so admired and respected. Gus never forgot the injustice that is so easy to impose on others, and continues his crusade to teach succeeding generations about the Japanese- American Relocation Program that, for so many years, contravened what we now consider to be American ideals.